Artists’ Letters || Michael Bird

This is one of those books that probably benefits from being dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover, a thing to be kept handy when there’s an odd moment to fill. This is not to denigrate it to the point of superficiality, but rather to recognise that, while informative and often illuminating, correspondence in bulk (rather like collected newspaper articles) can get a little repetitive.

The blurb describes this as a “treasure trove” and I wouldn’t quibble with that. Michael Bird has had the good sense to be selective, even if his collection does run to a fairly substantial 224 pages. He also includes plenty of visual material because artists, being artists, often fail to resist the inclusion of a sketch or cartoon. Being largely private letters, these are frequently acerbic or amusing and refer to the relationship between the sender and recipient. And, without labouring the point, Bird also explains the context of the epistle in question, adding to both understanding and enjoyment.

The book handily subtitles itself “Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney”, emphasising the breadth of its coverage (no, the creator of Mona Lisa didn’t communicate with the painter of Mr & Mrs Clarke and Percy). Curation in a collection such as this is key and Bird avoids the temptation to get too clever or to stick to the ploddingly obvious chronological arrangement. He arranges his material by themes and his chapter headings make it clear that he isn’t taking his task too seriously (I refer back to my suggestion of dipping in). These include “I saw a new giraffe”, “Your book on witchcraft” and “Hey beautiful” – all quotes, of course, not meditations on the inner workings of creativity.

This is a book of entertainment rather than erudition and it’s all the better for that. There are plenty of studies of art and artists that cover their working methods, philosophy and private lives. This one exposes the workings of their minds when they were thinking less about art than whether Michelangelo’s nephew should marry, Mondrian’s teeth are in good shape or how soon Jean Cocteau will recover from illness. (Picasso adds, “I’ve got good ideas for our theatre story” – Cocteau was working on ideas for the ballet, Parade.)

This contributes more to an understanding and enjoyment of art and artists than you might expect, by bringing its characters to life in their own words.

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