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Women in Abstraction || edited by Christine Macel and Karolina Lewandowska

You could, I suspect, be forgiven for expressing surprise at the extent of this very thorough look at abstract art as created purely by women. You might also assume that being selective in this way would restrict the coverage. Are there not styles and movements that are overlooked? Well, no, just about everything you’d expect is included as well as a full range of painting, sculpture, installations and performance pieces. As a survey and history of abstract art the book stands as something as complete as you could wish.

Unless you are a specialist, many of the names will probably be unfamiliar, but one stands out and tells the usual tale. Yes, Elaine de Kooning was married to Willem, of whom you have undoubtedly heard. She was taught by Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller and her subjects included Ornette Coleman, Pelé and John F Kennedy, of whom she was commissioned to produce an official portrait. If her reputation has been eclipsed by that of her husband (as so often happens, even if not deliberately), she had an extensive career in her own right. I particularly like her remark, quoted here: “To me, all art is self-portraits”. That’s one I shall reflect on for some time to come.

As well as examples from and short essays about 112 artists (yes, that many) there are further pieces that analyse wider aspects of the subject. Of particular interest is the piece about the roles of Hilda Rebay and Peggy Guggenheim, founders of major collections in what was then an absolutely male-dominated world.

One has to be wary of describing books as ground-breaking, because the truth is they are usually built on work that has gone before and ride a rising tide. This is, however, a major contribution to art history in general and a neglected corner (if that’s the right word) in particular.

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The Joy of Modern Calligraphy || Joyce Lee

This is nothing if not elaborately presented. A hard case with an elastic closure opens to reveal a beautifully produced paperback book and an envelope of practice sheets that contain outlines for basic letterforms. The same script is used throughout and is not, I think, one of the classic ones, but is still a pleasant sloping variant of Copperplate.

Calligraphy being about appearance, at least today, this elaborateness has a place, but you may also feel that there is a slight tendency for form to overtake substance. This is not, it should be said, a book about calligraphy as a complete subject. Rather, it is a guide, perhaps better, a list of suggestions for projects such as the inevitable – and obvious – invitations. What you may find useful are the extended guides to forming letters and the practice sheets for these. These exercises occupy a large portion of the book and are among the most thorough I have seen. If this is what you want (and I suspect a lot of people will), then they would justify the price of the book by themselves.

However, if you were looking for a guide to other calligraphic hands, or more extended projects, this is perhaps not the book for you. It’s very well done, beautifully presented and well laid out, but does have its limitations.

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The Book of The Raven || Angus Hyland & Caroline Roberts

Ever since this arrived, it has been sitting on my desk, as opposed to being consigned to the “must get round to that” pile. It has several page markers in it, including the delivery note for an obscure book about the fishing industry (my reading is nothing if not eclectic), a reminder to complete my tax return and details of how to pay my electricity bill. So much of it captures the imagination that you’ll mark the pages with anything that comes to hand. Probably best not to be eating a bacon sandwich.

It helps, of course, to be a bit of a birdwatcher and a particular fan of Corvids (the book includes the whole family, despite the headline title) and of inking. Although colour is anything but absent from these pages, crows, ravens and rooks are black as ink and therefore a challenge to the artist.

The approach is the same as The Book of The Tree, in which Angus Hyland was also involved and I sense a theme, possibly a series here. There are well chosen illustrations in a variety of styles from a variety of artists, as well as history, natural history, legend and lore. Of course the Mad Hatter’s riddle is included: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Carroll’s own explanation makes no sense which, knowing Carroll, I suspect is deliberate. But why not “Because they both have quills as black as ink”?

What can I say? I absolutely love this. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but the choice of material, production and format are pitch-perfect if it’s yours.

The back cover quotes Edgar Allen Poe: “Darkness there and nothing more”. Oh, there’s a lot more, mate.

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Sketching Perspective || Ilga Leimanis

This not unattractive guide is either a visual feast or an assault on the senses, depending on your point of view. You might even say it’s both, and like it all the more for that.

Books on perspective usually fall into one of two camps: technical drawing manuals, or attempts to teach the subject without any technicality at all. The former can be daunting, especially for the general artist and the latter as frustrating as a language course that pretends that grammar doesn’t exist.

Perspective is part of the grammar of art, as much as colour and colour mixing or the techniques for application of materials. It’s a thing you have to get to grips with, but also something a lot of people are afraid of, but as necessary as declension of nouns or conjugation of verbs.

Ilga is an urban sketcher, so perspective is central to her craft. She also, as is common with the genre, works quickly and loosely, so you won’t find architectural or measured drawings here, and hooray for that. It does mean that you get what I referred to at the beginning – the visual feast or assault on the senses. However, it also means that, where there are lines and diagrams (you know you need them really), they’re organic and mostly freehand, which makes them a lot more friendly and approachable. There’s also quite a lot of text, but it’s largely there to explain the images rather than a lot of theory to read, so hooray for that too.

What mainly sets this apart from other books on perspective is the way Ilga uses the technique in very fluid drawings that capture character as much as appearance. Only you can decide whether this works for you but, if it does, it should be rather successful.

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Painting The Mountain Landscape || Eileen Clark

Books on oil painting are relatively thin on the ground and many of them are a lot more general than this. You are therefore likely to approach it with high expectations and it is a pleasure to be able to report that it should certainly meet, perhaps even exceed them.

Eileen demonstrates a wide variety of work in many lighting and weather conditions. She also looks at details such as trees, waterfalls and wildlife on top of skies, mists and larger expanses of water. It is worth saying that she is based in the Lake District, so has all this on her doorstep to work with.

As is Crowood’s normal approach, there is quite a lot of discussion and analysis, but large and intimidating blocks of text have been avoided and at no point does the book give the appearance of being unmanageable. This may seem like a detail, but I’ve always felt it’s important in a visual medium – you want to see what’s going on, not be told. For all that, an explanation of the hows and whys can be extremely valuable and something you’d certainly expect in a painting film.

The reproduction is superb, even the full-page images, and details, brushwork and canvas textures are easily visible. The way Eileen works, you will want to look closely and this is possible in every image.

This really is the most thorough guide to painting mountains in oils and very well done indeed on all counts.

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Painting Like The Impressionists || Bruce Yardley

Back in the days of the atelier method, students (apprentices) worked in the studio of a master, initially grinding and mixing colours and preparing canvases before being allowed to work on backgrounds and eventually completing works to which the great man perhaps only added a couple of brushstrokes. The point is that you can learn a lot about the craft of painting by studying what has gone before and immersing yourself in the background business.

The Impressionists were a breath of fresh air in the world of art, though it was seen as more of a cold blast at the time and their influence is felt to the present day. Almost any tutor will tell you to work loosely, almost as if there’s no other way.

The great work on the subject, from the practical point of view, is Bernard Dunstan’s Painting Methods of The Impressionists, but that appeared some forty years ago and is mostly illustrated in black and white. We’re due another look. It’s pleasing, therefore, to be able to report that this is excellent and a worthy successor to Dunstan’s oeuvre. Bruce Yardley examines in considerable detail not just the way the Impressionists worked, but how they looked, saw and interpreted, which is after all the heart of their vision. We accept, indeed now expect, that the viewer will do a lot of the work and that the artist is a guide rather than an instructor. To an extent, it’s a reaction to the realism of photography and a way that art can re-invent itself to exist alongside that.

There’s a great deal to get into here, both visually and verbally, and this is a book to read rather than keep open beside the easel, even though there are exercises and demonstrations; you can work on these later.

If you want to have a go at being an Impressionist yourself, Bruce provides plenty of information about original brushes, paints and canvases and explains where they can still be obtained. I’m not sure that looking backward like this is either necessary or desirable, but it might be a fun exercise, for all that.

If you love and want to understand the Impressionists, this is a very thorough guide.

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Painting Buildings in Oils || James Willis

Books on single subjects in oils are rare, but here are two at once, with Crowood also publishing Eileen Clark’s on mountains.

The approach here is broadly similar, with plenty of discussion and examples accompanied by some short demonstrations. There is a good variety of both subject matter and painting styles. James’s own work is relatively loose so, if you don’t want to be carefully working on every brick, heave a sigh of relief right here. Building types range from domestic to grand structures, both at home and around the world and there are useful chapters on sketching, perspective, colour and light.

This is a book that takes its readers as well as its subject seriously and, although there is the obligatory chapter on materials and equipment, it is by no means over-long and you’re quickly into the meat of painting, which is what you want. There’s nothing wrong in assuming that your readers have a level of competence gained from classes, experience or other books and then simply concentrating on the subject in hand, which James does with admirable thoroughness.

There are plenty of illustrations and the reproduction throughout is generally good, although a few of the images are softer that I would ideally like. Fortunately, James’s style is such that this does not render them unusable and you should feel that you have been well-served overall on this front.

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Napoleon’s Plunder and the theft of Veronese’s Feast || Cynthia Saltzman

At the heart of this story, and this book, is the Louvre. It also raises the vexed question of art appropriation and of collections generally.

Napoleon, the Emperor, was widely admired but also feared. His armies swept through Europe and his defeated enemies were required to hand over their most valuable works of art. This was not indiscriminate and, as Cynthia Saltzman explains, the process was done with taste – the commissioners, as we might call them, knew what they wanted and what they were going to do with it. France, with the great man at its head, would become the artistic as well as political capital of Europe and the envy of the world (although that, at the time, mostly meant Europe).

Great taste there may have been, and the artworks may have been valued and cared for, but there was also vandalism. The piece at the centre of this comprehensive account is Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast At Cana, literally torn from the walls of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. Now unframed, the massive work was rolled up for transport. Elaborate art packing cases were unheard of in those days.

Stealing – there’s really no other word for it – a nation’s artistic treasures is to steal its creative heart and demoralise its people. Conquerors throughout history have known this and the elephant in the room is the Third Reich’s Twentieth Century appropriation campaign. That this only gets a mention in the epilogue here is not inappropriate because it’s a whole different piece of history and a tale in its own right. What is worth mentioning is that there was already a fear that Napoleon’s plunder would be eyed up for repatriation by its original owners – you steal my paintings, I’ll steal them back and have some of yours as well.

This is an engaging but thorough account that reads like a whodunit, as good history for the general reader should. It is a wider tale than the subtitle implies, but Saltzman rightly puts a painting that Ruskin said “always makes me feel as if an archangel had come down into the room, and were working before my very eyes” at its heart. Sometimes, the wider perspective is best seen from a central position.

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Jean Dubuffet – Brutal Beauty || ed Eleanor Nairne

The term Art Brut never conjures up an appealing image. It’s something that suffers from the way meanings vary in different languages and sounds a lot better when translated as Raw Art. Now you want to know more about it.

Dubuffet coined the term to refer to self-taught, or perhaps instinctive, creators who include psychiatric patients, prisoners, graffitists and tattooists. It’s a tribute to him, perhaps, that no one today would think of excluding those last two categories from the general canon of Art. Prisoners we can discuss – why should they be more or less likely to create work worthy of attention simply by virtue of their incarceration? One of my most treasured pieces is a primitive shaping (carving is perhaps too elaborate a word) made by a lifer in Hull prison some time in the 1980s. As for the psychiatric patients, I can say only one thing: Richard Dadd.

Perhaps Dubuffet’s greatest gift was his ability to see beauty everywhere, with no conventions or preconceptions. What is perhaps truly remarkable is that this is a beautiful book. Presented with images that, in many cases, defy any pre-existing rules, we are invited to examine and appreciate them, and we do. It is, I suppose, like being presented with an atonal piece and being told it’s music – push us even a short way down the path and we soon begin to understand.

This is published to accompany an exhibition at the Barbican, held from April to August 2021. Good luck with getting to see it, then. As is the case with this kind of publication, access to high quality images is not a problem and the reproduction is absolutely of the quality you have a right to expect. Eleanor Nairne provides an account of Jean Dubuffet’s artistic life and work and progresses to the history of the Art Brut movement itself, with pieces about an excellent variety of its followers and their works, all of which are fully illustrated.

Given the difficulty in present times of getting to and into exhibitions, their accompanying publications are taking on a particular importance. This will have been planned long before the pandemic, but the result looks almost as though it knew it had a lot of weight to carry and is a welcome substitute if you can’t make the physical journey yourself.

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Illuminating Natural History – the art and science of Mark Catesby || Henrietta McBurney

There was John Tradescant, there was Joseph Banks, there was Robert Hooke and there was John James Audubon.

They are all names to conjure with and they are all broadly familiar. Mark Catesby is perhaps less so, but he belongs in the same canon. His working period (his dates are 1684-1749) coincides with the development of the scientific method and from amateurship to professionalism in natural philosophy.

Catesby was widely travelled (at a time when this was difficult, dangerous and expensive) and spent two extended periods in the New World at a time when it was just being opened up, producing the two volumes of the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands – the scope of the title alone gives an idea of his achievement.

The significance of this, apart from the scientific work, is the role of the artist. Two things had happened. Firstly, descriptions of distant lands were now first rather than second or third hand, with fantasy having no further place in travellers’ tales. Secondly, printing had advanced sufficiently that detail was possible and the idea of the illustrated book became a possibility (as opposed to the woodcuts that prevailed only a short while before). Colour had to be inserted manually, of course, meaning that books such as this were anything but mass-market, but we should perhaps see publications from this period as distributable reports rather than marketable books.

Henrietta McBurney is thorough. Her account tells the story of Catesby’s life and work, of course, but also deals with the history of science as well as the techniques and materials of illustration and the development of books and printing. All of these are integral to the development of the scientific method and the transmission of discovery and information. Although this is nominally a book about a figure most people will not have heard of, it is also, as it should be, a comprehensive history of the development of ideas that has echoes to this day.

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