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Matisse: The Books || Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Matisse’s Livres d’Artiste are collector’s items and he created eight of them over a period of eighteen years (1932-1950). This book makes them available to a wider audience for the first time. One might, though, wonder why such treasures have not been previously reproduced.

This substantial book attempts, and largely succeeds, to be three things. Firstly, it provides excellent reproductions of the books themselves, in particular their images. Secondly, it provides an account and analysis of their creation, production and content. Finally, it also examines Matisse’s life during the period they were made, and especially his decision to live in Vichy France and the effect of that on his personal life. The author also explains how the books were the catalyst for the artist’s later cut-outs.

There is a danger in trying to be all these things at once and the primary one is that the books do not stand alone and speak for themselves. Despite the large format and quality of the reproduction, the text – excellent and thorough as it is – intrudes. This is inevitable and there is evidence, particularly from the placing of the illustrations, that Rogers Lalaurie is aware of this.

Given that there is nothing else on the subject, much of this can be forgiven. To get ten volumes out of the subject (eight straight reproductions, a critical analysis and an examination of a particular section of Matisse’s life) would perhaps be a tall order. Let us therefore be grateful that what is essentially a portmanteau has been so well accomplished.

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Expressive Abstracts in Acrylic || Anita Hörskens

It seems now to be traditional that books on abstract painting are project based and this useful guide is no exception. The main reason, I suspect, is that it’s very hard to teach the creative aspect of the topic. The basic principle is that you extract or abstract the essence of your subject and portray it in a way that tells the viewer how you felt about it and what it was like to be there in the moment. How far you take this is entirely up to you – there may be quite a few recognisable shapes and forms, or perhaps none at all. You may be wishing to express a mood rather than a sense of place, for instance.

All this is rather esoteric, but it’s something to consider before embarking on the process. What you can teach, of course, is techniques and that’s what this guide aims to do in the fifty-five featured projects. You’ll have the opportunity to experiment with colour, contrast, glazing, composition, negative shapes and paint pouring as well as exploring materials and surfaces. There’s a lot to get to grips with and the simple exercises that are presented give you plenty of examples to work with as well as ways to add your own personal touch – the instructions are concise and allow for plenty of interpretation, which is, after all, the name of the game in this field.

There are other guides that offer a similar approach, but this one is about as comprehensive as it gets.

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Drawing Dramatic Landscapes || Robert Dutton

It is to be hoped that this new series from Search Press will be expanded in the not too distant future. The idea of featuring work by artists who explore and expand the horizons of their medium is an attractive one and there are enough around that it shouldn’t be necessary to stretch the criteria just for the sake of it.

Robert Dutton works mostly in graphite media – pencils, sticks, powder and liquid – but also charcoal, acrylics, inks and pastels. These latter for the most part provide accents and colour, but what he can do with straightforward monochrome will take your breath away. That’s what makes this such an exciting book.

Search Press are, of course, mainly publishers of instructional books rather than monographs, so there has to be a strong how-to element as well as the valuable featured work. They are well-practised, both in content and layout as well as selection of authors. It should come as no surprise therefore that this works as inspiration and creative encouragement just as well as straightforward technical lessons and demonstrations. The approach and style, however, make it less of a course and more of an exploratory tour in the company of an informed and competent guide. Robert has a teaching background and it shows – he is excellent at explaining what he has done, but why it was achieved that way.

Not everything in the book will be to everyone’s taste – you may prefer the sometimes dark graphite drawing, I may feel happier with coloured pencils and inked highlights. For all that, Robert’s explanations have a superb clarity and are always interesting – whatever your preferences, there’s nothing here you’d want to skip.

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Brief Lessons in Seeing Differently || Frances Ambler

This is that rare beast, a book which is as valuable to the artist as it is to the art consumer.

Under a series of heads – See things in a fresh light, Learn the advantages of a different angle, Give yourself time and be still, etc – Frances Ambler provides advice on how to improve the quality of your art. Each section is short, as the title implies, and provides an outline that’s effectively a model for further study. Go away and think about it is her message. Much of it could also apply to ways of looking at paintings, hence the convenient dual appeal.

It’s an excellent idea and succeeds admirably in its aim to be thought-provoking. The use of examples adds weight to the arguments, but you’d better hope you have access to the artists and works cited as there are only a few illustrations, and those are grouped together at the back. To be fair, including more would take this beyond the realm of the budget pocket book into a larger, possibly coffee table tome. To avoid it simply being a large slab of text, the designers have used typographic tricks which you might find annoying if you hang around too long.

For all that, it’s a fun book, which I think is what it intends. After all, as Frances says, “The mundane becomes special as soon as you pay attention to it”.

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Addictive – an artist’s sketchbook || Adebanji Alade

I’ve remarked before that looking at an artist’s sketchbook is an intensely personal thing and can be as intrusive as rummaging through their underwear drawer. However, every so often we’re presented with one – sometimes, I suspect, highly edited – and the invitation should feel like a privilege.

This has plenty of hallmarks of authenticity, not least in the page numbering. However, every good exhibition should be curated and we’re entitled to suspect that those fluffs and mis-steps that add nothing to the conversation have been removed. Try-outs, variations of approach and discontinued starts, they’re something else altogether and we don’t mind a few of those.

Spiral bound and presented with no more text than forewords by Pete Brown and Ken Howard (those being the kind of circles Adebanji moves in these days) and an introduction by the artist himself, this, as a whole, is a piece of art in itself.

You can read it as simply as an exhibition – being a sketcher, you’re not really going to ask for more from Adebanji than sketches. However, the sheer heft and volume become something else. It’s hard to put a finger on what that is, but I think I’m going to settle for “variety”, maybe also “humanity”. Adebanji is at home in crowds and these pages are nothing if not heavily populated. There’s a wealth here of faces, poses, expressions and situations. You don’t need to know who the people are or always what they’re doing. They’re studies and deserve – demand – to be studied themselves.

If you’re coming at this to learn, then marvel at precisely that cornucopia of material, at all those ways to represent human beings at work, rest or play, at the sheer inventiveness of the observation that captures them. You could also use this like one of those manuals of poses that were all the rage a few decades ago. Those were reference books, but this adds a pleasant and valuable edge of creativity.

Yes, to be here is a privilege, so take advantage and be exhilarated.

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Abstract Art: a global history || Pepe Karmel

This is one heck of a thing. Abstract art is a massive subject and to condense even a small part of it into a single volume, even one as substantial as this, seems like an impossible task.

To begin with, you have to decide whether you’re talking to the specialist, the aficionado who has the correctly sculptured beard to stroke, or the general viewer who may be tempted to ask what it’s all about and why their five-year old couldn’t have done it. OK, for sixty-five pounds and something this heavy, I think we can probably forget about the latter, but there’s still the question of audience. You need to be serious enough not to put off the specialist, but not so serious as to put off the enquiring mind.

This is where Pepe Karmel gets it absolutely spot-on. The first thing that strikes and amazes you is that the book is arranged by theme: bodies, landscapes, cosmologies, architectures, signs & patterns. This allows a vast subject to be broken down into manageable chunks (silent cheer from the general reader) and for Pepe to begin with a realistic historical image and then explain how shapes, colours and forms are distilled into non-representational images. It also means that found objects, sculptures and installations can sit with works on canvas or paper in the same section without serving only to add confusion to the narrative.

And narrative it is, because this is very much the story of how what the artist saw in front of them is translated into a piece of work that the viewer has to interpret, and which will tell them not the what, but the how and the why. For all that it can be as intellectual an exercise as listening to atonal music, abstract art is also about emotion in its purest form. When you understand it, it can be tear-jerkingly beautiful.

To get to this point, you need to be educated. It was one single caption at a small Howard Hodgkin exhibition at the Turner Contemporary in Margate that unlocked this for me. It was as simple as explaining the importance of line and contrast and was a lightbulb moment that opened up a wider understanding of abstraction in general. On a much larger scale, this is what Pepe Karmel does here. There’s a great deal of learning in this, but it’s worn lightly and you’re never asked to imagine anything – the illustration, superbly reproduced, is always in front of you.

If you want to be convinced, this is the book for you. If you’re already in that world, you may find that you’re being told a lot of what you know already, but the number and quality of the illustrations might swing it for you anyway. It’s not a cheap book, or a quick read, but equally not one to put aside in any kind of hurry.

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A Year In The Art World || Matthew Israel

An account of what goes on inside the world of art business is always going to be interesting, but the question is: for who? Is it those insiders themselves, who will probably enjoy critiquing someone else’s view? Or maybe they’ll value an insight into what everyone else involved does, assuming they don’t know that already. How about the investor? They, especially if they’re just getting a toehold, would certainly benefit from a who-does-what guide, particularly if it also covers who’s-most-likely-to-rip-me-off. Artists themselves might like that, too. But the general reader, that wider public outside the specialist market? Nope, unless it’s written like a thriller, which this isn’t.

So, this is something very niche and we can at least be grateful that the author has taken the trouble to address his specialised audience directly, rather than trying (probably in vain) to widen the appeal. I’m a bit concerned by the strapline under Matthew Israel’s name on the cover, though: “curator, artist and art historian”. If his is an authoritative view, wouldn’t the people the book is aimed at know him? Maybe I’m being cynical, but to me it doesn’t inspire confidence in his insider knowledge. The potted biography on the back flap gives him quite a pedigree, albeit most rather vague and some a bit peripheral.

I know that art is a business and that, once you get beyond artists’ private and small galleries and when the sums of money become eye-watering, a lot of very serious people have to be involved, but these are waters that attract sharks and are very much unsafe for the uninitiated swimmer.

So, to rein in my cynicism, let’s sum this up as thorough, generally well-researched and pitched really rather well between readability and superficiality. If you want a primer in the business of art, it’s a worthwhile starting point. Watch the beach safety flags, though.

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DVD My Obsession – the life and work of Robert A Wade || Robert Wade

Making films in these improbable times is a challenge and understandably APV have not produced anything in their usual format. This tribute to Australian artist Bob Wade was originally planned to coincide with his 90th birthday, but the interviews were curtailed by strict lockdowns in Melbourne, where he lives.

Celebrations are often really only of interest to the subject themselves, and maybe those who take part and hope for a little reflected glory. This, however, is sensitively done and made with a broader audience in mind. At its core is an extended interview with Bob, who reminisces about a life devoted in one way or another to art. His greatest love is watercolour and his eyes sparkle like a luminescent painting as he talks about “the surprise and wonderment and magic that suddenly appear before your eyes”. Of what he calls visioneering, he adds, “[It’s] seeing with your brain, feeling with your eyes and understanding with your heart”. Can you come up with a better definition of both the physical and mental process of creating a piece of art? Thought not.

Interspersing this are tributes from many of Bob’s Australian contemporaries, who manage to say a great deal more than “he’s a wonderful artist”. “Underlying everything is sound, honest watercolour technique”, says Herman Pekel. The aside, “Bob is a storyteller”, is perhaps the greatest truism in the whole film.

To make sure the film isn’t just talking heads and still images, extracts from some of Bob’s classic demonstrations are included. These do not, it should be said, add new unseen material, but they do add a gloss to the words and remind us of Bob’s working methods.

As I implied, films like this can be dry as dust and self-congratulatory. This is neither and is gripping from start to finish. Much of that is down to Bob’s character. His joy in his medium is always evident and it’s enthralling to hear him talking about it more generally than he would in a specific demonstration. The tributes are heartfelt and it’s clear that he is a man genuinely loved by his fellow artists, as well as students throughout the world.

Available from APV Films

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham || Virginia Button

Every artistic group, movement and style has its footnotes. These can be peripheral figures who appear, sometimes literally, as additions in page-footings, contributors who only produced a few works, outsiders who were mainly influenced by the main practitioners or simply those who have been forgotten, obscured by the shade of the big beasts.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham is one of the latter. The art world of the 1940s through to the 60s was overtly and often aggressively masculine and the grouping that still flourished in St Ives well-supplied with very big names indeed. Barns-Graham was always going to struggle for recognition, both historically and, indeed in her own lifetime, although some did come latterly.

That this is the first book devoted to her work probably tells you all you need to know. Dr Virginia Button examines her subject’s personal vocabulary of the abstract and makes an excellent case for her position as an influential figure in the development of mid-Twentieth Century art. Her work is centred on an emotional response to landscape, shape and form and the generous number of well-reproduced works easily convince the reader.

The author is based in Cornwall and has previously written about Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood as well as producing a wider study of the St Ives artists. She writes clearly and with the authority that comes from the most thorough understanding of her subject and material.

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Urban Drawing || Phil Dean

“Tate Sketch Club”, it says prominently and promisingly at the top of the cover of this rather excellent guide. The front flap also promotes a life drawing volume in the same series. But for recent events one suspects the series, which has much to recommend it, would be more widely populated. Still, at least future volumes are something to look forward to.

The information sheet tells me that Phil is theshoreditchsketcher.com and that’s very much of the moment. Inner city, hipster and online – I’m positively aching.

Arch comments aside, he’s also very good – it’s absolutely essential that, if you’re going to put the name of a prestigious institution to a series of guides (and it’s becoming increasingly common) that the authors are top-notch. Phil’s style is that of the urban sketcher – very freehand, movement in straight lines, buildings ancient and modern, people – where they appear – engrossed in their diurnal lives.

The author biography tells us that Phil is a graphic designer and runs his own creative agency and this shows up in the drawings – they have a feeling of an architectural impression – those imagined scenes of idealised life designed to get public and planners onside. That, however, is no bad thing as this is mainly about buildings and there’s a softer edge than I’ve implied. I said of people “when they appear” because Phil is not Adebanji Alade and his subject is mainly the built environment, on which he’s very sound. He works in pen and pencil, is good with half-tones and can do very good figure work when he wants to. He also manages to knock the tricky subject of perspective off in only a few paragraphs too. He can talk the talk as well as draw the draw.

Urban sketching is very much the business of the moment – I can remember when books on townscapes were the hardest sell in the business. Quite whether books on it will go down quite so well with everyone working from home remains to be seen. This, though, concentrating on structures rather than crowds, may be just what you were look for right now.

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