Archive for category Publisher: Prestel

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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The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting || Norbert Wolf

A very long time ago, a remainder dealer managed to convince me that a book he was flogging called Florentine Art Treasures would be a perfect fit for my market. It was a hasty paste-up job, not very well reproduced, but it was large format and did contain a lot of illustrations for the relatively modest sum he was charging. In my defence I was young, rather naïve and a bit of a sitting duck. No, we didn’t manage to sell more than a small handful.

Some years later, reminiscing with another bookseller, we started talking about that dealer and my friend asked, “Did he try to sell you Florentine Art Treasures?” I admitted the truth. The story was, apparently, that the dealer used to drive around London with a box of the cursed things in the boot of his Rolls Royce (yes, it’s possible to make money out of bookselling, but you have to be sharp as a razor) on the off-chance that someone would run into him and he could offload a couple of dozen onto the insurance.

All of which preamble is a way of saying that large books of art treasures and I have a chequered history and that my view of them may be just a touch jaundiced.

This is a big book – I mean, really big. If you want your own private art gallery on your coffee table (it’s not something to sit with in your lap for long), this will give you one of the best collections of Lowlands art it’s possible to have. No more peering into tight spines or at really-too-small reproductions, the illustrations here are as near to being in a gallery as you’re going to get. There is also a good narrative of the history of the times and critical analysis of schools and artists. Rather handily, several of the major works are set alongside comparison pieces by other artists that treat the same subject or use similar compositions.

Excellent though this is, the reproduction does seem a trifle soft in places and you might find yourself struggling to see some of the detail. This doesn’t impose, though, and may be something you only really notice when you start looking really closely. It’s a shame, but sometimes publishers are restricted by the quality of the photographs they can get (high-resolution scanning is not generally available for priceless paintings in public collections). For all that, if I was going to part with a whisker under £100 for a book, I might expect it to be the acme of perfection.

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Lucian Freud Herbarium || Giovanni Aloi

Lucian Freud is best known for his frequently visceral figurative paintings. That he also worked with natural subjects comes as something of a surprise. These works are by no means unknown, but they are certainly unfamiliar to the more general viewer and add a perspective to his more famous oeuvre.

There’s a worthwhile comparison with Don McCullin’s landscape photography, or Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers. Both of these are from later in their creators’ careers, but require a knowledge of what went before to better understand the thought processes behind them. Freud didn’t come to flowers and plants late – these works appear throughout his life, but they nevertheless add a counterpoint to the bulk of his output.

Usefully, Giovanni Aloi includes a couple of the figure paintings to provide a starting point, and also a history of plants in art. I can’t help wondering, though, given the idiosyncratic nature of Freud’s work, whether this is strictly necessary. There are plenty of other books on that subject a general reader could approach if they felt it necessary. Nevertheless this, alongside the figurative recap, adds to the sense of completeness of the present volume.

Freud’s approach to plants is by no means lyrical and there is a sense of enquiry and investigation in his depictions. Although they are more directly representational than the figure work, the eye is uncompromising and the composition rarely straightforward – a sense of the surreal persists. Where figures and faces appear, they often appear questioning or even disturbed; the artist’s unflinching eye and attention to detail are always present.

This is a beautiful and intriguing book that adds a new dimension to one of the towering greats of British art of the Twentieth Century and does its subject more than ample justice.

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