Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Josef Albers: life & work || Charles Darwent

Josef Albers was one of the members of the Bauhaus, that institution that did much to revitalise creative life in Germany after its defeat in the First World War. Less well-known than names such as Gropius, Klee and Kandinsky, he was, however, responsible for much of the spirit and direction of the school.

Albers’ fame is mainly built on his work in America, where he relocated after the dissolution of the Bauhaus in 1933. It was there, now in his 60’s, that he worked on Homages to the Square, a series of 2000 images that explore the interaction of colours. If this reminds you of Robert Rauschenberg’s Black and White paintings, the influence is palpable. Much of Albers’ archive is devoted to correspondence with John Cage (whose 4’33” was itself influenced by Rauschenberg’s white canvases), Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson. That list itself shows the breadth of Albers’ interests and influence, representing as it does music, art and architecture.

This is an extensive and very complete biography of a figure who, although not now widely known, was one of the Twentieth Century’s great creative theorists. The roll-call of those he taught and who felt his influence is testament enough to his importance and this, coinciding with the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, is a timely reminder of his genius.

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Books do Furnish a Painting || Jamie Camplin & Maria Ranauro

Once you start looking, books are all over paintings. Particularly in portraits, they can be used to provide the sitter with something to do with their hands, suggest serious study or devotion. They can even suggest leisure – nothing says indolence quite like a discarded volume. The more you think about it, the more intriguing the thesis becomes, which I suspect is how this rather delightful book came about.

In the wrong hands, this could easily have become just another tenuous excuse to draw together a collection of paintings from Albrecht Dürer to Stanley Spencer and claim connections that were never there, either on canvas or in the artist’s mind. Books, however, are different and provide not so much a point of focus for the painting as for the subject – the works here are almost exclusively figurative and the important element is the interaction of the sitter with the tome.

The blurb tells me that the first question asked is “what is a book?” I’m relieved to report that this is not a chapter heading and, although there is a brief history of printing, the esoteric debate over whether manuscripts (never mind scrolls) carry more weight than printing is not one that will detain us. I checked that there is no index entry for “incunabula”, a sure sign that any author (unless they’re discussing early printed works, of course) is taking themselves too seriously.

What we do get, though, is ten pages devoted to “who invented the artist?”, a question I’d never really considered before. I visited the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum, so I’m tempted to say that they probably invented themselves. However, the idea of The Artist as cultural icon might be attributed to Vasari, and artists do certainly tend to put themselves forward a lot more than authors. Maybe I’m just cynical (and a writer…)

I’m being unfair. This is well done, scholarly in a way that’s not overwhelming and a lot of fun. The authors are a former Editorial and Managing Director of Thames & Hudson (why, yes, they have published this) and an art historian who has worked at the National Gallery (and is now a senior picture researcher at – you guessed it – Thames & Hudson).

Would this have seen the light of day without those connections? I rather doubt it. The proposal would have been a hard sell, but it was worthwhile. The result is not, as it could so easily have been, a vanity project the publisher simply couldn’t turn down, but a scenic wander through what turns out to be rather more than a byway of art history.

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The Lives Of The Surrealists || Desmond Morris

Well, I thought, this’ll be interesting. Who better to have an anthropological study of than the Surrealists? But, yes, it is that Desmond Morris, he of The Naked Ape.

The success of that book, his extensive television career and the fact that, at the age of 90, he is less prominent in public view, has drawn something of a veil over his life as a Surrealist painter himself. The last survivor of the original movement, this is the inside story of Magritte, Miró and May Ray as well as names not always associated: Picasso, Moore or Bacon.

The book itself does pretty much what it says. It is a collection of biographies, all of them relatively short and, as Morris says in his foreword, focussing on lives rather than work. Valuable as it is, this is something of a shame, as a view of interactions, philosophies and working methods would have been welcome from the insider point of view. Yes, this ground has been trodden so heavily that it’s practically tarmacked, but Morris has what is now a unique perspective, both from where he was (a Surrealist) and where he is now (a viewer from the historical perspective) and an account of that must surely have had considerable value.

Nevertheless, this is what it is and it’s very good at that. Concise, factual, witty and entertaining, it’s a thumping good read and still presents a viewpoint you won’t get anywhere else.

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Modernists & Mavericks || Martin Gayford

This remarkably thorough and authoritative account of the development of painting in London from the Second World War to the 1970s draws on extensive interviews Martin Gayford conducted with its participants and personalities. Gayford, art critic of The Spectator, offers what is effectively an insider view of an important period in, and strand of, contemporary art. Although it was not a movement as such, it was inevitable that any group, however diverse, that was working in reasonably close proximity would develop friendships and rivalries and share experiences and ideas both deliberately and unconsciously.

Just about everyone who was a part of the scene gets a mention somewhere here and luminaries include Hockney, Freud, Bacon, Bridget Riley, Gillian Ayres, Peter Black, Allen Green and Howard Hodgkin. The book, however, is very much more than a simple trawl through the notes and a tour of the exhibits. Gayford, an insightful viewer and incisive commentator, demonstrates how the group (as we might just get away with calling them) were influenced by teachers such as David Bomberg and William Coldstream and also drew on American Abstract Expressionism and more traditional Western art.

Comprehensively illustrated, this should be set fair to be the definitive history as well as an appreciation of its period. The published version will have an index, the lack of which I felt dearly in my proof copy, indicating how essential it will be.

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Misère || Linda Nochlin

This is, on the face of it, a seemingly unlikely subject for a book about art history. However, it fits with the Victorian style of narrative painting and fascination with – and often glamorisation of – the lower orders of society. Many nineteenth century artists depict working people in suspiciously well-kept clothes, but there were others, themselves living hand-to-mouth, who shared the world of the underclass and understood the conditions of their companions all too well.

Linda Nochlin concentrates for the most part on these latter: there are no Stanhope Forbes, William Powell Friths or Ford Maddox Browns here, although Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (his dog) is reproduced and is a masterpiece of sentimentalisation. Her thesis, expressed in the cover blurb, is that the rapid changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution caused displacement and destitution for those whom it did not benefit. This is, I think, to stretch a point somewhat and potentially to fall into the trap that artists themselves sometimes did, distinguishing between the happy, free, rural poor and their downtrodden urban counterparts.

The book itself, however, does not bear this out and begins with a lengthy examination of what Linda calls The Irish Paradigm. This is the rural poverty brought about by the potato famine and which was documented in publications such as The Illustrated London News, many of whose images are reproduced. Linda also includes illustrations which show a less charitable viewpoint: that of drunkenness and simple depravity; not everyone idolised the “deserving poor”.

It is, I think, important to take note of the fact that the title of the book is Misère and not Misery, although that word does appear in the subtitle. The difference is subtle (Linda explains its genesis from a discovery in a Parisian bookshop) and represents a construct rather than a state of existence – the representation of poverty rather than its sociological fact. It is easy to fall into another trap: that of assuming that all the people here are unhappy. I’m not suggesting that Courbet’s agricultural labourers, Gericault’s street-dwellers or Degas’ prostitutes are happy noble savages, but the works illustrated are perhaps more documentary than comment. No-one likes being at the bottom of the heap, but there is sometimes, maybe often, a degree of acceptance. These are people and they survive, at least after a fashion.

This is an interesting work that explores a corner of nineteenth century art that is, while not forgotten, not frequently commented on. The narrative maybe stretches a point sometimes, but Linda is also careful not to wear a campaigner’s hat; she is an art historian, not a social one. Reading the book, I was reminded of the Kasmin’s Postcards series, which shines another light on our forebears’ fascination with poverty and disaster.

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What is Painting? || Julian Bell

This timely reissue, in a revised edition, addresses some fundamental issues relating to what we might call reproductive art. What, for example, asks Bell, makes one painting more “real” than another?, addressing the whole issue of the nature of reality itself and whether we can, in fact, trust artistic expression. A painting is, after all, merely a version of what the artist was looking at. Indeed, I think one could argue that “merely” is the wrong word there and that an interpretation, maybe even an explanation, is what we should expect from an artist. If we want absolute reality, then a trip to the location or a good photograph are more appropriate and accurate reporters.

Interestingly, some of the issues that Bell addresses are also raised in Andrew Marr’s recent A Short Book About Painting, not least the question of what is “bad” art, why does it have an appeal and what, anyway, is the nature and definition of beauty?

The information sheet that came with my copy tells me that “much has changed in the world of art” since this was originally published in 1999 and that the text has been substantially rewritten while retaining the six-chapter structure. I turned to the preface for further information – what’s changed, how has it been addressed and, indeed, why was this necessary? Sadly, Bell is silent on this and the short preface appears to be the original. I would have liked more, and particularly from the author himself. It doesn’t alter the incisive examination of the nature of painting, but some pointers would have been useful, perhaps even essential, especially if some of the basic premises have changed. And, if they haven’t, is revision really necessary at all?

This is, however, a worthwhile analysis of the creative process and is well-argued and thoroughly illustrated. As is common with books where the text is the main event, the paper doesn’t do justice to the reproductions, although having them as aides-mémoire is handy.

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Renoir: an intimate biography || Barbara Ehrlich White

Barbara Ehrlich White began collecting Renoir’s letters in1961 and has amassed some 3000 of them. Some are by, some to and others about him, but the story they have to tell and the character they reveal underpin the “intimate” claim of the title of this really rather revelatory book.

Renoir evoked and still evokes strong feelings. You might think that the riot that accompanied the first Impressionists exhibition revealed passions of the past, but there was a mass demonstration outside an exhibition of Renoir’s work at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2015. The protestors’ objection was to the artist’s “indefensible swathes of poorly rendered treacle”. Renoir himself admitted that his professors found his work execrable.

This is not, however, so much an analysis of Renoir’s artistic legacy as of his character and his relationship with his contemporaries: other artists, dealers, models and his son, the film director Jean Renoir. Starting in poverty, Renoir eventually achieved success, but then stopped exhibiting with his friends as the association would devalue his own works. With success, however, came physical afflictions and he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis that made painting difficult and painful. It is something of a miracle that he continued and is, perhaps, a tribute to the creative drive that marks out the great artist in any field.

Most artistic studies are made from the outside, looking in. This contribution to the literature of a much-observed figure provides a sense of looking outwards from the point of view of the man himself.

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