Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

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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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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Barbara Hepworth: art & life || Eleanor Clayton

Next to Antony Gormley, Barbara Hepworth is probably the sculptor most people will have heard of, or could name if asked. They would also be likely to be able to say something about her abstract style, even if that was accompanied by a confession of being unable to understand it. Reading this paragraph back, I realise I’ve omitted Henry Moore and, you know what, I’m sticking to that. I think the person in the street might get to Gormley and Hepworth before they got to Moore.

There has been no shortage of books about Hepworth, but this is perhaps the most comprehensive and is certainly timely, coinciding with a major retrospective at the eponymous gallery in Wakefield – the town is rightly proud of its daughter. One review I have seen expresses disappointment that the book extends to only 250 pages, including plenty of illustrations. I’m not sure how much more would be required, or whether that reviewer was looking for something more than a book which can be managed by the general reader. Full artistic analyses are available elsewhere and there is a limit to how much domestic and diurnal detail is required, even in a book avowedly for the specialist. This is concise and readable, and let’s be grateful for that.

In fact, there’s a good spread of material here, from Hepworth’s beginnings and examples of early work – good, even promising, one might say, but not hugely exceptional. This is often the case with great artists, who take a while to find their mature voice and vision. The blurb also tells us that the book “reflects for the first time the artist’s multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach, bringing together as never before her interests in dance, music, poetry, contemporary politics, science and technology”. There is a hint to this in one of the early illustrations: a photograph, commissioned by her, of the Cow & Calf Rocks above Ilkley in Yorkshire and hinting at her later interaction with landforms.

Eleanor Clayton also quotes extensively from Hepworth’s own writings. Although this rightly gives a voice to the artist, one might cavil at that idea and think that it perhaps supplants authorial analysis. Nevertheless, it does help to present its subjects as more than just The Artist and as a person in her own right which, ultimately, is what this book is about. There is a humanity to these extracts that feeds directly into the artworks and gives them extra depth and warmth.

Biographical books can often suffer either (or both) from a lack of illustrations or a lack of quality in them. Book paper tends to swallow colour, but Thames & Hudson have become adept at countering this and it would be entirely fair to describe this as an illustrated biography rather than simply a biography with illustrations.

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The Art Museum in Modern Times || Charles Saumarez Smith

At a time when just about every institution is being questioned as to its role, need and relevance, it is fitting that those devoted to art should come under the eye of someone as august as Charles Saumarez Smith. Having held senior posts at the National and National Portrait Galleries as well as the Royal Academy, Charles is well-placed to offer not just an opinion on these matters, but one which demands to be taken seriously.

The book takes the form of a series of case studies that examine individual institutions, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and stretching to the West Bund Museum in Shanghai by way of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, the Hepworth Gallery and several incarnations of the Louvre. In each, Charles examines the intent, layout, content and realities, offering several views of how institutions develop both organically and through steering. After this, he presents his overall conclusions, which involve the roles of what we might call the stakeholders – clients, architects, private collections and the morality of wealth and, of course, the audiences.

There is a wealth of material here, but Charles manages it well. The book comes in at under 300 pages, which is something to welcome – a lesser author could easily have doubled that, not so much by over-writing, but simply by not being so completely on top of their material. “Impressive” in this context is a word that would normally be applied to something much larger, but here it is appropriate to something so manageable, both physically and intellectually.

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Spring Cannot Be Cancelled || David Hockney & Martin Gayford

“Hockney is not a believer in healthy living so much as in good living”. This almost throwaway remark could be a mantra for our times. Do you want just to exist, or to live life as fully as you can, even if that comes with a host of risks? Hockney, famously contrarian, is firmly in the latter camp and this book might be seen as his vituperative response to the situation we find ourselves in.

I say “might”, because this is not all that it has been billed, or reviewed, as. It’s probably simpler to start at the beginning: it’s a continuation of the ongoing conversation that Hockney and Gayford have been having for a good many years. This saga has centred around the role, meaning and position of art within the wider world, but has achieved a focus in the present as an escape from and antidote to many of the restrictions that currently face us. The claim of the blurb that it is “an uplifting manifesto that confirms art’s capacity to divert and inspire” is by no means untrue, but does also need to be seen in the wider context of these ongoing exchanges.

You may have seen reviews that describe the book as “lavishly illustrated” and I take issue with that too. It’s hard to damn Hockney with faint praise, but to me, “lavish” means not just “generous”, but “of outstanding quality”. The format of the book is upright octavo and the illustrations are mostly landscape, which constricts their size and obscures detail. It is also printed entirely on book rather than art paper, which dulls colours and obscures detail. Several press features have included some of the paintings, which are Hockney’s iPad works featuring the arrival of Spring in Normandy where he now resides, and which mirror the 2012 RA show, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate Woods. The problem is that the reproduction there was immeasurably better than it is in the book. Quite simply, if you buy this as a preview of the upcoming RA show The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020 you will, I think, be disappointed.

There is, though, no doubt that Hockney has mastered digital art. Whether you use a pen, a brush or your finger is merely a method of application – what matters is the result and, when seen at their best, these images are amazing. The 2012 exhibition showed a few, but here they are at the forefront and they are absolutely stunning and absolutely Hockney. Try to get to the new show, or at least buy the catalogue.

I don’t mean to say that this is in any way a bad book. Of course it isn’t. Anything which gives us the words and sentiment of the master, especially on the subject of creativity, is to be treasured. It is, however, what it is and not something else.

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I Can (Not) Draw || Peng

At first glance, this looks as though it might be a book aimed at children.   The simple, cartoon-like illustrations and busy layout are very like titles I’ve reviewed that are intended for a younger audience.

Further examination, however, reveals a level of detail and elements of humour that are far more grown-up. Peng is, in fact, an Austrian cartoonist and, while these are not cartoons, there’s a wryness to the images that is instantly engaging. Even if you were really looking for something more serious, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Exaggerated features and simple lines are an antidote to what is sometimes a tyranny of trying to create a likeness or get proportions right – here it doesn’t matter and the most important thing is to get something – maybe even anything – down on paper.

The title gives a strong clue to the content – it’s all about removing negativity. Anyone can have a go at this and, even if you’re already reasonably accomplished, there’s a lot to be said for letting observation rule your pen.

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Spirit of Place: writers and the British landscape || Susan Owens

It’s hard to know where to file this. Is it art or literary criticism? (A British Library cataloguing in publication record is available for all you perplexed librarians out there.) I write about art, but my background is in English literature and I only narrowly escaped librarianship, so I suppose I ought to be qualified to have an opinion.

It’s an intriguing concept. The idea of British (for which, read mainly English) landscape painting has been described as an Eighteenth Century invention, which is also conveniently about the same time that modern literature came into being. No, you shut up, I’ve read Beowulf, Chaucer, Malory, Defoe and even Thomas Nash – I’m perfectly well aware of how we got to the modern novel.

The principal idea in this genuinely intriguing book is that the British Landscape is a construct, a quasi-romantic ideal that exists chiefly in the mid of its creators. Susan Owens looks as far back as Bede and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the latter, the concept of redemption through a green world progression is one that finds echoes later in Shakespearean comedies, as eloquently exemplified by the critic Northrop Frye. Into this, she weaves Gainsborough and Austen – the former’s landscapes certainly informing our mental images of the latter’s settings.

The narrative continues as the whole concept is refashioned by succeeding generations to reflect their own concerns, obsessions and preconceptions as much as representations of reality itself. I shall close here, merely pausing to say “Mervyn Peake” and leave you to think.

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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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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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