Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Vincent’s Books || Mariella Guzzoni

Heer Van Gogh didn’t just paint and write letters, he read widely as well, you know. “I have a more or less irresistible passion for books”.

The primary source for this new approach to the artist is Vincent’s letters, his own eloquent commentary on his personal life and creative processes. Sometimes, you wonder whether he wasn’t maybe just a little too self-analytical. Those to his brother alone mention some 200 authors and he devoured fiction as well as monographs, biographies and museum guides. You might wonder how he found time to paint!

Do we need yet another angle on the life of someone we should really approach through their own output? Van Gogh was, after all, a painter, not a literary critic. Yes, his letters certainly can inform our view of his paintings and, it could be argued, his interpretation of what he read fed into his own work. However, an account of his reading does appear to be maybe just a little of one for the completists.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. An artist’s influences are certainly important and having Van Gogh’s own accounts of what he saw and how he reacted to it, especially when he writes as eloquently as he does, is undoubtedly valuable, maybe even fascinating.

One problem I encountered was the three-digit numbers that appear in square brackets in the text. Much digging in the supplementary material suggests that these are a reference to the archive of Vincent’s letters, but this is not explicitly stated. A note at the beginning would have been helpful.

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Vincent Van Gogh: a life in letters || Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen & Hans Luitjen

You can’t have too much Van Gogh, can you? Can you? Let’s leave that there and acknowledge that, for a man as complex as Vincent, his own words add considerably to our understanding of his work. As well as simply talking about his life, he was eloquent on the creative process itself. Artists, who mainly think visually, do not often write well – frequently either too much or too little, but our man was a deep thinker and a good analyst. Perhaps that was his trouble.

Even at over 400 pages, this is only a selection, but the editors (who are the team behind the full 6 volume edition of the letters for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) have been careful to make it representative. They also include manuscript reproductions as well as sketches and paintings that make this relevant to any study of Van Gogh’s art which is, after all, what we should be most interested in. The result is immediately accessible for anyone with maybe only a passing interest – specialists will probably have sought out the full canon anyway.

Sensibly, the arrangement is chronological, but also related to location, so that a connection with the artist’s often complex living arrangements is possible. Any temptation to try to introduce themes is sensibly avoided. Each section is introduced with a summary of that stage of Van Gogh’s life, his relationships and where he was in his artistic development. Once again, the more general reader is catered for and no detailed background knowledge is assumed.

The result is an effective and readable autobiography raisonné which is just learned enough to be authoritative without being indigestible for the audience it’s aimed at.

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Grayson Perry || Jacky Klein

I’m very partial to a bit of ceramics and I love innovation and experiment, but I’ve always found Grayson Perry a bit of a stretch. I don’t know whether it’s the Claire alter-ego thing, the artist-as-artwork, or the slightly knowing, sideways glance, but I’ve just had the feeling that he’s trying a little too hard. I know he’s good, in the way that I know Frank Sinatra is good, because people I respect have told me so and explained how.

This is my explained-how moment. I said I’d approach this with an open mind and be prepared to be a convert. It is, after all, a sumptuous publication that covers just about every aspect of Perry’s work (this third edition brings it up to date with A House For Essex and other new works that have appeared since the previous edition of 2013). There are as many top-quality illustrations as you could wish for and the generous page size means you can examine everything in detail.

Most artists would be glad to get a monograph at all and regard a second edition as true recognition. To have three, covering eleven years, and a cover price that’s frankly a steal suggests popularity of mammoth extent. It’s easy to see why the publisher is that confident. Perry has something for everyone and there’s an initial accessibility to his work that belies the considerable depth behind it. His pieces may attract crowds, but they are lot more than just crowd-pleasers; observation, detail and wry humour play an important part.

So, if I won the lottery would my first indulgence be a Grayson Perry piece? I’m not sure, but this gorgeous volume has taught me to appreciate him even more than I hoped it would.

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Women Artists: the Linda Nochlin Reader || ed Maura Reilly

Linda Nochlin was the doyenne of art historians and also a champion of women in art. Her seminal article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, which appeared in ARTnews in 1971, quite properly leads this collection of thirty of her most essential essays. If the original piece didn’t effectively answer its own question, such a substantial volume (there are nearly 500 pages) slams the contradiction firmly down in front of you.

It helps that this is, while not extensively so, thoughtfully illustrated and the publisher is to be congratulated on getting some very good colour reproduction on what is basically book paper – they’ve managed to choose a stock that doesn’t leach the life out of anything that touches it, and that’s by no means easy.

Maura Reilly, the editor, provides a handy introduction that sets Linda’s writing in context and there is also an interview in which she looks back on her life and work. Two of the pieces included were specially written for the collection.

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Turner’s Apprentice: a watercolour masterclass || Tony Smibert

The basic thesis of this is a sound one. Tony Smibert is a Visiting Art Researcher at Tate Britain as well as a trained art teacher. He is therefore well placed to conduct the nearest thing you’ll get to a masterclass with one of Britain’s greatest painters.

The question, though, is do you want to? What?, you ask. How can he even suggest that’s not a good thing? Well, Turner had such an individual style that emulating it is always going to look like imitation, and probably second best at that. Would it perhaps be better to study the Norwich School or the Twentieth Century tradition from Edward Seago onwards?

Well, the thing about Turner is that he taught us a huge amount about light and colour and was innovative not just in his day but, arguably, in the history of art. He was, you could posit, an impressionist before the Impressionists and one of the first to move art away from a very classical tradition that was getting just a little too rule-bound. It’s not just his paintings that merit further study, but his notebooks too, and there aren’t many artists you can say that about. No, you can’t: Turner’s notebooks contain a wealth of experimentation that led to some of his masterpieces.

So, having established that to sit at his feet is something worthwhile, what’s the experience like? Well, Tony is adept at deconstructing not just Turner’s paintings, but his methods of working. This is not an atelier process, where you stand in front of the great canvases and copy them, but rather of understanding and applying the methods that created them.

The book concludes with a chapter devoted to Tony’s own paintings – not just a gallery, they’re properly analysed. In these, you can clearly see Turner’s influence, but also the fact that the results are entirely original. It’s not at all a bad way of demonstrating what you should be aiming for – a deeper understanding of your own work, not that of someone else.


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The Unquiet Landscape || Christopher Neve

This isn’t a book about art. Rather, it’s a book about how art and the landscape interact and the way in which places and philosophy work together to stimulate the creative process.

Does that sound complicated? Well, just imagine you’re painting a landscape. You could just sit there and make an exact representation of what you see, but that wouldn’t be much more than a photograph. Even the least pretentious artist would want to put some kind of expression into their work – as Edgar Degas reminded us: art isn’t what you see, but what you make others see. Study a landscape, maybe for years, see and understand it in all its moods, make sketches and then – only then – start work in the studio, and you have something completely different. The result isn’t a representation of what you saw, it’s a map of what was going on in your mind as a result of this contemplative process.

So, you see, it is all about art after all, but also that much deeper process that underpins a great work. Christopher Neve writes about artists from William Sickert to Stanley Spencer , Eric Ravilious and John Nash. He had extensive conversations with Ben Nicholson and others that get behind what appears on paper or canvas.

This is a new edition of a book that first appeared in 1990. Frustratingly, the preface doesn’t reveal what has changed, but the blurb hints at the addition of the illustrations and of additional text. If you have the original, it would be useful to know whether that justifies a second purchase.

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The Story of Scottish Art || Lachlan Goudie

Scottish art has a long and noble history that is perhaps not as often recounted as it should be.

This rather delightful book is part of what looks like a new “story of” series that deals with wide vistas in a straightforward and eminently manageable way. Much of this relies on the quality of the authors – they need to be able to understand their subject intimately and select and condense their material to make it comprehensible in a relatively short narrative arc. They also need to avoid the factionalism that all too often infects art criticism (although there will undoubtedly be those queuing up to say that they’ve got the approach, the facts and the interpretations wrong). General readers will, however, just be thankful for something that doesn’t require prior specialist knowledge or become obsessed with minor detail.

Lachlan Goudie is such an author. An artist himself, the blurb describes this as “a deeply personal account”, perhaps aiming to head off perceived avenues of criticism. However, as long as you know who you’re dealing with, a less that fully objective approach can itself be interesting, and Goudie is an author who commands respect.

The book is only 384 pages. I say “only” because it covers 5000 years, which means it moves form Neolithic symbols to Glasgow’s position as a centre for contemporary art. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it’s pulling off a neat trick to do so at pace, but without becoming breathless.

There are some 180 illustrations, but as my copy is a black & white pre-press proof, I can’t comment on the quality of the reproduction.

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The Story of Contemporary Art || Tony Godfrey

This is an excellent narrative account of developments in art from 1980 to the present day. Covering forty years internationally is an ambitious project and, at 280 pages, this necessarily doesn’t go into a massive amount of detail. That, you may think, is a blessing and this is a subject in which it would be all too easy to get bogged down. Contemporary art (like contemporary anything) is contentious and a relatively straightforward storytelling approach is a neat way of avoiding controversy and factionalism.

Non-specialists will undoubtedly welcome a lively, readable account, but even the cognoscenti may be glad of what amounts to an authoritative potted history.

The book has over 200 illustrations but I can’t comment on the quality as my copy is a black & white pre-press proof.

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Piranesi Drawings – visions of antiquity || Sarah Vowles

This is another of Thames & Hudson’s collaborations with the British Museum and accompanies an exhibition which, at the time of writing, is of course closed.

The quality of reproduction and generous page size make this a viable alternative to a visit and, if you want to see Piranesi drawings, shouldn’t disappoint. Fifty-one works are illustrated, mostly full page, and extended captions provide descriptive and background information. The purpose of the exhibition is to show how the artist developed as a draughtsman over time and the progression is broadly chronological, rather than by form or theme. Chronological notes and a select bibliography add both clarity and avenues for further study.

With venues closed, viewing originals isn’t possible at the present time and alternatives have to be found. This is a worthy one.

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Nineteenth-Century Art: a critical history || ed Stephen F Eisenman

This massive brick of a book covers just about every aspect of artistic output including painting, sculpture, photography and furniture.

The comprehensive text from a variety of specialist contributors is accompanied by a generous number of excellently-reproduced illustrations. Big names are here, but also some less well known and even anonymous, such as the Native American representations of both their own culture and interaction with European settlers.

Although substantial and, as I hinted, heavy, this is by no mean unmanageable. The paperback format of this fifth edition is large enough to allow you to see what’s going on without being too big to sit in the hands and it falls open easily without threatening the integrity of the spine. These things don’t happen by accident and the production team at Thames & Hudson deserve credit for giving thought to the poor reader.

Content-wise, consideration has also been given to those who are not approaching this from a drily academic viewpoint. The illustrations leaven what are inevitable text-heavy chapters and breakout features add both summaries and additional depth, with background information on subjects as diverse as race, ecology, utopianism and even madness.

As well as being a thorough survey and history, this magnificent book also manages to show the position of the nineteenth century in the wider history of art and the development of the avant-garde and modernism.

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