Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

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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Modern Art in Detail || Susie Hodge

Modern art can be a hard sell to the non-specialist and requires a considerable degree of explanation and, often, a whole new vocabulary. This can lead to a sense of exclusion and a suspicion that experts (oh, don’t we hate them?) are making it up as they go along. The fact that some of them almost certainly are has nothing to do with it.

Susie is an erudite and experienced writer about art, but she wears her learning lightly. You might be forgiven, in fact, for thinking that she is a casual observer rather than one of the aforesaid experts. If there is a thing to “get”, though, she gets it and part of it is that other casual observers need simple explanations and their concerns addressed. Her previous forays into this minefield include Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That and Why is Art Full of Naked People? (the latter written for children). She has also written a number of studies of individual artists that, wisely, concentrate on the image rather than schools and places in history – although these are not ignored where they matter.

All art was, of course, modern in its day and this easily-forgotten fact slaps you in the face on the first page when you’re confronted with Van Gogh’s Church in Auvers-sur-Oise. This is wisely chosen as it combines a familiar image with a recognisable subject along with the artist’s characteristic trademarks. It is not, however, one of the more problematic paintings from his later manic phase. As well as the exploded details that give the book its title, there is a very useful sidebar of a much earlier work by Van Gogh that shows him following a more traditional path before developing his own style.

The analytical sections of the book explain each artist’s working methods: pictorial elements, perspective, colour and structure. The book is illustration-led throughout and the words are barely more than extended captions so that there is nothing to get bogged down in. The whole idea is that you should be able to appreciate a wide variety of work (although the total number is 75, they have been carefully chosen to be representative of the whole gamut of styles and movements). In short, this is about art, not academia, and it’s all the better for that.

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Edgar Degas: Drawings And Pastels || Christopher Lloyd

This is now available in paperback. For the original review, see here.

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