Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Keith Tyson: Iterations & Variations

When an artist has been a Turner prize winner, you can expect to be in for a bumpy ride. Rightly, the award features artists who are at the forefront – I don’t think it’s unfair to say the bleeding edge – of contemporary art, while at the same time having a body of work that ensures that they are not merely the darling of the current moment. This would also explain why they are frequently names that are not familiar to the wider public.

Keith Tyson’s work defies categorisation, and this is deliberate. It is, in a nutshell, an exploration of reality. Thus, the cover image here is entitled Seed of Consciousness. It certainly represents a vision of the human brain, with synapses, neurons and pathways visible among nascent images and emerging patterns of thought. The more you look at it, the more a feeling of reality develops: here are flowers, maybe land and seascapes, perhaps clouds. It most certainly demonstrates an emerging awareness.

Open the book and one of the first things you’re presented with is a flow chart of the creative process, or Keith’s at least. It’s best summarised as “if you’re not happy with what you’ve done, stop work and start something new”, which would be sound advice for any creative process. I’m beginning to like Keith.

The book opens with accounts of Tyson’s work, loosely broken down into Generative Art, Studio Wall Drawings, Painting and Arrays. These take many forms and are not constrained by any one approach or medium and can include sculpture and installation as well as painting and drawing. What is interesting about the book as a piece of production is when we get to the Painting section, because the paper stock changes. I haven’t seen this done before, but we’re now on a glossy, coated surface the reproduces the colour and detail of these works. It predicates a commitment to the artist and his work as well as simple care and attention to detail. Thames & Hudson are very good at reproducing colour on book paper, but that’s clearly not good enough for them here and they have, in a book as thorough and comprehensive as this, rightly refused to compromise. I’d expected a higher price and, although this is by no means cheap, it is extraordinary value.

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The Real and the Romantic || Frances Spalding

As we move further into the Twenty-First Century, the ability to look back to the previous one and see perspective becomes more feasible. What were once organic developments that were happening around us are now seen as groupings and movements. This look at the period between the First and Second World Wars is therefore much more than a simple, or even simplistic or convenient, chronological slice of time.

The name-checks here are impressive: the Nashes, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer to name just a few. At the same time, women artists came to be recognised as serious practitioners and Laura Knight, Evelyn Dunbar and Barbara Hepworth, along with others, put in more than a fleeting appearance.

The ends of wars tend to engender hope, but also a demand for improvements and new horizons. Although much of the groundwork had been done in the 1920s and 30s, the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 is a case in point, as was 1951’s Festival of Britain. Both of these are outside the scope of the book, but they demonstrate the appetite for renewal as a nation rebuilds.

Frances Spalding’s thesis is that the art world (the book is specifically about English art) was left directionless in 1918. Many of its best known names were either now fading or had simply been killed, but the idea of things being effectively thrown up in the air is a compelling one. Everything was in turmoil and everything was possible as the desire for a connection to the past met the possibilities made available by new directions and the avant-garde. Quite simply, the old world was revisited on the terms of the then present day, with artists, writers and sculptors also open to Continental ideas.

As the skies darkened during the 1930s, the mood became harder and Surrealism, for example, fed into the continuing tradition.

It is Frances Spalding’s contention that the inter-war years saw a fruitful conjunction of forward-looking realism with more backward-facing romanticism to create an art structure that was unique to, but also very much a product of its time.

The writing is thorough and the arguments convincing, with plenty of examples, analyses and histories. The book is also generously illustrated and Thames & Hudson again pull off their trick of getting good colour reproduction on book paper.

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On The Line: Conversations with Sean Scully || Kelly Grovier

Serendipity is a weird thing. Books go on my reviewing shelf in no particular order, often not even that of arrival. Size, weight and whether or not I’ve got them out for initial perusal all come into it. It is therefore very much by chance that two artists whose work involves lines and shapes should come together. This piece on Sean Scully comes immediately after one on Bridget Riley. And that, before we get too bogged down, is where the comparison ends.

Books such as this stand or fall on the quality of the writing. A subject can be as in demand and as intriguing as you like but, if the format of the interview, the reporting of what was said and the editing are not pitch perfect, the whole edifice falls. The interviewer has to understand the character of the subject, the questions to ask and how to ask them not least in order to gain the respect of the interviewee. More, perhaps, than anything else, they need to have an understanding of their subject’s work in order to get them to expound in ways that will interest the reader. Fail to get inside the mind and all you’ll get out of the exercise are platitudes and stock responses.

This book is the symbiosis this sort of thing should be. The word “conversations” in the title is important, because the format is not simply question and answer, but rather exchanges in which both parties give as much as they take. Grovier interpolates quite a lot of commentary between the exchanges that explain the background to what is being discussed, bringing light to what might otherwise seem a rather closed exchange and putting the author in the place of the reader, as well as vice versa. Quite simply, to read the book is to gain a feeling of being present. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but Grovier manages it with aplomb.

The conversations of the title range from Scully’s supremely humble background to his development as an artist, move to America and the development of his vision, influences and working methods.

If you enjoy good writing, this is a must. If you want to know what goes on inside an artist’s mind, and Sean Scully’s in particular, it’s an essential.

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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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