Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

This Is Tomorrow || Michael Bird

Now that we’re firmly established in the Twenty-First Century, its predecessor has become the subject of history and one to be evaluated from that perspective. What was once achingly hip, original, never seen before, ground-breaking, can be seen as part of an organic development as groups coalesce then fracture, movements build and hand their legacies on to those who inherit them as well as those who reject them in their entirety.

This is the story, told almost as an adventure, of how art and society developed in what the blurb tells us was an unprecedented pace of change (I think we could discuss that). It is certainly true that two World Wars and scientific development that took us from primitive motor cars to super-computers left a world unrecognisable from either of its bookends.

To view a whole century, especially one as dynamic as Michael Bird presents it, is a formidable task and one which requires careful marshalling of material and thesis. To do that in less than 400 pages presents plenty of opportunities not just for pitfalls, but spectacular pratfalls. To read it is almost to go to the circus just to see the wire-walker hit the arena floor and gasp as they manage not to.

The title, neatly, is taken from a Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition of 1956. It’s a significant date, because the country is just emerging from post-war austerity and youthful talent, while it may remember the war, was not an active participant. The mood of the times was optimistic. It was time to rebuild, but also to find new ways and approaches, we were in a hurry, time was of the essence and the old could be – and frequently was – discarded.

But there was also a foundation. The early years of the century had seen a change of regime. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria had gone into mourning and the whole country had to follow; life was stifled. Then, just as the century turned, Edward VII ascended the throne and the lights were turned on. And, yes, I am going to say that, in the words of Edward Grey, they were turned off again thirteen years later. From 1920 to 1939, there was another renaissance as art and architecture rejected ornamentation and simplification became the order of the day. Much of that movement, as well as many of its proponents, did not survive the next war and before you know it, another batch of young British artists (they weren’t YBAs yet) had come onto the scene. And it was a scene, this was art that shouted, demonstrated and told its parents they didn’t have a clue. The parents, as parents do, looked on with a mixture of bemusement and toleration – well, mostly.

This is not a book peppered with illustrations, and there’s hardly any colour, but that doesn’t detract one jot from its appeal. This is a story that unrolls the narrative of a whole century and Michael conjures up in words all the pictures you’ll need. It’s a heck of a journey.

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The Artist’s Studio || James Hall

Art history is filled with accounts of the lives, working practices, trials and tribulations of artists as well as their working methods (of course) and, sometimes, business practices. What has been missing, however, is a consideration of their workplaces – how these were arranged, how they developed and their influence – perceived and actual – on the work produced.

This may sound esoteric, perhaps even a niche looking for a statue, but think of today’s concentration on ergonomics and, with lockdowns and working from home, how to set up a workspace that is practical, congenial and stress-limiting.

Working alone, an artist needs relatively little – a space to themselves, materials and light. Even that, though, in early times was hard to come by, and personal space a luxury. However, as art became a business, space needed to be set aside to receive and impress clients; assistants required training. As early as the Fourteenth Century, Cennino Cennini was laying out how long an apprentice should spend working with a stylus before picking up a brush, how many times a day an artist should eat, the benefits of not rushing the grinding of pigments and the value of having a massage the day before starting an important work.

All this is about a lot more than just spaces and exemplifies the huge scope of James Hall’s book. It is also about a lot more than simply the processes of creating art and is, in reality, a comprehensive social history centred on art, from which it radiates out through science, architecture and politics. The availability, use and control of light, for instance, enables the development of the Old Master works as the environments in which they were created came to be a thing to be controlled rather than battled – because of, rather than in spite of.

The word “atelier” is used a lot in art history and describes what are effectively business premises with large teams working on commissions, the Great Man’s involvements depending entirely on the price paid. Despite this, “studio of” works can be of considerable quality and are not always easy to attribute away from the hand of the named artist themselves. Quality control was an important element of the system.

And then, of course, there’s plein air work, where the elements of the studio have to be recreated outdoors – Hall references Claude Monet’s boat that combined perhaps the best of both worlds.

This is a comprehensive account of much more than the practice of art and demonstrates how artists have influenced, as well as been affected by, their working spaces from the earliest time.

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Love Lucian || David Dawson & Martin Gayford

I am generally underwhelmed by collections of artists’ letters. Although they promise a doorway into the innermost thoughts of a creative genius, they are often just as filled with mundanity as those of anyone else. They can also be repetitive and, once you’ve grasped the chief of the bon mots, you really don’t have the appetite to read them again and again. Yes, I’m aware that, for the serious researcher, they can often add useful information to the chronology – the artist was working on this major painting at least two weeks before anyone thought, which changes everything.

This, however, is a different kettle of the proverbial fish. You’ll spot it immediately – the book is packed with illustrations, which are, indeed, its mainstay and the point at which you’ll probably start. Not for this the occasional image that simply gives a sense of the handwriting and (mark this) the paper used. Lucian Freud was clearly a visual thinker, perhaps even more than one could deduce from the fact that he was an artist of formidable ability. Quite simply, everything here is a work of art in its own right and intended to be so. The handwriting is quite childish and the spelling more than a little random. Although there is a waspish mind at work that is perfectly capable of expressing itself sharply and concisely, Lucian is not a wordsmith, at least certainly not at length. Amen, one might add, to that.

Because these are not reflections on the creative process, and far less an artist’s manifesto, the content is entirely personal. Back, you would think, to my original thesis, they’ll add nothing to our understanding of the artist’s work. All that is true, but artists are also people and we want to know at least something of their mundane life and relationships and you have it here in spades. Brevity comes once again to the rescue and the lack of prolixity (some visual thinkers don’t half go on once they get a pen in their hand) makes for a lively and entertaining read.

So, this is an account, partly in his own words and partly with a sound biographical framework, of Lucian Freud’s life below the artistic surface and of his relationships. It fills him out as a person perhaps more than anything else could and also more than we get for almost any other figure. Well done all round.

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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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