Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Degas at the Opéra || Henri Loyrette

Edgar Degas was famously at home with the ballet and his paintings of dancers are among his most famous and loved works. He was, however, also fascinated by the Opéra de Paris and this book is devoted to this sometimes overlooked aspect of his work, to the extent that this is the first book to be devoted to the subject.

It is, it should be said, an exhaustive tome. If there was anything you want to know about the artist’s involvement with the institution, you’ll find it here. It doesn’t seem likely that the author has left any gaps for subsequent volumes to fill. That’s not by any means a bad thing, but it does make this very much a book for the specialist. The depth and authority of the research is impressive, as is the production. Some 100 major works in a wide variety of media are reproduced, along with preparatory sketches and drawings of the building’s furniture and fixtures. It amounts to something of an artistic documentary.

There’s really not a lot more that can be said. If you’re a Degas completist, or a fan of the Paris Opéra, you’ll want this and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The more general reader might baulk at the £45 price tag, but I don’t think the specialist would. Frankly, for a book of this extent and quality, it’s not even a huge amount.

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A History of Pictures (rev ed) || David Hockney & Martin Gayford

It’s worth noting that, although this bills itself as “from the cave to the computer screen”, it is specifically not a history of art, at least not in the academic sense. Rather it is, as the title clearly tells us, all about the image.

Dry, it is not. With David Hockney’s forthright views and Martin Gayford’s lucid writing, it never could be. Both are authorities in their own way and the form of the book is a dialogue that crackles with assertion, expertise and even tension. The process is entirely subjective, which is as it should be. Art is, at its root, not about styles, schools and methods. It’s about getting an image – often a narrative – down on paper or canvas. Even when that image is an avowed record – how that landscape looked on that day, the face of that statesman or the embodiment of that classical tale – there’s always a degree of editorial control. How do those figures relate, how does the light fall on that cottage, are the features in that portrait a little blurred or sharply-defined, implying an aspect of character?

This is billed as a compact edition of the original (paperback, slightly smaller page size) with a revised final chapter that updates the coverage of digital art, of which Hockney is an acknowledged master. It adds three of his new artworks, including the stained glass window at Westminster Abbey that was unveiled in 2018.

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Pushing Paper || Isabel Seligman

This rather gorgeous book accompanied an exhibition at the British Museum exploring and celebrating the medium of drawing in contemporary art. All this is in the past tense as I seem to have managed to overlook it at the time (it was published in September 2019). Although it’s probably too late to see the original works, this record remains.

The death of different media, or even art itself has been declared or predicted since virtually the dawn of time. There was probably an old curmudgeon sitting at the back of the cave, watching the flickering firelight on the wall images and muttering darkly. Fox Talbot announced that, with the invention of photography, “from today, painting is dead”. How did that go, Bill?

Isabel Seligman feels it necessary to explain why drawing has endured as long as it has and I won’t insult any of us by summarising or simplifying; suffice it to say that it has a remarkable persistence and that every generation finds new ways of using it and making it relevant and contemporary. The important thing is that pretty much everything here feels innovative and presents a new way of looking at the world. The images are by turn informative and challenging. There are only so many ways you can put marks on paper, but the how, why and where are what make the difference and make art.

The period covered is 1970 to the present day. That’s not “contemporary” to everyone, of course, covering as it does the best part of fifty years, but it does provide a useful backdrop to the present and a history of a sort that doesn’t get all historical and academic.

Drawing is a medium that excites wherever it appears. It’s simple, or at least starts in simplicity and that, I think, is the basis of why it endures.

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The Pursuit of Art || Martin Gayford

There’s a delicious archness to the title of this entertaining book that isn’t apparent from merely knowing what it is – in fact, it could be self-defeating, as it suggests a rather worthy tome dedicated to the labour of Being An Artist.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, of course this is about the creative mind and its processes and, yes, you’d want to read it on that basis because … well … Martin Gayford. It is also, however, the story of his travels in search of art and artists. These, it turns out (should we be surprised?) do not simply involved rocking up at the studio door and being welcomed with open arms. Not all artists live conveniently close to a bus stop, train station or car park and some pieces, such as Brancusi’s Endless Column necessitate a hair-raising journey through a mountain pass and on roads that have partly washed away. The job of the critic doesn’t just involve sitting behind a typewriter and trashing reputations (that’s the reviewer’s job – ed).

So, this is a personal account of tracking down artist and artworks, of planned meetings and chance encounters. Sometimes, it’s a bit like climbing a mountain to seek out a shaman in search of wisdom and then discovering that there was no great revelation and that the effort itself was the enlightenment.

Writing about art is a serious business and can all too easily disappear up its own fundament. This, then, is a breath of fresh air and an indication that even the greatest writers don’t always take themselves entirely seriously. It would be so simple, writing about difficult journeys, to chronicle every twist, turn and impediment, but Gayford is too smart and too good a writer for that. The sense of distance and effort is there, but the passage of time is often only hinted at – a passing reference to a meal, for instance, can indicate that we are several hours on. As Gayford himself concludes, “The pursuit of art is a journey that never stops; the more you see, the more you want to see”.

After I’d sampled this for the purposes of a review, I kept going back to it and it eventually made it to my bedside table. It really is a thumping good read.

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Paula Rego – the art of story || Deryn Rees-Jones

An artist of the stature of Paula Rego demands a book of uncompromising quality and, in this impressive and beautiful volume, she has it. It’s tempting to say that all art books should be like this but quality, of course, comes at a cost. It is, however, a pleasure to be able to report that the money spent on production has not been wasted. Good quality original images have been sourced, the right paper chosen and proof correction (if such was necessary) given assiduous attention. I’ve seen similarly-priced books that managed to fall at one or more of those hurdles.

Rego’s images do not, for the most part, make for comfortable viewing. Confrontational and uncompromising, the subconscious will inevitably mutter, “a bit like Lucian Freud, then”, to which I’d add “and maybe some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs too”. Comparisons are dangerous things, but this provides an opportunity to emphasise the quality of compassion that Rego expresses. The medium of pastel, which she uses predominantly in her later work, allows for great subtlety. A small smudge here or there softens edges and mutes colours and it is by these subtle marks that she engages the viewer and enters the character, perhaps even the soul, of her subjects. Looking at a Paula Rego painting, you are not so much a viewer as a participant. The artist possesses great empathy and it is her consummate skill that she is able to transfer this to the onlooker.

She is also a great portrayer of character. There is a lithograph here, from 2002, of Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre that sums up not just his outward character (“dark, strong and stern” as Charlotte Brontë puts it), but also his inward enigma. Even his horse and dog manage to reflect the nature of the novel – Rego understands more than just human character.

This is an absolutely gorgeous book that chronicles Paula Rego’s life and work and illustrates over 300 of her paintings. The paper is heavy and has just the right surface to maintain the quality of the colours used. The binding is also up to supporting its considerable weight – another pitfall in this kind of book is a binding that falls apart under the sheer strain. In many ways, the production is a labour of love. Maybe Paula Rego engenders that.

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Living With Leonardo || Martin Kemp

Leonardo Da Vinci has captured the public imagination like almost no other artist. Why else would they queue in their thousands for hours just to shuffle past the Mona Lisa without ever getting a proper view? Why else would Salvator Mundi, having been “restored” almost to destruction, sell for unimaginable millions, even though its attribution has been questioned at the highest level? Maybe it’s the enigma, maybe it’s the writings – the intriguing idea that, even if he didn’t invent the helicopter, he at least invented the idea of it.

This is an account of a lifetime of study. There is no shortage of Leonardo experts (Kemp is one of the best), pundits, collectors, dealers and fantasists. Precisely because the man himself is such an enigma, stories can be told about him, the truth bent into shapes that themselves could count as works of plastic art. If you want to sell a thriller, The Da Vinci Code is probably the most eye-catching title you could give it – after that, who cares how much hokum it contains?

This is a serious but accessible study of Leonardo’s work, but also an account of the industry that feeds on it, and of the process of untangling fact from myth and fantasy. A focus merely on the art would be one for the specialists (though, when it comes to Leonardo, everyone is arguably a specialist). This, while being authoritative in that respect, is also an account of the chase and very much accessible for the more general reader.

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Landscape Painting Now – from pop abstraction to new romanticism

Having relatively little in the way of critical or appreciative analysis, this is mainly a showcase of contemporary work. It is none the worse for that and, lacking an academic tone, is free to concentrate and, more importantly, allow the reader to concentrate on the art itself.

To establish some sort of order, there are general chapter headings – Realism & Beyond, Post-Pop Landscapes, New Romanticism, Constructed Realities, Abstracted Topographies and Complicated Vistas. These are, it should be said, largely curatorial constructs, but they provide a nice framework within which to order a wide variety of material. Within each section, works are arranged by artist and with a short introduction to each – handy especially for those who are less familiar.

The whole thing is substantial, both in extent and format, and conveys a sense of completeness that won’t leave you questioning whether more, or different, works should have been included. The market isn’t immediately obvious, although I suspect that anyone interested in contemporary art would be able to find a convincing reason for wanting it, and parting which what seems a relatively modest forty quid.

If nothing else, it proves that landscape painting is alive and well in the Twenty-First century.

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Hockney/Van Gogh – the joy of nature

Everybody wants a Hockney, don’t they? This book accompanies an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and is, it should be said, an excellent alternative for those who can’t make it to the show itself. The number and quality of the illustrations, mostly Hockneys, is substantial and the reproduction well up to the standard you would expect from such an august institution. There is also a useful introductory essay that sets the two artists’ visions in context.

Given all the above, and especially the predomination of work by Hockney, the question has to be asked: would you want it? There are plenty of excellent Hockney collections about, so does the addition of a few Van Goghs (he also being hardly thin on the publication ground) and a rationalisation of putting together two artists who, arguably, share little beyond a fascination with nature, bring anything to the party?

I’m not honestly sure I’d want to part with just shy of twenty-five quid unless it was as a souvenir of a visit, which rather flies in the face of what I said earlier about in being a good substitute for such. For all that, it’s well presented and nicely done and, you might think, worth it for that alone.

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Surrealism || Amy Dempsey

Say “Surrealism” to most people and they’ll immediately think of Salvador Dali. This is a shame, even if it’s inevitable, as Dali is a controversial figure who some argue was more about self-promotion than being a member of any group or movement. On the other hand, he also made a great deal of money, and this can make other artists mad as hell. And, before you say that a book on Surrealism can’t exclude Dali, there is plenty here. Pay your money, take your choice.

This is part of a series called Art Essentials and Surrealism is certainly that, being a major movement of the Twentieth Century when art was moving away from representation and finding its feet in a changing world. As well as Dali, you’ll find other well-known names such as Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Frida Kahlo and many more who won’t be so familiar but are part of the supporting canon.

This is mainly a primer, as the series title suggests, but it is also very thorough, particularly so for what is a relatively slim volume. The Surrealist movement is put in its historical context and its predecessors are covered as well – the index even has an entry for Lewis Carroll. It’s worth noting that there are two indices so, if the main (single page) one doesn’t have the artist you want, turn back for the one covering major figures.

This is an excellent introduction to its subject that you may well feel gives you sufficient information without the need to extend your library further.

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Painting Masterclass || Susie Hodge

At first sight, this has the appearance of another of Susie Hodge’s excellent analyses of the painting methods of historical masters. The format and binding are even the same as her Art in Detail series.

This is not entirely surprising, as that’s exactly what it is. However, the book is more specifically geared to the practical reader and uses what we’ll call great works to analyse a wide variety of topics. Call it learning by example, the descriptive rather than the prescriptive method.

The word Masterclass is bandied about rather indiscriminately in the book world and is frequently applied to anything the publisher thinks isn’t obviously introductory or for the beginner. Sometimes, my inner cynic mutters that they just want a title that appeals to the more experienced artist, who perhaps hasn’t been buying enough of their books lately. Well hush my mouth – a bit.

Here, though the word is entirely justified (and you might want to add that, if anyone isn’t going to misuse it, that person would be Susie Hodge). This is most precisely a masterclass. The teachers are masters and the class is absolutely for the experienced worker. There are no instructions – you won’t be following any exercises or demonstrations here. What you will be doing is learning how Georges Seurat used form and colour, how shapes work in Manet’s Déjuner sur l’Herbe (actually, Anglicised titles are used throughout) or light breathes atmosphere into a Fantin-Latour still life.

Susie is, as ever, concise and cogent in her analyses and the book works almost as well as an introduction to art appreciation, meaning you could say you’re getting twice the value which, given the quality and quantity of the illustrations, would make it an absolute steal.

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