Archive for category Subject: Art History

Studio Lives || Louise Campbell

It is, I think, permissible to wonder whether so much has been written about art and artists that new approaches have to be manufactured to keep the supply going. The basic thesis here is that artists have studios in which they work and sometimes live, and that these reflect their lives and the ways in which they are seen and interpreted.

It does, however, make for a good read and, if a project is well handled, coming at a subject from an oblique angle can lead to new insights that materially contribute to the aforesaid well-documented field.

Louise Campbell tells a good story, or rather series of stories, that follows the development of the purpose-built studio which was also accommodation from G F Watts through the Arts & Crafts movement, where art and architecture definitely went hand-in-hand, to Modernist collaborations with the Nicholsons and Barbara Hepworth.

The question to be asked is whether this is a book about art or about architecture? I am not sure just how much artists are influenced by where they work, although there is no doubt that a studio built to their own specifications would be comfortable and conducive to the sort of contemplation that can lead to successful work. Some would disagree and suggest that it is actually discomfort that spurs creation and originality, that the mind needs to be shocked rather than caressed into innovation. Back in the day, I ran an architectural bookshop and I can see this as something that would have fitted very well on its shelves.

In less than skilful hands, a project such as this could be a mess. There are too many artists, too many buildings and, perhaps, too many architects to make sense of what is perhaps a rather thin thread. Louise Campbell, however, marshals her material by telling the stories of the artists themselves within a collection of broad outlines that include The Studio As Home and Building For Art. The result is a clear narrative that, aided by the constraints of period and location (it’s entirely British-based), tells a fascinating and coherent story.

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Refuge and Renewal: migration and British art || Peter Wakelin

Incomers provide a new perspective on their adoptive territory and also contribute to the development of its art through the integration of styles and techniques. This is not the same as internationalism, where artists from one country observe those in others and adopt and adapt their ways of working. Integration provides a fuller amount of exchange and symbiosis that works both ways. Something as simple as differing light can affect the way scenes are depicted, just as social mores and patterns of dress influence figurative work.

This book is based on a British perspective – to treat the subject from a completely international viewpoint would be enormous and far beyond the scope of this book and the exhibition, at the Royal West of England Academy, it accompanies.

For all that, it goes far enough back into history to look at the Sixteenth Century portraits of Hans Holbein and other artists who learnt their trade abroad. Peter Wakelin also considers the work of fleeing Huguenots such as Marcellus Laroon, whose Cryes of London has given identity to some of the forgotten masses – foreshadowing, in a way, Henry Mayhew’s Nineteenth Century narrative London Labour and the London Poor.

The main focus though, perhaps unsurprisingly, is on the Twentieth Century when wars and upheaval caused many, often large, population shifts. Helmut Herzfeld (who Anglicised his name to John Heartfield) portrayed those sought by the Gestapo in 1930s Germany, while Dobrivoje Beljkašic recorded his native Sarajevo in the 1990s.

Despite the potentially gloomy nature of the subject matter, this is an optimistic book, as reflected in the “renewal” of the title. The narrative is a complex one and Peter Wakelin is aware that he is dealing not with historical shifts but with individuals, each with their own stories and concerns. Ultimately, this is a book about art, not national and social history, and Wakelin marshals his material well, sparking interest at all points.

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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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John Ruskin: an idiosyncratic dictionary || Michael Glover

Just how seriously this small volume should be taken is indicated by the rest of the subtitle (“an idiosyncratic dictionary encompassing his passions, his delusions & his prophesies”). There is a portentousness to the structure of the sentence that entirely reflects the man himself, who was in no doubt as to his own greatness, yet has influenced others as diverse as the first Labour Party MPs and Martin Luther King.

This is in some ways a vade mecum, a book to open at random for asides, insights, diversions and, maybe, inspiration. Whether baby language, badgers or railway stations, Ruskin had an Opinion. He promoted the value of physical labour and organised Oxford undergraduates in a scheme for repairing roads, which even involved Oscar Wilde (Glover doesn’t remark that this may have come in handy later, but…)

This is a book to be taken lightly. Although it pokes gentle fun at its subject, it is also aware of his place in history and does not debunk him, being rather an affectionate look at the lighter side of his eccentricities. As well as quotes and anecdotes, there are also entries, such as that rather unexpected one on Martin Luther King, that also enlighten and enhance our vision of John Ruskin on the bi-centenary of his birth.

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Beyond the Brotherhood: the pre-Raphaelite legacy || Anne Anderson

Most people would, I think, assume that the Pre-Raphaelite movement was largely a backwater, fascinating undoubtedly, but complete in itself. A first reaction to the blurb’s mention of a reinvention in The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones would probably be scepticism; it certainly sounds like a point being stretched for the benefit of a book.

However, prepare to be convinced, because the illustrations alone demonstrate the truth of the thesis and, while some of the most recent works in the collection owe as much to the general run of Victorian and fantasy art in general, there is nevertheless a visible thread. Perhaps it would be better to see the PRB as proto-fantasists.

The book accompanies an exhibition at Southampton Art and Russell-Cotes Galleries running between October 2019 and June 2020. If you want to see a really rather good collection in the original, this is an excellent opportunity. As we have come to expect from Sansom, the quality of the reproduction is excellent and the image sizes generous – major works mostly appear as near full-page as possible. The price, for what you get, is also quite modest, possibly because some of the costs have been defrayed by the exhibition – however it’s achieved, it’s superb value.

Inevitably, this is something of a specialised subject. There are plenty of books about the Pre-Raphaelites and not everyone who wants those will also be interested in the legacy. However, the book, which includes a thorough interpretative text, makes a very convincing argument and includes a great deal of material that isn’t often seen together.

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Artists’ Letters || Michael Bird

This is one of those books that probably benefits from being dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover, a thing to be kept handy when there’s an odd moment to fill. This is not to denigrate it to the point of superficiality, but rather to recognise that, while informative and often illuminating, correspondence in bulk (rather like collected newspaper articles) can get a little repetitive.

The blurb describes this as a “treasure trove” and I wouldn’t quibble with that. Michael Bird has had the good sense to be selective, even if his collection does run to a fairly substantial 224 pages. He also includes plenty of visual material because artists, being artists, often fail to resist the inclusion of a sketch or cartoon. Being largely private letters, these are frequently acerbic or amusing and refer to the relationship between the sender and recipient. And, without labouring the point, Bird also explains the context of the epistle in question, adding to both understanding and enjoyment.

The book handily subtitles itself “Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney”, emphasising the breadth of its coverage (no, the creator of Mona Lisa didn’t communicate with the painter of Mr & Mrs Clarke and Percy). Curation in a collection such as this is key and Bird avoids the temptation to get too clever or to stick to the ploddingly obvious chronological arrangement. He arranges his material by themes and his chapter headings make it clear that he isn’t taking his task too seriously (I refer back to my suggestion of dipping in). These include “I saw a new giraffe”, “Your book on witchcraft” and “Hey beautiful” – all quotes, of course, not meditations on the inner workings of creativity.

This is a book of entertainment rather than erudition and it’s all the better for that. There are plenty of studies of art and artists that cover their working methods, philosophy and private lives. This one exposes the workings of their minds when they were thinking less about art than whether Michelangelo’s nephew should marry, Mondrian’s teeth are in good shape or how soon Jean Cocteau will recover from illness. (Picasso adds, “I’ve got good ideas for our theatre story” – Cocteau was working on ideas for the ballet, Parade.)

This contributes more to an understanding and enjoyment of art and artists than you might expect, by bringing its characters to life in their own words.

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The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting || Norbert Wolf

A very long time ago, a remainder dealer managed to convince me that a book he was flogging called Florentine Art Treasures would be a perfect fit for my market. It was a hasty paste-up job, not very well reproduced, but it was large format and did contain a lot of illustrations for the relatively modest sum he was charging. In my defence I was young, rather naïve and a bit of a sitting duck. No, we didn’t manage to sell more than a small handful.

Some years later, reminiscing with another bookseller, we started talking about that dealer and my friend asked, “Did he try to sell you Florentine Art Treasures?” I admitted the truth. The story was, apparently, that the dealer used to drive around London with a box of the cursed things in the boot of his Rolls Royce (yes, it’s possible to make money out of bookselling, but you have to be sharp as a razor) on the off-chance that someone would run into him and he could offload a couple of dozen onto the insurance.

All of which preamble is a way of saying that large books of art treasures and I have a chequered history and that my view of them may be just a touch jaundiced.

This is a big book – I mean, really big. If you want your own private art gallery on your coffee table (it’s not something to sit with in your lap for long), this will give you one of the best collections of Lowlands art it’s possible to have. No more peering into tight spines or at really-too-small reproductions, the illustrations here are as near to being in a gallery as you’re going to get. There is also a good narrative of the history of the times and critical analysis of schools and artists. Rather handily, several of the major works are set alongside comparison pieces by other artists that treat the same subject or use similar compositions.

Excellent though this is, the reproduction does seem a trifle soft in places and you might find yourself struggling to see some of the detail. This doesn’t impose, though, and may be something you only really notice when you start looking really closely. It’s a shame, but sometimes publishers are restricted by the quality of the photographs they can get (high-resolution scanning is not generally available for priceless paintings in public collections). For all that, if I was going to part with a whisker under £100 for a book, I might expect it to be the acme of perfection.

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