Who is visiting our great national collections at the moment? All too few of us, it seems.
As Giovanni Batista Moroni’s handsome young tailor, scissors in hand, stares unhindered across at a magical mythological scene by Titian in a Renaissance room of London’s otherwise fairly unpeopled National Gallery on almost any weekday afternoon, these wall-marooned objects appear to be asking themselves: where have all those admirers gone? Many great paintings feel very lonely these days.
How can these paintings coax visitors back now that the museum doors have re-opened in many locales around the world? Art publications can help. Two recently released books remind us of what our precautions have been depriving us.
Art =: Discovering Infinite Connections in Art History (Phaidon, $75)
Art =: Discovering Infinite Connections in Art History, the longer and more sumptuous of the two, takes us on an extraordinary journey through 6,000 years of art history at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Spread by double-page spread, it throws out themes with reckless abandon, and then takes us across a multiplicity of two- and three-dimensional objects from the museum’s multifarious collections, connecting this with that in a perpetual journey of fascinating cultural interweavings.
How do we connect, for example, a Japanese ceramic bowl several millennia old with a painting of a humdrum rake made in the middle of the 19th century by Francois Millet? What binds these objects together? What lights the spark between them? This book tells us.
Five Hundred Years of British Art (Tate, $40)
London’s Tate Britain has opted for a more sober-suited approach to its presentation of the Five Hundred Years of British Art in its collections. The book lingers over single works, spread by spread, telling their stories in brief, proving their magnetic power, their staying power. Among its many revelations (to take one marvelous example among many) is Mark Gertler’s great painting “The Merry-Go-Round” (1916). How is it that the rigidity of the faces so exquisitely express both the numbing terror and the dreariness of life in the midst of World War I, a conflict that seemed never ending?
J.M.W. Turner the ‘Wilson’ Sketchbook (Tate, $14.99)
A representative selection of paintings from J.M.W. Turner’s great bequest to the British nation is always on display in the Tate’s Clore Gallery, should you choose to linger a while. For more insight into the working habits of the man himself, at the point when he had scarcely begun, is a tiny, new facsimile edition — you can dandle it in the palm of your hand — of his so-called Wilson Sketchbook stuffed full of colored drawings he made at the age of 21. Impromptu flashings of landscapes, seascapes, townscapes — it was all grist to Turner’s mill, so eager and thirsty was his young eye to learn, learn, learn his art.
The Irascibles: Painters Against the Museum (New York, 1950)(Fundación Juan March, $55)
Earlier this year a fascinating exhibition opened and then closed within a week at the Fundación Juan March in Madrid. Fortunately, its catalogue — The Irascibles: Painters Against the Museum (New York, 1950) — survives to tell the tale of the low-level, bloodless warfare between the Abstract Expressionists and the powers that once were at the Metropolitan Museum. Frankly, the two camps hated each other. The Met, according to de Kooning, Motherwell, Newman, Pollock, and other artists, had no time for “advanced art” of the kind they were making.
The famous group portrait published by Life magazine in 1951 stares back at us from the cover of the catalogue: 14 solemn, middle-aged men, many smoking, most seated, looking surprisingly conventional in their suits and ties. Raised above them all, as if on a pedestal, is a single woman, Hedda Sterne.
Open Studio: Do-It-Yourself Art Projects by Contemporary Artists (Phaidon, $79.95)
Do you fancy getting involved in a bit of art-making yourself, in the company of some of the leading contemporary artists of our day? That’s what’s on offer in Open Studio: Do-It-Yourself Art Projects by Contemporary Artists, a book of art projects proposed by the likes of Marina Abramović, George Condo, Rashid Johnson, Sarah Sze, and many others. Photographs catapult us into the exhilarating, wall-to-wall mess of the studio, and step-by-step tips and instructions from the artists themselves make the whole process seem both fun and readily achievable. Why not plunge in?
Where did American artists choose to go to when they left home? The catalogue Americans in Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820-1920 accompanies a major survey show that is currently slated to open at the Chrysler Art Museum, Norfolk, Virginia, in the spring of 2021. It recounts the lure of Spain to many American artists, including Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler, in the 19th and early 20th century.
What exactly was it about Spain? Was it perhaps “the strings of donkeys, backs bending under the weight of panniers and pottery” that Hobart S. Chatfield-Taylor recorded seeing in a mood of some excitement? Or was it, just as likely, the great works by artists such as Velasquez and Ribera, so ripe for the copying at the Prado in Madrid?
Abstract Art: A Global History (Thames and Hudson, $85)
Pepe Karmel has done us something of a service by writing an engaging study of abstraction — from my corner, not an easy thing to do. In Abstract Art: A Global History, he starts off with its earliest practitioners and then proceeds to break down the subject into a group of choice themes, which include the body, the cosmos, and architecture. Each section brings in its own practitioners, and shows off a single work for careful scrutiny. Simple, eh? He makes it seem so, with ease and authority. Nothing bogs us down or brings on perplexed scratchings of the head.
The Art of Illusion (Prestel, $40)
Is art all about trickery in the end? Of course it is. Aren’t we all suckers for multiple worlds of illusion? Florian Heine’s The Art of Illusion describes many of the quite particular tricks — anamorphosis and trompe l’oeil, to name but two — that artists have played on us for the past few thousand years. How many of us would willingly walk down a corridor that seems endless to the eye, or try to peel off a dollar bill that’s painted on a two-dimensional surface? Such is our touching gullibility.
Kuniyoshi (Prestel, $149)
To conclude this tour of some of the most visually alluring books of the year — and to expunge from our minds the twin horrors of disease and blowhard politicians who have failed to guide us toward greener pastures — let us return to the middle of the 19th century, landing in a Japan newly open to the world.
It was there that the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi conjured into being cycles of prints that seem to anticipate our present so compellingly — from the world of manga comics to the latest video-game battlescapes — with extraordinary color, energy, and vividness. There’s much to exercise the eye in these stirringly fantastical scenes of conflict, which pitch demons and spiders against the latest superhero.
The book, entitled Kuniyoshi and authored by Matthi Forrer, is as large and cinematically lavish as its impassioned subject matter seems to demand.
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