Books: Adam classicism to Tinseltown Rococo

Something for everyone: “animalcules”, Baltic art, the Cecils, CD-Roms, Cézanne, Chinese furniture, Clement Greenberg decadence, Holbein, Japanese design, Kahn, Leonardo, Millais, Modernism, Palladio, Tiffany silver, terracotta sculpture


Is there anything new to say about Cézanne? The University of California and Steven Platzmann think so and bravely delve beneath the seemingly familiar world of Cézanne: the self-portraits by going back to the works themselves and providing excellently observed and detailed visual analyses of the darkling images, setting them against the received wisdom about the topic in a way that makes Cézanne’s approach and achievement all the more monumental and, above all, visible.

Also from California is a strong bid to bring the Western spotlight onto modern Far-Eastern art as Gennifer Weisenfeld, of Duke University, produces Mavo, the title also being the name of a radical group of Japanese modernists who, between 1905 and 1931 (when totalitarianism held sway), struggled against a dull establishment. Performance art (including hurling rocks through glass roofs), painting, book illustration and architectural projects (glass roofs?) all fired an iconoclasm that inspired the commercial Japanese design world of the 60s and after. An intriguing survey of a little known movement.

From a Japanese thing to The great American thing at about the same time (1915-35): Wanda Corn’s examination, as the subtitle tells us, of modern art and national identity. Georgia O’Keeffe’s phrase taken for the title referred to the determination of modern American artists to diverge from European sources and create a specifically American art without ceasing to be modern. How could this be done? Indeed, before “Ab. Ex.” was it, in fact, done? This profusely illustrated work, via the examples of Sheeler, Demuth, Stieglitz and, of course, O’Keeffe, suggests new and sometimes surprising answers.

The prize for the most paradoxically enigmatic title of the season goes to Austere luminosity of Chinese classical furniture by Sarah Handler. A widely respected scholar in the field, the author skilfully interweaves a historical account of China’s culture with the technical and environmental aspects that gave rise to the intricate simplicity of the formal and functional furniture under discussion. Many colour illustrations belie the austerity cited in the title.

The diametrical opposite is Charles Bernheimer’s Decadent subjects, from Johns Hopkins University Press, that explores the idea of decadence in, according to the subtitle, Art, literature, philosophy and culture of the fin de siècle in Europe. Phew. Decadence is described as a “stimulant that bends thought out of shape, deforming traditional conceptual molds”. This posthumous work takes a largely literary-psychoanalytical approach and Beardsley and Moreau are artists among the many writers considered in this ironic and thoughtful work.

Princeton eschew decadence in their sumptuously illustrated catalogue, Virtue and beauty: Leonardo’s “Ginevra de’ Benci” and Renaissance portraits of women, edited and introduced by the gallery’s curator of Italian Renaissance art, David Alan Brown, for this autumn’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (see p.20). Painting, sculpture, drawing and medals are within the remit, plus a few Netherlandish works that provided inspiration. The essays exhibit great depth and breadth in their discussion of the evolution of the female portrait from 1440 to 1540.

While Clement Greenberg has almost monolithic status in last century’s critics’ forum, little until now little has been known about his own collection of works by the artists he revered and cajoled. Under the auspices of the Portland Art Museum, which recently acquired it, Karen Wilkin and Bruce Guenther assess and generously illustrate (220 colour plates for the 155 works in the collection) a range of works, from the first Kenneth Noland “Target” painting from 1958, through Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Gottlieb and Hans Hofmann to some post-painterly abstraction (as Greenberg termed it) by Larry Poons and others. Clement Greenberg: a critic’s collection is an excellent memorial to a vastly influential figure.

Another fine batch of books comes from Yale this autumn. Highlights include Earth and fire: Italian terracotta sculpture from Donatello to Canova by Bruce Boucher. This wide-ranging volume considers 80 works in fired clay, relating them wherever possible to the finished works in order to reveal the sculptors’ working processes and developments. The associated exhibition next year will be at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

British art continues to flourish under Yale’s patronage: David Solkin (author of Painting for money) edits a history and examination of the Royal Academy’s exhibitions at Somerset House between 1780 and 1836 in Art on the line (see p.34)—referring to the best position for works at this prestigious event. Turner, Constable, Lawrence, Reynolds and Wilkie are some of the characters who patrol these essays, which branch out to examine the influence of the institution on the art, patronage and journalism of the time.

Eileen Harris’s The genius of Robert Adam: his interiors will supply an enormous want in Adam scholarship, providing an account of his work and influence as a decorator and furniture designer that will complement our knowledge of him as the greatest British architect of the 18th century.

The “Studies in British art” series reaches volumes seven (John Everett Millais, edited by Debra Mancoff) and eight (Patronage, culture and power: the early Cecils, edited by Pauline Croft). These exemplary studies are sharply focussed enough to close in on new material and sources, yet equally determined to keep a holistic setting and context in place.

Similar qualities are discernible in Mark Roskill’s and John Oliver Hand’s Hans Holbein : paintings, prints and reception, the most novel aspect being its consideration of how German Romantic literary criticism in the early 19th century played a vastly formative role in our conception of Holbein as artist.

The history of biographical interpretation also receives a fillip from the University of Pennsylvania’s edition of the famous 19th-century biography of Michelangelo (1893) by John Addington Symonds (1840-92), considered by some as second only to Pater as the epitome of the aesthetic approach. This new edition, the first in over 50 years, is a handsome two-volume set, edited by Creighton Gilbert.

Now something for the kids. Getty Publications launches two “See and do” books on Rembrandt and Van Gogh, which comprise biographical sketches and anecdotes of their lives, plus many illustrations to goad and instruct.

Back to the Renaissance and Octavo Digital Editions whose “remarkable marriage of book arts and modern technology” which “anyone with a computer and a CD player can view” gives an exhilarating chance to study such masterpieces of word and image as Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), his famous study of “animalcules” and fleas, flies, bees and suchlike, which gives, in this format, a whole new dimension to the concept of “computer bug”. Equally impressive is Andrea Palladio’s Four books of architecture (1570).

While CD-Rommery may well be the future, the Rizzoli Quadrifolio art series presently has a useful way of expanding the scale of visual reproduction without making the book ungainly: 16 pages of the Leonardo: the Last Supper by Vito Zani opens up to four times the individual page size to reveal the mysterious fresco in rarely achieved and haunting detail.

Rutgers University Press has two books dealing with art and culture in the Baltic States and Russia during and after the Soviet hegemony. Art of the Baltics edited by Alla Rosenfeld and Norton Dodge appears in the severe sounding “Dodge Soviet Nonconformist Art Publication Series” and records “the struggle for freedom of artistic expression under the Soviets 1945-91”, primarily in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The memorably titled Peeling potatoes, painting pictures carries on from the aforementioned volume in some senses, being a study of women artists in post-Soviet Russia, Estonia and Latvia. Renée and Matthew Baigell conducted over 60 interviews between 1995 and 1998, which comprise the substance of this book, with artists aged between 25 and 75. A distinct note of optimism resounds against the dark tones of their beleaguered recent past.

Last, but not least, in US university offerings is the State University of New York’s The rise of Surrealism: Cubism, Dada and the pursuit of the marvellous by Willard Bohn, which joins and complements the ranks of new books on Surrealism in Britain. Charting the forces that prepared the way for the internationalist movement, Professor Bohn delves back into the competing strategies that formed the Avant-garde prior to World War I and the wish to escape from mimesis that drove them.

If contemporary America proves too much, readers can seek solace in Balcony Press’s small but perfectly formed list of titles on art and architecture from the US in the early-20th-century. The opulently produced Last remaining seats: movie palaces of Tinseltown explores 15 of Southern California’s cinemas from the 20s and 30s and the same attention to decorative detail pervades Images of the Gamble House: masterwork of Greene and Greene, perhaps the greatest Art Nouveau/Deco architects on the West Coast.

For more austere American architectural masterpieces Harry N. Abrams’s elegant volume on Louis Kahn by Joseph Rykwert tops the bill. Since his death in 1974, Kahn has increasingly been acclaimed as one of the most innovative architectural minds of the last century. A hundred full colour photographs of 15 major buildings testify eloquently to this valuation.

On a more general, expansive note, Landscape design: a cultural and architectural history by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers is an invigoratingly wide-ranging investigation of the shaping of natural landscapes by human intervention in various cultures. Sites include Stonehenge, the Forbidden City, Versailles and Central Park. One of the most striking features is the many newly commissioned photographs (430 in colour) deployed to show how parks, gardens, cemeteries and palaces embody cultural values and aspirations.

Abrams excels in providing finely honed books on design and both Magnificent Tiffany silver by John Loring and Traditional Japanese design: five tastes with essays by Michael Dunn and Jun’ichiro Takeuchi, which considers the melding of natural materials like bamboo and clay with calm simplicity and functionalism as the hallmark of Japanese crafts sensibility, show very high production standards typical of Abrams and so important for illustrating craft-based topics.

Finally, a rallying call to protect endangered cultural sites worldwide goes out from Vanishing histories by Colin Amery with Brian Curran on behalf of the World Monuments Watch. An apposite production in the years that have seen the Taliban destruction of Buddha statues, this book portrays, among others on the Watch’s list, the Angkor Archaeological District in Cambodia, Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, ancient Pompeii, and gives brief discussion of each site with 239 photographs, many newly commissioned. Without a doubt, a most worthy enterprise.