Just before she disappeared down the rabbit hole, Alice in Wonderland said that a book, to be useful, must consist of pictures and conversations. This presentation of some of the best art books of the year takes in many, many pictures, and it is designed to provoke much conversation.
Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin (Yale, 65 USD, 40 GBP)
The year began with the re-emergence of a great art critic from the sepia-impregnated shadows of Victorian England. It is 200 years since the birth of an aesthetically fine-tuned Englishman called John Ruskin, that man who first made his mark as a young critic by defending the great J.M.W. Turner from the philistines, and who also happened to be an acquaintance of Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland’s creator. (They were both members of the same Oxford College, Christ Church).
By the 1860s, Ruskin’s writing had made a dramatic shift in the direction of social criticism, and it is this blending of the two that is being celebrated in Unto This Last, the year’s most searching Ruskin exhibition, which runs at the Yale Center for British Art until December 8.
The book of that show, Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin, delightfully nit-picks its way through some of Ruskin’s abiding obsessions, from the capitals of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice to the nature of close and impassioned looking — ah, the heavenly flourish of a peacock’s feather!
Donald Judd: Interviews (David Zwirner, 39.95 USD, 28 GBP, 53.95 CAD)
One of the finest American nit-pickers was Donald Judd, and we get a full tasting of the impressive range of his interests and opinions in a fat book just published by David Zwirner called Donald Judd: Interviews. Punchy, serious, comical, outlandish, Judd talks with drive and steely forthrightness about art, society, bad behavior, the undesirability of talking about one’s own work, the utter uselessness of the Museum of Modern Art back then (but what would you think of it now, Donald?), and a great deal more in this pleasingly unpredictable, 1000-page gathering of unbridled views.
Henry Darger (Prestel, 45 USD, 35 GBP, 60 CAD)
Henry Darger was still very much an unbridled outsider when, in 1999, John Ashbery wrote a book-length poem called Girls on the Run (1999) in celebration of his strange and fantastical art. Newly available in a revised edition (first published in 2014), the substantial, landscape-format book by Klaus Biesenbach called nothing but Henry Darger shows it off with an almost cinematic degree of excess. Here come skipping along those throngs of near-fairy-tale girls and boys, so sweet and so mock-innocent-looking until you pry into some of the more ominous detailing. One fact is undeniable: Alice would have found them interesting companions down the rabbit hole.
Lucian Freud Herbarium (Prestel, 60 USD, 39 GBP, 79 CAD)
No one has ever tried to deny that the libidinous artist Lucian Freud would have been an ominous prospect for most women. The year’s most intriguingly sidelong take on the painter is entitled Lucian Freud Herbarium. Written by Giovanni Aloi, it begins with a potted history of plants in art, and then examines Freud’s own use of plants, flowers, and vegetation in many of his paintings. Toughness? Unbridled fecundity? Odd mixings of the wild with the sweet? All these potential themes seem to be afloat in the air when Freud faces humanity off against the raw, messy energy of the natural world.
Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered (Yale, 550 USD, 400 GBP)
The 500th birthday of that furiously energetic man Leonardo da Vinci has been a mixed blessing in terms of the presentation of his art in London and Paris. John Ruskin, that hater of the Renaissance, thought Leonardo’s talents would have been put to better use if he had concentrated on making war machines and other marvels of engineering.
What better way to show off the best of Leonardo then than by turning to the older technology of book-making? Written by Carmen C. Bambach, curator of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered is a magnificent, multi-volume sifting-through of notebooks, drawings, and paintings in dogged pursuit of a much fuller and more complete understanding of his development as an artist. This wonderfully sober and painstaking work of scholarship pulls no punches and sensationalizes nothing. Be forewarned though: at £400 sterling for the four-volume set, that price represents the cost of almost 30 visits to London’s not-so-excitingly immersive National Gallery Leonardo experience. There’s really no choice if your pocket can bear the strain.
The National Gallery: Masterpieces of Painting (National Gallery Publishing, 65 USD, 50 GBP)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 25 USD, 18.99 GBP)
As far as books are concerned, The Met in New York and London’s National Gallery have been showing off the best of themselves in rather similar ways this year. Each institution has published a new guidebook to its permanent collection. The National Gallery’s is heavy, large of format, lavishly illustrated, and best suited to browsing at a leisurely pace at a stout table; the Met’s new guide is a more readily transportable, on-the-move, under-the-arm, flexi-backed affair that feels very good to have and to hold. Each one includes an excitable commentary by its relatively new, go-getting director.
The Elizabethan Image (Yale, 50 USD, 35 GBP)
Sir Roy Strong, sometime director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, has always been something of an excitable dandy. What better and more sympathetic a subject for him to dive into, then, than English portraiture in the age of Elizabeth the First in a book called The Elizabethan Image, which examines English portraiture from 1558 to 1603? These Elizabethans were such vainglorious strutters and self-preeners, with their picardels and their swelling cod-pieces! The book, copiously illustrated, suavely turned, is prinked and spiced with quotes from marvelous poets and playwrights.
Hokusai: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Prestel, 35 USD, 24.99 GBP, 47 CAD)
It is the suave turning of waves that we are inclined to remember best when we recall the works of Katsushika Hokusai, that 19th-century Japanese master. Hokusai: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, compactly presented in a handsome slipcase, opens up like a nigh-on infinitely expandable concertina of a book, in wave after wave after wave of images of daily life as it proceeded in the eye of that dreamily cloud-wreathed sacred mountain: a junk converted into a home is moored amongst reeds; a woman with her babe in the shadow of a lumber yard takes time out to admire smoke wisps encircling the snowcap… This magnificent suite of woodblock prints feels as homey as it is exalted. And how magically alluring is its oh so dominant Prussian Blue!
Paula Rego: The Art of Story (Thames and Hudson, 115 USD, 85 GBP)
The year’s finest monograph about a female artist is Paula Rego: The Art of Story, Deryn Rhys Jones’s account of the trajectory of the 84-year-old, Portugal-born printmaker and painter.
Rooted in an often savagely playful brand of storytelling, Rego’s pictures owe as much to literature and folktales as it does to the work of other painters, and Rhys Jones delicately unpacks its mysteries. Alice in Wonderland has been lucky to escape her attentions. So far.