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A choice of art books

Literary critics of a certain stripe may have been exulting over the death of the author for decades, but happily, in the world of art publishing, monographic studies of the careers and works of individual artists are still alive and kicking. Indeed, almost half of my festive selections fall into that category this year.

11 December 2007

1:21 PM

11 December 2007

1:21 PM

First, and by no means simply by virtue of its weight, is Judy Egerton’s George Stubbs, Painter: Catalogue Raisonné (Yale, £95), which effortlessly combines awesome scholarly authority with what in academic circles is, alas, a far rarer commodity — wit. Seen whole and supported by such eloquent advocacy, Stubbs emerges as a truly great artist, who has been held back by his Britishness and his subject matter. As Judy Egerton rightly observes, it was the subject of the Fitzwilliam’s ‘Gimcrack’ — a racehorse with jockey up — ‘whose seeming triviality had long caused more nervous art historians to twitch their petticoats’.

Another home-grown talent even more grievously in need of rescue is the hero of Nicholas Tromans’s David Wilkie: The People’s Painter (Edinburgh UP, £60). As the author explains, Wilkie — whose burial at sea was the subject of Turner’s ‘Peace’ — was ‘the most famous of all British artists during the first half of the 19th century’, but he has long since fallen from grace. One way of recapturing enthusiasm expertly marshalled here is by examining early responses to his art: when we read that Géricault wept before Wilkie’s ‘Chelsea Pensioners’, it is hard not to be struck by the frigidity of our own engagement.

Werner Hofmann’s Degas: A Dialogue of Difference (Thames & Hudson, £45) is concerned with an altogether safer bet, and has all the glossy production values one would expect from this publisher. The text, however, is both highly evocative and often boldly unexpected: it is a high-wire act to compare the woman bathing in Degas’s ‘The Tub’ with one of the damned in Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘Last Judgement’, but Hofmann brings it off with aplomb.

Both Bette Talvacchia’s Raphael and Peter Humfrey’s Titian (Phaidon, £24.95 each) belong to a series which has the laudable but not easily compatible aims of being well illustrated, seriously argued, and cheap and cheerful. Footnotes are not on the menu here, which must have been a challenge, but these are carefully pondered introductions to two of the greatest artists by leading experts, which will be of interest to professionals as well as amateurs. In each instance, the approach is broadly chronological, but this does not preclude the consideration of more general themes, and in Raphael’s case a whole chapter devoted to drawings.

After all these household names, it is exciting to be able to recommend Susie Nash’s André Beauneveu: ‘No equal in any land’ — Artist to the Courts of France and Flanders (Paul Holberton, £30). Beauneveu (c. 1335-1402) was a major figure in his own day, but is now largely forgotten for three main reasons. One is that late medieval sculpture is not exactly top of the pops; another is that pitifully few works by him survive; and the last is that he committed the fatal error of being both a sculptor and a manuscript illuminator (his Psalter of Jean, Duc de Berry, is arguably his masterpiece). Yet such works as his effigy of King Charles V in Saint-Denis and the newly rediscovered Virgin and Child, which inspired the exhibition currently on show in Bruges, whose catalogue this is, testify to his extraordinary distinction.

A relatively inexpensive book on Beauneveu could only come into being in the context of an exhibition, and more generally such catalogues can reach the parts other art books cannot reach. Venice and the Islamic World 828-1797, edited by Stefano Carboni (Yale, £45), is both the record of a spectacular show at the world’s greatest museum, the Metropolitan in New York, and also a lavish celebration of what might be described as the eastern face of the city of Othello. Its blending of paintings, drawings and prints with the decorative arts equally involves a different kind of interdisciplinarity.

Even more stunning, however, is the Met’s Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor edited by Thomas P. Campbell (Yale, £45), a follow-up to their renaissance tapestry extravaganza of 2002. Campbell, who has also just brought out Henry VIII and the Art of Majesty: Tapestries at the Tudor Court (Yale, £45), has all but singlehandedly put tapestry back on the map. The problem tapestry has suffered under for centuries is that it tends to be regarded as painting gone wrong, which is bound to mean it is on a hiding to nothing. Here, conversely, it is seen on its own terms in the grandest and best-preserved of examples, and it suddenly becomes easy to see what all the fuss was about.

The main defect of exhibition catalogues these days is arguably their desire to double up as general books on their subjects, although it does give them a far longer shelf-life. Many of the most magnificent works illustrated in Inspiring Impressionism: The Impressionists and the Art of the Past edited by Ann Dumas (Yale, £35) turn out not to be in this travelling show itself, so a quick trip to one of its venues (Atlanta, Denver or Seattle) might prove disappointing. The thesis, on the other hand, is a brilliant and genuinely illuminating take on the most familiar of all art movements.

Of course, museums also produce publications which are not linked to exhibitions. Claire Van Cleave’s Master Drawings of the Italian Renaissance (British Museum Press, £19.99) is an elegant and beautifully illustrated case in point: it consists of a lucid thematic introduction to the subject, followed by a substantial artist-by-artist anthology of images with learned but approachable commentary. Here minnows swim alongside giants, and although the majority of the sheets are from the BM’s own holdings, the Louvre and other French museums also feature extensively.

If the bulk of this baker’s dozen has been arrived at without reference to glamour or glitz, the same cannot be said of my two final choices. Spending too much time looking at Gabriel Badea-Päun’s The Society Portrait: Painting, Prestige and the Pursuit of Elegance (Thames & Hudson, £35) may prove as unsettling as devouring a whole box of chocolates in one go, but the dazzling quality of the best of these soft-centred delights is hard to resist. The author has taken the inspired decision to include avant-garde painters such as Klimt, Balthus, and Dalì alongside the more obviously traditional Sargents, Helleus and de Laszlos, which forces one to think about the artists on both sides of the divide in a refreshingly new light.

If purchasing the real thing for your nearest and dearest is beyond your piggy-bank, then Amanda Triossi and Daniela Mascetti’s Bulgari (Thames & Hudson, £59.95) may be just the ticket. Not only a feast for the eyes but also a serious scholarly study, it traces the firm’s evolution across the decades. Naturally Bulgari is still going very strong, but this book’s greatest attractions are afforded by the nostalgic photographs of such goddesses of the dolce vita as Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale strutting their stuff, which evoke a lost golden age when wearing jewellery was uncontroversially acceptable.

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