Making attributions to Leonardo da Vinci, the great art historian Adolfo Venturi once remarked, is like ‘picking up a red-hot iron’. Those who wish to avoid injury, he advised, should exercise great caution. Whether or not the scholars who attributed the ‘Salvator Mundi’ to the great man are now suffering from badly burnt fingers — not to mention the buyer who paid $450.3 million for it — is a question of informed opinion.
On the whole, Carmen C. Bambach, the author of the monumental Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered (Yale, 4 Volumes, £400) votes against. In Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings in Detail (Prestel £65), Alessandro Vezzosi, also a noted authority on the artist, is more guarded. One thing is certain, he concludes unanswerably: whatever it is, it remains the costliest work of art on earth and thus a tribute to the stellar status of Leonardo in this year, the 500th anniversary of his death.
Bambach’s study is weighty in every sense, running to an imposing — positively daunting — 2,350 pages. The 1,500 illustrations are superlative, and it is full of valuable observations, whether or not one concurs with her judgments. The Prestel volume is more digestible and physically lighter. For readers of art books these days the danger is not burnt fingers but slipped discs.
Taschen also comes up with some heavyweight productions — proudly marketed as ‘XXL’ — in Rembrandt: The Complete Drawings and Etchings and The Complete Paintings (both £150). In these, the emphasis is not on text, but on reproductions of high quality and impressive size. In the case of the drawings, which were often done on scraps of paper, they are often far larger than the originals. David Hockney — famously a believer in bigger pictures — is an enthusiastic fan. He’s right: here are Rembrandt works on paper as you’ve never seen them before.
Part of the secret of a painting by Leonardo or Rembrandt lay beneath the surface. In The Power of Color: Five Centuries of European Painting (Yale, £30), Marcia B. Hall has written not an art historical whodunit, but — just as interesting and revealing — how it was done. Raphael, she writes, prepared his pictures with an underlying layer of off-white or even yellow. Thus he retained Leonardo’s ‘gentle fusion of tones’, but was able to achieve a lighter, more colourful harmony. Hall traces the varying ways in which western artists have deployed and combined colour from the 15th century until the era of Gauguin and Kandinsky.
The French scholar Michel Pastoureau investigates how individual colours have been viewed and used in the past. Yellow: The History of a Colour (Princeton University Press, £34) is the successor to similar volumes on blue, green, black and red. But it turns out that yellow has had an intriguing, though chequered, time. In the Middle Ages, Pastoureau argues, though some of its associations were positive — blond hair suggested aristocracy — it increasingly acquired a bad rep. It was the colour of Judas’s robe, standing for ‘envy, jealousy, duplicity, lying, treachery and madness’.
These negative connotations hung on until the 19th century — as in that archaic phrase ‘yellow journalism’. But through a familiar process of reversal, by the fin-de-siècle this had turned into an aura of enticing naughtiness and creativity — hence The Yellow Book, which Aubrey Beardsley edited, and Van Gogh’s ‘Yellow House’ in Arles.
The pigment Indian Yellow was allegedly once made from the urine of cows fed on mangoes. The sumptuous blue used by Italian Renaissance painters for the robes of the Madonna had a more elevated origin — literally so, because one of the best sources was lapis lazuli, located high in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.
Lapis is the subject of many essays in Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes, edited by Susan Whitfield (Thames & Hudson, £49.95). This, another monumental volume, considers the innumerable commodities, tangible and intangible — including ideas and styles as well as merchandise — that travelled along the trade routes from the Orient to Europe, and also places along the way. It is, in other words, about cultural fusion — the opposite of the identity politics we hear so much about. The many magnificent illustrations make one long to go travelling, though sadly in some areas to do so would be hazardous, the Silk Roads being now — as they so often have been in the past — disputed territory.
Paintings are physical objects, and the way they are made is crucial to their impact. That is one of the points that can be deduced from Paula Rego: The Art of Story by Deryn Rees-Jones (Thames & Hudson, £85), a splendidly illustrated study of a great living artist. Rego’s career stretches back to the 1950s, and as this book chronicles, her work has gone through a number of metamorphoses over the past 60-odd years. Her art is full of fantastic narrative but, latterly at least, always done from life.
Furthermore, though original and important, she is also a late bloomer. Much of her finest work, it seems to me, has been done since the mid 1990s — that is, since she turned 60. The crucial breakthrough was a technical one, using pastel for large-scale pictures. There is a touch of Degas about her as well as a smidgeon of Goya. For her, as for the French master, pastel is a way of reconciling painting with drawing.
Lucian Freud: A Life, compiled by Mark Holborn with David Dawson (Phaidon, £150), is about the artist, but also (though a certain amount his work is illustrated) a special sort of photo book. Despite a strong aversion to paparazzi — ‘If I’d had a gun I would have shot him,’ Freud reflected of one — he himself was shot by more great photographers than perhaps anyone who ever lived.
Among those whose photos of him are reproduced here are Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Snowdon, Brassaï and Cecil Beaton — as well as friends such as Bruce Bernard, John Deakin and Harry Diamond, his daughter Rose Boyt and his long-time assistant David Dawson. (There is also an array of Francis Bacon’s portraits of him in paint.) The text consists largely of Freud’s own words, often garnered from interviews and memoirs (including, to declare an interest, a few of my own).
Food in art is a rich and appetising subject. The tables of 17th-century cardinals, for example, were decorated with miniature sculptures of martyred saints in sugar. All such works, unfortunately, were consumed long ago, like baroque boiled sweets. A Feast for the Eyes: Edible Art from Apple to Zucchini by Carolyn Tillie (Reaktion Books, £14.95) is more an amuse-gueule than a full study. Alphabetically arranged, it contains some genuine art — such as the American artist Ed Ruscha’s ‘Chocolate Room’ — but also a good deal of restaurant kitsch, including a version of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ fashioned from coloured pasta (under ‘N for Noodle’). Perhaps it tastes better than it looks.