David Ekserdjian

A selection of art books

I cannot think of many less festive offerings than Richard Avedon Portraits (Abrams, £24.95), but it has to be admitted that his merciless exposure of such grotesques as a blood-and-guts-spattered rattlesnake-skinner and a Duncan Goodhew-lookalike beekeeper, whose naked body is swarming with the six-legged tools of his trade, makes one sit up and take note. One of the minor pleasures of this collection is that literary and artistic celebrities have the same unflinching treatment meted out to them as drifters, and unless one happens to recognise the likes of William Burroughs, it is hard to tell which is which.

After Avedon, the images in Richard Calvocoressi’s Lee Miller: Portraits from a Life (Thames & Hudson, £27.50), with the exception of the occasional dead Nazi, seem positively reassuring. Here too the mix consists of A-list cultural glitterati – from Picasso and T. S. Eliot downwards – and ordinary people, and again there is a lot of blurring of boundaries. Lee Miller and her husband Roland Penrose lived on a farm in Sussex and evidently delighted in forcing their visiting friends to muck in. Freddie Ayer looks amazed to find himself carrying a basket of wood for the fire, while Alfred H. Barr, the legendary founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is gamely pouring a bucket of pigswill into a trough for a couple of smiling porkers.

Torture is far from being an exclusively modern sport, of course, and arguably its most memorable Renaissance chronicler was Signorelli. Luca Signorelli: The Complete Paintings by Tom Henry and Laurence B. Kanter (Thames & Hudson, £48) does ample justice to his remarkable frescoes in Orvieto cathedral, with their army of savage, cadaverous devils, but also illustrates the rest of his achievement in spectacular detail.

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