David Ekserdjian

Recent arts books

Recent arts books

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This year’s crop of art books for Christmas is the usual mixed bunch, and if they have anything in common, it is their general lack of festive associations. The one exception is M. A. Michael’s Stained Glass of Canterbury Cathedral (Scala, £25), a beautifully illustrated picture book with an exemplary and truly instructive text, which includes the Magi not having a notably cold coming of it among its panoply of more and less familiar religious scenes. Naturally, the lion’s share of the images is of mediaeval glass, and they are accompanied by handy diagrams detailing exactly which pieces are replaced or repainted, but more recent additions, such as Sir Ninian Comper’s commemoration of King George VI and of the Queen’s coronation, also have their place.

The ecclesiastical theme is pursued in a very different idiom in Sandra Berresford’s extraordinary Italian Memorial Sculpture 1820-1940 (Frances Lincoln, £40), a celebration of some of the most bizarre and hideous works of art ever produced. I have whizzed past the grandiose entrance to the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan in the past, and I suspect that when I go there next week, I will ask the taxi driver to keep his foot firmly on the accelerator, but it has to be admitted that these strange tableaux — deathbed scenes aplenty, and acres of marmoreal naked flesh — are compellingly awful. How kind of the author and her heroic photographers to save the rest of us all that morbid wandering.

The art market is hoping that the Russian oligarchs are going to prove to be the stars of the next generation of mega-collectors, and I would certainly much rather spend my roubles on the Badminton Cabinet than another playmaker for Chelsea, so the publication of Oleg Neverov’s Great Private Collections of Imperial Russia (Thames & Hudson, £45) is extremely timely. The names of these collectors have become attached to their greatest treasures, so that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest acquisition is the ‘Stroganov Duccio’, and in the same vein we speak of Leonardo’s ‘Benois Madonna’ or of the ‘Basilievsky situla’. The array of goodies assembled is predictably spectacular, although the whistle-stop nature of the tour is ultimately frustrating. Most of what is on offer is staunchly old-masterish, but the Shchukin and Morozov collections provide a stupendous early 20th-century avant-garde finale.

Single collection catalogues are able to spread their wings incomparably wider than such anthologies, and Paintings in the Musée d’Orsay (Thames & Hudson, £50), edited by Serge Lemoine, is an awesomely comprehensive doorstopper of a tome. It boasts no fewer than 830 colour illustrations, which gives it ample opportunity to do justice to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists — what might be described as the old alumni of the Jeu de Paume — but also to represent all sorts of other 19th-century painters. In their day, many of them were deemed to be the norm, but now such fevered oddities as Georges Rochegrosse’s ‘Le chevalier aux fleurs’, a frustrated adolescent’s vision of Parsifal surrounded by nubile flower maidens, have come to look like the odd men out.

It might be assumed that the Impressionists would have been researched to death by now, but happily scholarship does not work that way, and although Clare A. P. Willsdon’s In the Gardens of Impressionism (Thames & Hudson, £29.95) builds on earlier studies, it also goes much more deeply into its chosen theme. Monet’s garden at Giverny is inevitably here, but there are also many surprises, for all that most of the emphasis is rightly on the big names of the movement.

In spite of strenuous efforts from the wilder shores of art history to discredit them, monographs remain a dominant category. These days, many are by-products of exhibitions, as is the case with Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.’s Gerard Ter Borch (Yale, £35), which unashamedly concentrates on the best of this uneven but periodically sublime genre painter, who may not be quite up there with Vermeer, but whose understated vision is at least as haunting as that of their better-known contemporary Pieter de Hooch.

Malcolm Warner and Robin Blake’s Stubbs and the Horse (Yale, £30) is another exhibition catalogue, but is at the same time a full-dress study of its chosen theme, and is almost bound to be the pick of this bunch for hunting-friendly Spectator readers (and at least one former editor). Delacroix, Degas, and Picasso are only three of the great artists who were exceptional painters of horses, but I do not think it is patriotic fervour that convinces one that Stubbs was the best — and most various — of the lot.

Daumier by Sarah Symmons (Chaucer Press, £15.99) comes hottish on the heels of a blockbuster show, but there is always going to be more to say about such a fascinating figure, and here the balance is nicely judged between the more familiar newspaper caricatures and the paintings and drawings. Daum- ier had a particular gift for capturing the posturing absurdity of critics and connoisseurs peering at works of art; like all of his finest creations, these images are scarily timeless in their understanding of human frailties.

Were it not for the fact that its author is Nicholas Penny, a book entitled National Gallery Catalogues: The Sixteenth-Century: Italian Paintings, Volume I: Paintings from Bergamo, Brescia and Cremona (National Gallery Company, £75, available from the National Gallery at £50) might not exactly set the pulses racing, but in fact it is both a scholarly triumph and at the same time a thumping good read. The entries on individual pictures are exemplary in their detail, and reflect the writer’s passionate all-but-omniscience concerning frames and provenances, while the biographies of particular artists go far beyond the usual digest of the existing literature. Penny is now working at the National Gallery in Washington as opposed to the one in Trafalgar Square, but if he had been eligble for an export stop, then I am sure the appropriate funding bodies would have ensured that he was saved for the nation. As it is, this catalogue is the first in a series of volumes promised by Penny, which should serve as highly superior presents in the years ahead.