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New in Books: High culture and no clothing

Nudes with Phaidon and Tate, painted ladies with HarperCollins and the National Portrait Gallery going abroad with Thames & Hudson, Ashgate, Lawrence King, the British Museum and Cambridge University Press

The fascinating power of imagery, famous and infamous, makes an important contribution to the British lists this autumn, with a flourishing photography component receiving a further boost from 10 new titles in Phaidon’s enterprising “55” series of pocket-sized guides to the great and influential in the medium’s history.

More grandiose is their Robert Capa: the definitive collection, a chronologically arranged survey of work spanning 22 tumultuous years, including the Spanish Civil War and Omaha Beach and interspersing these martial images with Picasso sunbathing on (another) French beach and Hemingway larging it in London. Perhaps even more committed is the photography in Vietnam Inc., first published in 1971. It decisively shifted American attitudes to the war, argues Noam Chomsky in his introduction. Many images have a near surreal intensity as military and civilian worlds collided in Southeast Asia.

Photography is the crucial ingredient for architectural monographs. A beautifully illustrated example is Auguste Perret which has that “long overdue” feeling. This first sizeable study in English has the French early modernist (1874-1954) emerge as witty, wise and social minded, the deft first user of concrete (Paris, 1903), justifiably admired by “Corb”.

Love it or loathe it, video art is a 90s phenomenon and Phaidon takes the plunge into its often murky waters with an enterprising book on Swiss-born Pipilotti Rist (famous for “Ever is over all”—a princess-like young girl smashing car windows, which was the star turn of the 1997 Venice Biennale). The older Vito Acconci, pioneer in the medium, has his 30-year career (from grainy performance art shock tactics in the early 70s) surveyed in a similar format—a selection of his writings and interpretations by experts.

For more genteel treatments of the human body, jump back a century to Lawrence Alma-Tadema by Rosemary Barrow. Shortly to loom large in Tate Britain’s “Victorian nudes” exhibition opening next month, Alma-Tadema revelled in photo realist-like treatments of the scantily clad in marble halls under Mediterranean skies. The author reveals that mere escapism was not the aim and that the paintings contain keen archaeological and literary allusions that undermine apparent complacency or innocence. Contemporaneously in France, Monet’s “Waterlilies” were stressing another way of rendering reality, less imperial Roman in source than Japanese. This influence is charted through gardens and paintings in Thames & Hudson’s lavishly illustrated Monet and Japan by Virginia Spate and Gary Hickey. Still Japanesy, there is from Merrell, The potter’s brush, a study by Richard Wilson of the work of Japan’s greatest ceramic artist, Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), the inventor of the eponymous pottery style, and whose works came to the attention of Western collectors and critics only in the 20th century. The author untangles the complex relationships between the artist, manufacturers and the collectors. Going back to Thames & Hudson’s autumn list and going outdoors, courtesy of Andy Goldsworthy, we have the wry, witty, provocative book Summer snowballs recounting the project of midsummer 2000 when 13 huge (Scottish) snowballs were unleashed on unsuspecting Londoners and a type of behavioural diary kept by a camera crew working round the clock. Judith Collins vividly sets Goldsworthy in context with other Land and Performance artists and the 300 photographs are enormously cheering.

Going back indoors, stamping snow off our boots, why not warm up with James Putnam’s thought-provoking and vigorous study of the “museum as medium” in Art and artifact? From Duchamp’s “portable museum” to Hirst’s vitrines (via Jeff Koons) Mr Putnam examines how awareness of available museum space and what it can do often predisposes or alters the work of art’s format. This complements Rosie Millard’s The tastemakers: UK art now in which she beards over 100 “usual suspects” as to what the hell is going on, from Tracey Emin, Nicholas Serota and Michael Craig-Martin to corporate sponsors, Selfridge’s boss and perpetrators of “Changing rooms”: no one, least of all the reader, is safe. In tandem with Louisa Buck’s Moving targets I and II (Tate Publishing), it provides the real low-down on the high risers. Two striking books deal with “abroad”. Photographer Tim Page’s photo-survey of Southeast Asia, The mindful moment complements Vietnam Inc. as it mixes Buddhist calm, mordant humour and emotional honesty in a furtherance of his earlier explorations of modern war and ancient ways of life in that region.

In Europe, a similar quest to link the past with the present occurs in Roland Recht’s opulent and sensitive examination of The Rhine: culture and landscape at the heart of Europe, full of castles, monasteries and cathedrals. Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece and the Breisach altarpiece are among works studied in detail, with full historical and geographical context. If this whets an appetite for the medieval, home in on Medieval panorama, edited by Robert Bartlett. Over 800 illustrations on themed double-page features illuminate the era as possibly never before. If medieval-Renaissance German culture appeals, Andrew Morrall’s Joerg Breu the Elder in Ashgate’s “Histories of vision” series is one to head for. Breu (1475-1537) provides an excellent contrast to the better known Dürer and was a key figure in Reformation Augsburg. He left a diary which Dr Morrall skillfully employs to delineate the interior forces that impelled creativity in this turbulent period of struggle between rival churches.

The better known Dürer and his “anxiety of influence” are taken up by Cambridge University Press in Albrecht Dürer and the Venetian Renaissance by Katherine Crawford Luber who examines the German artist’s relationship with Italian art and his status as an artist. It is a great shame that CUP’s inability to provide decent, legible illustrations for first-class art-historical books such as this ends ups as a regular shot to an otherwise perfectly turned foot.

This is far from the case with the British Museum Press where design and content meet the highest standards, especially in a case such as Objects of virtue: art in Renaissance Italy by Luke Syson and Dora Thornton, BM curators both, who carry on the grand tradition of the study of and writing about the objects in their care. Here they examine for the first time the multiple meanings and values of the so-called “minor” arts of the period—furniture, jewellery and vessels and works of art in any number of materials. This will undoubtedly become a standard reference work. Perhaps the most “abroad” offering this season hails from Laurence King Publishing, whose vivid range of designated architectural new issues is pipped at the post by Art beyond the West, a major survey of African, Indian, Southeast Asian and East Asian work, as well as the Americas, by Michael Kampen O’Riley, from the start of civilisation to now. Compendious is the word.

Now for some painted ladies. From HarperCollins comes Donald Sassoon’s Mona Lisa: the history of the world’s most famous painting (how did they work that out?). More a “biography” than mere art history, Professor Sassoon’s book discusses changes in perception and value over the intervening centuries. The painting tells us far more about ourselves than we can find out about it.

The same may not be true of the women at Charles II’s court (1660-85) in Painted ladies, published by the National Portrait Gallery to accompany the exhibition (see p.20). The first new study in Restoration portraiture for 20 years, the sultry splendour of the mistresses painted by Lely, Kneller and others (who took care that “the look” was disarmingly similar so that jealousy might be minimised) is set in the context of court and country, morality (or lack of it) and women’s role and status.

Next year a touring exhibition on George Romney visits the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and the Huntingdon Art Gallery, California, and a lavish catalogue by the National Portrait Gallery has been produced to coincide with the bicentenary of his death. His reputation has always been partially occluded by Gainsborough and Reynolds, but his painted ladies, in particular Lady Hamilton, something of an obsession with him (yet more sultry splendour...), set the tone for much Romantic portraiture, while his pen and ink drawings have a fervid power. At Tate Publishing, Surrealism is high profile this autumn with Surrealism: desire unbound connecting directly with the eponymous show at Tate Modern. Jennifer Mundy and Dawn Ades collaborate editorially to range further than art work alone. They are helped in this by Mary Ann Caws, who has a talent for researching the atypical and borderline in surrealist machinations and creativity. Surrealist love poems ranges through Breton, Aragon, Dalí, Eluard and others in displays of the “convulsive beauty” at the heart of the movement.

A more static beauty is on show in Tate Britain’s “answer” to the surreal antics downriver: Alison Smith’s Exposed: the Victorian nude is a vivid accompaniment to the exhibition(ism) of High Culture and No Clothing and provides the context to Rosemary Barrow’s Alma-Tadema at Phaidon.

For the more austere-minded, the “Movements in Modern Art” series has Conceptual art by Paul Wood added to the list, perceptive, portable and very good value.

The term “Avant-garde” comes to mind when considering Booth-Clibborn Editions’ latest list: from Zines to Snowboarding (as art form as much as a sport), it is a boundary-breaking team and The Americans: new art is the first book to survey the most recent work in painting, sculpture, video and film for US artists in their twenties and thirties. Described as “obsessive-compulsive”, this high energy art erupts at the Barbican Gallery in London later this year.

Margaret Timmers, whose poster exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum was very popular a few years ago, now presents, with V&A Publications, Fine art prints from the V&A Collection: impressions of the 20th century. The choice and range is prodigious (one per year of the century) and makes a startling and memorable introduction to an often neglected subject. Techniques are clearly explained and the century’s progress discussed in a brisk, no-nonsense fashion which is refreshing. These adjectives can be applied to Matthew Collings whose Hello culture from Weidenfeld and Nicolson holds up the mirrors, distorted and otherwise, so that, he claims, we can better understand ourselves. The book is a tie-in with the author’s new television series, “Groovy”. There were some horribly distorted cultural mirrors used by Hitler and his cronies, of course, and Hutchinson’s Hitler and the power of aesthetics by Frederic Spotts examines how the Führer’s perverted artistry beguiled a nation through a cultural campaign that got it to prefer revolvers to culture.

The ever surprising and illuminating Reaktion Books also addresses art on the dark side in The art of suicide by Ron M. Brown, whose “picturing history” traces the grisly topic from the classical times (noble, even heroic), through Christian condemnation to the (very) recent decriminalisation, concluding with Warhol’s “Marilyns” and the notorious Dr Kevorkian’s videos. Art and health are also the issue with the lively team at Westzone whose list of 16 new titles of contemporary photography includes The quality of mercy by Paul Lowe of Magnum. This is a record of his collaboration with the Médecins sans frontières (MSF) for that organisation’s 30th anniversary. First-person accounts from MSF volunteers from Rwanda to Chechnya, Kosovo to Somalia forcefully back up the images. A proportion of the book’s profits go to the MSF.

Correction

The criticism of the illustrations in Albrecht Dürer and the Venetian Renaissance (Cambridge University Press) in the preview of British books (The Art Newspaper, No.118, October 2001, p.57) was the result of sub-editorial garbling of the text and was not intended by the author. We apologise to her publisher.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'High culture and no clothing'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 118 October 2001