Magazine article The Spectator

The Best Art Books of 2016

Magazine article The Spectator

The Best Art Books of 2016

Article excerpt

Suitably for a year so full of cataclysms and disturbing portents, 2016 is the quincentenary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch. He was of course the supreme painter of hell, with choking darkness, livid flames and the most grippingly monstrous menagerie of devils in the history of art -- duck-billed figures on skates, demons with bat's wings, lizard's claws and cat's whiskers. His panoramic vista of naked humanity inflamed by desire in 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' features giant birds and fruit, weird mineral formations, and -- in one case -- a couple making love in a cosy mussel shell.

An Italian traveller who saw this masterpiece in 1517, noted -- correctly -- that it is impossible to describe Bosch's work satisfactorily in words. The more you look at these pictures, the more you see. Those who wish to explore it are recommended to do so in the learned texts and splendid images of Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné (Yale £99.99), which condenses six years of meticulous research by a team of scholars, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project. Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Works (Taschen £27.99), also lavishly illustrated, is a less expensive alternative, slightly different, take on the same subject.

Bosch's art, though ostensibly religious, surprisingly often seems to be about sex (and consequent damnation). Splendours & Miseries: Pictures of Prostitution in France 1850-1910 (Flammarion, £35), the catalogue of last year's exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay, makes clear that in fin-de-siècle Paris, sex -- or at least what we now call sex workers -- had become a much bigger subject than religion. It presents and analyses numerous depictions of brothels, streetwalkers and grandes horizontales , among them such masterpieces as Manet's 'Olympia' and Picasso's 'Demoiselles d'Avignon'.

The history of pictures, as David Hockney and I have argued elsewhere, is wider and stranger than the conventional history of art. One of its fascinating and neglected episodes is considered by Georges Vigarello in The Silhouette from the 18th Century to the Present Day (Bloomsbury £30). In effect, a silhouette was a way of making a shadow permanent. A line was traced around the sitter's profile, which was then cut out of black paper.

The result condensed the essential appearance of an individual. Thus early silhouette portraits were handmade predecessors of photography: quasi-mechanical images. Vigarello describes the way the silhouette affected 19th-century caricatures and what eventually became the art of the comic book. He ends -- more contentiously -- by suggesting that our contemporary obsession with bodily slimness and sleekness has its origin in this Georgian fad.

Watercolour of a crayfish for Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, published by Louis Renard 1718-19. The handwritten notes indicate that the artist ate it against the advice of experts, with no ill effects. Illustration from The Paper Zoo

Pictures can be sources of knowledge. Without them, indeed, some studies would be difficult or impossible to pursue. How could you define and describe innumerable types of animals, birds and insects using words alone? Charlotte Sleigh, a historian of science, takes zoological illustration as her theme in The Paper Zoo: Five Hundred Years of Animals in Art (British Library, £25). …

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