Byline: Brian Sewell
THE art book of the year is The Primacy of Drawing by Deanna Petherbridge (Yale, [pounds sterling]45). Its 500 pages are, at first sight, alarmingly formidable, for this is less a work of ready reference than a book meant to be read, the history and analysis of a skill developed in the age of myths and now de-skilled in an age of high technology.
A former Professor of Drawing at the Royal College of Art, Petherbridge's main text is wonderfully clear in its exploration of the drawing as simple line or shadowed mass, as finished or unfinished, as observation, document, exploration of idea, impetuous first sketch or hard-worked final study for a painting. Even so, for those seeking a way into this necessary book, I commend the illustrations that intriguingly oppose Pontormo and Durer (the discomfort of whose pose is dictated by the syphilitic orchitis that explains his ugly scrotum), Schlemmer and Bandinelli, Grunewald and Watteau, Freud and Fohr, and then reading the neighbouring text, for in these oppositions half the argument is put and the words tie the knots. I am not certain that all the attributions are beyond dispute, but as every illustration is there to support a broader argument, this quibble is of almost no importance -- and the plates are beautiful.
Inspired by Petherbridge, let me commend The Drawings of Bronzino (Yale, [pounds sterling]45) which brilliantly complements her illustrations. The catalogue of a recent exhibition (Metropolitan Museum, NY) it demonstrates how this Florentine master achieved, in the unmistakable conventions of the High Renaissance, powerful expression in both the faces and the naked bodies of those who modelled for him. Supported by reproductions of relevant paintings, a biography that clarifies his emergence from the influence of Pontormo (an affinity that lasted for four decades) and by essays and appendices, this is a thoroughly useful and dependable introduction to a painter not weighed down by Michelangelo or Raphael. With Bronzino: Painter and Poet at the Court of the Medici, edited by Carlo Falciani, (Mandragora, [pounds sterling]35), the catalogue of the current exhibition of Bronzino's paintings (ends January 23) in the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, offering equal depth and authority, this has been a good year for the painter who best represented in Florence the final stage of the Renaissance.
My last word in praise of drawing goes to German Master Drawings collected by Wolfgang Ratjen, donated to the National Gallery in Washington and handsomely catalogued there by Andrew Robison and others (Paul Holberton, [pounds sterling]40). The date bracket is 1580-1900, from Hans von Aachen to Max Liebermann, but of the 120 drawings the weight lies in Classicism, Romanticism and Realism. It is a field too little known in Britain, but its enchantments are exquisite, the landscapes astonishing, the faces plain and unadorned, the realism penetrating.
Among books on painters, Rogier van der Weyden, by Lorne Campbell and Jan van der Stock (Waanders, [pounds sterling]65) is, with 592 pages, substantial enough to be both monograph and catalogue raisonne of a recent exhibition (Louvain, December last year). Half a century ago Rogier, though by then recognised as perhaps the most influential of early 15th-century painters (far more so, directly, than his older contemporary Jan van Eyck) and a master of naturalism, observation and expressive pathos, was still confused with other painters and there seemed no secure basis for the recognition of his work. This is no longer so. This book is the bible of his unarguably authentic paintings and drawings (as well as tapestries and sculptures with which he must be associated), stripping away mistaken attributions, defining the core characteristics and re-establishing him as one of the great painters of his day (c. 1399-1464) north or south of the Alps. Fine -- even astonishing -- illustrations support the intellectual arguments of this most important book. …