Christmas Art Books

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, November 28, 2015 | Go to article overview

Christmas Art Books


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


It's been a memorably productive year for art books (I have published a couple myself), but certain volumes stand out. Chief among the illustrated monographs is Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath by James Cahill (Unicorn Press, £30), a spirited examination of this wonderfully unpredictable artist. The book focuses on her recent paintings and sculptures, many on the theme of war. Art history meets forthright artistic statement, and it's fascinating to see Cahill's intellect in dialogue with Hambling's visceral art. As she says: 'Real art is the opposite of mere observation or reportage. It takes you to another place.'

Perhaps the greatest living writer on art, and thus the most familiar with that other place in all its manifestations, is John Berger (born 1926). A compilation of his stimulating essays (including one on Hambling) reminds us just how insufficient most art commentary is these days. Portraits: John Berger on Artists, edited by Tom Overton (Verso, £25), is a compact 500-page hardback but an indispensable guide to understanding and appreciating art from cave painters to today's experimenters. Other books in this smaller novel-shaped format are Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting by Catherine Lampert (Thames & Hudson, £19.95), a hugely enjoyable portrait of one of our leading figurative painters, whose current Tate exhibition doesn't do full justice to his remarkable talent. Francis Bacon in Your Blood by Michael Peppiatt (Bloomsbury, £25) is the best art memoir published in years. Much more enjoyably informal than the author's definitive biography of Bacon, it is personal, subjective and sufficiently scurrilous to check the young Peppiatt's hero-worship of his subject.

A favourite category of art book is the exhibition catalogue masquerading as a monograph. This hybrid, produced to coincide with a museum show and thus guaranteeing a certain number of visitor sales while also achieving a longer shelf-life, results in some lovely illustrated volumes. Munch: Van Gogh , edited by Maité Van Dijk and Magne Bruteig (Yale, £35), compares the two painters and is a fine example, containing a heady mix of familiar and unfamiliar works, full of direct brushwork and spontaneous colour, incorporating wonder, despair, melancholy and madness. Looking at it makes you yearn to see the exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (until 17 January 2016).

Ellsworth Kelly by Tricia Paik (Phaidon, £75), by contrast, is a magisterial monograph on the grand old man of American abstraction, a painter and sculptor of rare invention and a great colourist. His perfectly pitched minimal shapes often have an organic quality deriving from his early interest in nature, though his work is less to do with direct observation and more with the memory of things.

Arts & Crafts Stained Glass by Peter Cormack (Yale, £50) offers a fascinating comparison in the use of shaped colour, and is a book I want to return to, packed with detailed analysis and information, and 200 colour illustrations. Stained glass is one of those art forms we too often take for granted, church decoration useful for telling religious stories. But what art is here! The Arts & Crafts approach was pioneered by Christopher Whall (1849-1924), and elaborated by sonorously named artists such as Selwyn Image, William Blake Richmond and Heywood Sumner. Whall wrote 'the greatness of all things is ours for the winning', to indicate the imaginative heights to which stained glass should aspire. …

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