Friday, December 15, 2023

Art Eyewitness Essay: Art Books to Give and to Cherish

 Art Books to Give and to Cherish

Art Unpacked by Matthew Wilson (Thames & Hudson, 240 pages, $39.95) 

 The Real & the Romantic by Frances Spalding (Thames & Hudson, 384 p., $50)  

Velazquez by Richard Verdi (Thames & Hudson, 276 pages, $24.95)

By Ed Voves

The Morgan Library and Museum is currently showing a special exhibition devoted to rare editions of the Holy Bible collected by J.P. Morgan. While visiting the exhibit, my attention focused on a first edition copy of the 1611 King James Version (KJV) of the Holy Bible.

By a somewhat convoluted thought process, the sight of this original KJV led me to compile a short list of recommended art books, all published in 2023. These, as I hope to explain, are books worthy to give and to cherish. But before I discuss these four titles, I would like to reflect a few moments more on the 1611 KJV on display in Morgan’s Bibles.

The Morgan's copy of the KJV has quite a personal history. It bears a hand-written list of biblical commentaries by Laurence Chaderton, one of "God's secretaries" who worked on the translation of the Bible at the command of King James I. On the binding is the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales, denoting its ownership by the two sons of King James, Prince Henry and Charles I.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023
Gallery view of the Morgan Library & Museum’s copy of the 
King James Version Bible, at the Morgan’s Bible exhibition

It was the personal name, signed with a bold flourish at the bottom of the title page, which was the most intriguing feature of all: Jane Fisher.

Jane Fisher (1626-1689) was the courageous Englishwoman who helped Charles II escape capture following the defeat at the Battle of Worcester, 1651, during the English Civil War. Charles, disguised as Jane Fisher’s servant, evaded capture by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, eventually reaching safety.

In 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne of Great Britain. This magnificent KJV Bible, once owned by his father, should have been safeguarded as a sacred  relic. Yet, at some point, this Bible became a treasured possession of Jane Fisher. 

Did Charles II give this KJV Bible to Jane Fisher in appreciation for saving his life and his reign? If so, it could not have been a more appropriate gift. 

Viewing this historic Bible was a great treat, but my attention did not linger on the bygone-era of Stuart kings. Instead, it nudged me to think about the importance of giving books as tokens of love and esteem.

The act of bestowing a gift involves giving a part of oneself. The money needed to buy a present represents the hours spent earning or saving the necessary funds to make the purchase. And of course, there is the time and energy involved in shopping, often the most difficult and frustrating part of the transaction.

Selecting a book as a gift takes this process a step further. Along with sharing a bit of ourselves, we are entering into a state of emotional/intellectual dialog with the recipient. Is the subject or author likely to appeal to the intended reader? Might the book become a favorite "read"? Could the book make a difference in their life?

With these considerations in mind, here is a short-list of 2023 art books which hopefully will provide a resounding “yes”  to the questions above. None of the titles appearing below were the subject of previous Art Eyewitness reviews, although Martin Gayford's Venice: City of Pictures is certainly worthy of inclusion in any list of recent art books likely to stand the test of time.

My first selection includes works of art from just about every artistic genre and works from virtually every historical era and geographic locale. Art Unpacked, just published by Thames & Hudson, is precise in its focus, global in its scope.

Art Unpacked offers a "museum highlights" trajectory to appreciate art history. A list of fifty essential works of art is selected for study, beginning with a cave painting from Chauvet, ca. 30,000 BCE, and proceeding to contemporary works of art with social justice themes. Quite a number of the book's "highlights" will be familiar to many art enthusiasts.

At first glance, Art Unpacked appears to be a fairly standard survey of the visual arts. An impressive book, certainly, but one which we've seen previously in similar guises, the British Museum's History of the World in 100 Objects for one.

Look again at Art Unpacked - and again - at the double-spread pages of closely integrated illustrations and analysis for each of the selected works. The author, Matthew Wilson, has created a blue-print guide for understanding composition and construction, complemented with insights into the mindset and social milieu of the artist and acknowledgement of related works of art, ones that set the stage or were influenced in turn by the masterpiece under study.

The "star" treatment which Wilson accords Michelangelo's Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, 1510-11, is a excellent example of his methodology.

Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, 1510-11

Aside from Mona Lisa, there is no work of art which has been so intensively studied as Michelangelo's frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. The same is true for the preliminary drafts, of which the Libyan Sibyl, a jewel of The Metropolitan Museum's collection, is one of the most familiar. 

Yet, there are so many intriguing details in this "densely populated" drawing that when we get the rare opportunity to view it, information overload quickly sets in. That is exactly what I experienced at The Met's 2017 exhibit, Michelangelo: Divine Designer, where the Libyan Sibyl drawing was prominently displayed.

With a precise focus, Wilson succinctly deals with the major points of the Libyan Sibyl's composition. He focuses, point by point, on Michelangelo's masterful handling of tonal modeling to create a three-dimensional presence for this ethereal figure. Michelangelo's vigorous use of red chalk to create deep shadows, Wilson notes is "often compared to the way that a sculptor carves into the marble with a chisel."

As if that was not impressive enough, Wilson looks at the truly fine points, leaving readers astonished that they had missed these details before. Examining the Libyan Sibyl's torso, Wilson writes:

Michelangelo added lines that extend from the shoulders and end in a circle. A third line points toward the armpit. It is not known for certain what they represent, but he may have added them as notes to himself about the lightest to the darkest areas of shading, or to point out certain muscles to students or colleagues.

Never, in a hundred years of looking, would I have spotted these minute notations, but Wilson's sharp eye has opened a new window on Michelangelo's creative course.

Wilson extends the same masterful mix of analytical precision and perceptive commentary to works of art from non-Western societies. Dating to the same era as Michelangelo's Libyan Sibyl are superb studies of the Queen Mother Pendant Mask from the Kingdom of Benin, modern Nigeria, and The Concourse of Birds, an allegory of the Sufi search for spiritual enlightenment, painted by Habiballah of Sava (active, 1590-1610 in Persia).

Queen Mother Pendant Mask, Kingdom of Benin, c. 

 Habiballah of Sava, The Concourse of Birds (detail), c. 1600

One historical era overlooked in Art Unpacked is the twenty-year interlude in England between the First and Second World Wars. Many, indeed most, general surveys of art skip over English art, especially painting, between 1919 to 1939. In the era of Picasso and Matisse, Dada and Surrealism, English art appeared to be hopelessly retardataire.

Francis Spalding, the leading authority of twentieth British art, has rectified the omission with a magnificent narrative history which is likely to stand as the definitive treatment of the subject for many years to come. 

A fitting estimate of Spalding's achievement world be to compare Real and Romantic with the first edition of John Rewald's History of Impression (1946).  Amazingly, there was waning interest in Monet, Renoir, et al., until Rewald's book revived their reputation in the years after World War II. Spalding's book will, almost certainly, have the same effect.

In a key quotation from The Real and the Romantic, Spalding notes that: 

Whereas the Italian futurists had wanted to turn their backs on the past, to abandon it or destroy it, much English art between the wars was motivated by a wholly different attitude, by a desire to raid the past for ideas, subjects and methods that would challenge and enrich the present. This took many forms, but behind them all can be heard an echo of Laurence Binyon's words..."We cannot discard the past ... we must remold it in the fire of our necessities, we must make it new and our own."

Of particular influence, especially in the immediate aftermath of World War I, was the English landscape tradition, not only Turner and Constable, but other artists from the 1700's and 1800's.

Algernon Newton (1880-1968) looked to Canaletto for inspiration. Others, including Graham Sutherland, found a role-model in the mystical landscape painter, Samuel Palmer. 

John Sell Cotman, Greta Bridge, c. 1805

Eric Ravilious, Wannock Dew Pond, 1923

Eric Ravilious, in many ways the signature artist of the era, was inspired by the watercolors of the almost forgotten John Sell Cottman. But the somber, haunted tone of the landscapes of Ravilious hinted at the specter of impending war and the almost inescapable feeling that the slaughter and destruction would be worse, much worse, the second time around.

It was. Ravilious was killed in 1942 in an air rescue mission off the coast of Iceland. It was a noble effort but an attempt which seems doomed from the start, so futile that one wonders how Ravilious and his fellow air-crew had the courage to try. But try they did and so did English artists during the "between the wars" period so movingly described by Spalding.

The two books, above, were carefully chosen and come highly recommended as gift ideas. It's no secret that art books are generally expensive, no small matter in the current economic crisis. Exhibition catalogs and and major art monographs are generally worth the investment. But size or price need not be the deciding factor in purchasing an art book as a gift.

Thames and Hudson has been the leading publisher of quality paperback art books for decades with its classic World of Art series. My third- and final - selection is a new addition to the World of Art list, a biography of Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) by Richard Verdi, who also wrote a superb study of Cezanne for the series. 

I was saddened to discover, while researching this essay, that the World of Art Velazquez will be the last book written by Richard Verdi.This notable scholar died on Christmas Day, 2022. According to his obituary, an advance copy of Velazquez was presented to Verdi, already hospitalized, the week before he died. An uncompleted manuscript of a biography of Peter Paul Rubens lay on his desk at home.

The death of a distinguished writer and teacher like Richard Verdi - he was for many years the director of the Barber Institute of Art in Birmingham, England - is a great loss. But the gift of his talent and devotion to culture remain after his passing, another reason to cherish the World of Art's Velasquez.

Anne Lloyd (Photo, 2023)
 Gallery view of Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter

Verdi did not live to see the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter, which was presented in the spring of 2023. The breathtaking portrait of Pareja by Velazquez served as the centerpiece of this exhibition. Verdi's discussion of this truly iconic painting (it is also one of the works examined in Art Unpacked) shows how vital it is to preserve the voice of humane scholars like Verdi.

Juan de Pareja (1606-1680) was the son of a Moorish slave woman and, though born in Spain, remained a slave himself until 1650. The date was significant. Pareja was in Rome with Velazquez, at that time. Velazquez was vying for a commission to paint Pope Innocent X. To demonstrate his talent, Velazquez painted the portrait of Pareja, who had worked in his studio since 1630.

Anne Lloyd (Photo, 2023)
 Detail of Portrait of Juan de Pareja, by Diego Velazquez, 1650

Portrait of Juan de Pareja astonished the art community of Rome, then the most influential in Europe. The reputation of Velazquez soared and he went on to paint an impressive likeness of Pope Innocent. However, by a rare combination of factors  -  the alchemy of art - Portrait of Juan de Pareja was a superior work, greatly so in my estimation.

What happened? Verdi writes of this incomparable work of art:

The handling throughout is free, sketchy and even somewhat impulsive, as befits a picture intended as a dry run for a more prestigious commission, In short, this may be seen as both Velazquez and Pareja caught off guard - two cohorts engaged in a frank and intimate conversation.

There it is - "two cohorts." Two fellow human beings suddenly aware of each other's God-given talents and personalities. No longer master and slave, Spaniard or Moor, artist or assistant, they joined to create a masterpiece. In giving of themselves, both men gained much.

Juan de Pareja was emancipated by Diego Velazquez and went on to a successful painting career of his own. Velazquez became a Knight of Santiago, the trusted advisor of King Philip IV of Spain and, most importantly, the artist who would paint Las Meininas, the single greatest masterpiece in the canon of Western art.

And us? We have these wonderful books to read and to give, to share their sentiments, their brilliant insights to enjoy, to learn and live by. Or these three titles could be replaced by other books of your choosing with the same intention, the same desired effect. 

Ultimately, it is the giving rather than the gift, which counts. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Original photography by Anne Lloyd and Ed Voves, all rights reserved                  

Book cover art for Art Unpacked by Matthew Wilson (2023), The Real and the Romantic, English Art between Two World Wars by Frances Spalding (2023) and Velazquez by Richard Verdi (2023) Image credits: Thames & Hudson

Introductory image: Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl fresco from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Image from https //

Ed Voves, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view the Morgan Library & Museum’s copy of the King James Version (KJV), The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament and the New, Newly Translate Out of the Original Tongues. Published in London by Robert Barker, 1611. On view at the Morgan’s Bible exhibition.

Michelangelo (Italian, 1475-1564) Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, 1510-11. Red chalk drawing with accents of white chalk on the shoulder of the figure in the main study: 28.9 x 21.4 cm. (11 1/4 x 8 1/2 in.) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown artist (Present-day Nigeria) Queen Mother Pendant Mask, Kingdom of Benin, 16th century. Ivory sculpture, with iron and copper: 23.8 x 12.7 x 6.4 cm. (9 1/4 x 5 x 2 1/2 in.) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Habiballah of Sava (Persian, active, 1590-1610) The Concourse of Birds, c. 1600. Ink, opaque watercolor, gold and silver on paper: 25.4 x 11.4 cm. (10 x 4 1/2 in.)  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John Sell Cotman (British, 1782-1842) Greta Bridge, c. 1805. Watercolor over graphite sketch: 22.7 x 32.9 cm. (8.9 x 12.9 in.) British Museum.

Eric Ravilious (British, 1903-1942) Wannock Dew Pond, 1923. Watercolor, pen and brown ink over graphite sketch: 27.8 x 38.6 cm. (10.9 x 15.2 in.) British Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view the Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Diego Velazquez' Portrait of Juan de Pareja, 1650 (detail). Oil on canvas: 32 x 27 1/2 in. (81.3 x 69.9 cm.) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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