Avedon, Leibovitz, Gainsborough and Beaton: this year’s best art and photography books
What are you looking at? A face, a screen, those words on the page? We are visual animals. We make sense of the world through our eyes, through the images we consume. “The most abstract ideas are the consequences of all the objects that I have perceived”, once wrote the French philosopher Voltaire.
His words are quoted by Mark Cousins âânear the beginning of his last book The history of research (Canongate, Â£ 25). For some, this title might suggest pride. An attempt to catalog how and why we watch, what we watch and how our social and cultural environment shapes what we see, nothing less.
But in fact, let’s praise the ambition here. Cousins ââtackles and tackles cinema (as you would expect from a filmmaker), neuroscience, art history, architecture, astronomy and evolution. And this is only a partial list. And the result is by turns scholarly, often surprising, sometimes, yes, sinuous, but often fascinating. (Here is a did you know: Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Marat’s murder shows the radical journalist in the bath, his skin as smooth as marble. In reality, Marat was in a bath full of oatmeal because ‘he had chronic skin disease.)
âCreate images like we’ve never seen before,â Cousins ââasks at the end of the book. To do this you need to know what has already been done of course. Phaidon’s book The art museum (Â£ 39.95) could be a good place to start. Newly revised, it is an art history rich in images that takes us from the cave of Lascaux to Cy Twombly. Fortunately, this doesn’t just stick to Western lore (until the 20th century anyway).
To do this, however, it has to be tall. This is a coffee table book for those with reinforced coffee tables.
One of the best artist biographies of the year is that of James Hamilton on Thomas Gainsborough. “Gainsborough lived as if electricity ran through his nerves and crackled at his fingertips,” writes the author at the beginning of Gainsborough a portrait (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Â£ 25). Hamilton exploits this accusation.
This account of the Georgian portrait painter’s life is set against a backdrop of dirt, highwaymen and skeletons on gibbets at Hounslow Heath. An 18th-century Scottish sex therapist even makes an appearance. But for all the fun the author has with the painter’s penchant for drink and sex, the writing really takes off when Hamilton engages with Gainsborough’s paintings themselves in all their swimming, silky luster.
Author Joanna Moorhead had a big advantage writing The surreal life of Leonora Carrington (Virago, Â£ 20). She was related to the artist.
Carrington was Moorhead’s father’s cousin, so his account of the artist’s story comes with an insider perspective. She even knew Carrington. A friendship blossomed during trips Moorhead made to Carrington’s Mexican home before the artist’s death in 2011.
It is therefore a personal vision of one of the little-known heroines of twentieth-century art, an artist who is too often remembered above all as the lover of Max Ernst.
There are times when the sense of family perhaps leads Moorhead to become a little too dizzy and over-excited to be fair (“Max Ernst met his Windward Bride and Leonora Carrington met his savior,” she wrote to a given time). But it is a valid recovery of an artistic reputation. One with a multitude of names stretching from Picasso to Frida Kahlo.
The exhibition True to Life, British Realistic Paintings from the 1920s and 1930s at the Edinburgh Gallery of Modern Art was one of this year’s low-key revelations. And the binding book (National Galleries of Scotland, Â£ 19.95) recalls that British interwar art, so often cursed as a curator, offered its own pictorial pleasures.
Within its pages you can find Stanley Spencer’s 1921 painting of Christ overturning the money changers table (a vision of Jesus as a big action figure), or Sir Herbert James Gunn’s lush 1939 portrait of his second wife. Pauline Waitling. Dressed in fur and lipstick, she looks like a figure from a Powell and Pressburger movie.
Or a Cecil Beaton photo shoot maybe. She wouldn’t look out of place. Some of the photographer’s best work has been collected by Lisa Immordino Vreeland in Love, Cecile (Abrams, Â£ 40).
Beaton is a textbook case of love for art and not for the artist. The photographer was a nasty snob who always thought he should have been born, notes Vreeland, higher up the English class ladder. And he was hardly the son of a miner to begin with. In 1938, he even slipped an anti-Semitic insult into a drawing for Vogue. But he had an eye, like Love, recalls Cecil. It’s full of theatrical imagery and flippant surreal grace. It’s a talent that almost makes him forgive. Almost.
Beaton flips through some of the pages of Judith Mackrell’s revealing, terribly entertaining gossip The unfinished Palazzo: life, love and art in Venice (Thames and Hudson, Â£ 19.95). The photographer was known to Doris Castlerosse (nÃ©e Delevigne; Cara’s great-aunt), Churchill’s mistress and owner of Palazzo Venier in the 1930s. Indeed, Beaton and Castlerosse were even lovers for a short while, this which is quite important considering that Beaton was quite open to the fact that “I really like men a lot more.”
Before Castlerosse, the palace belonged to the Marquise Luisa Casati, muse of the artists of the Belle Epoque, and it later passed to Peggy Guggenheim. It is now the Guggenheim Museum.
Mackrell tells the story of the three women, their adventures and the art they inspired. It is a story that encompasses great wealth, great art, the terrors of war and the pleasures of sex. In short, it’s a Netflix series just waiting to be produced.
Speaking of carnalâ¦ âSex and art are the same thing,â Pablo Picasso once said. You would expect no less from one of the most famous male bulls in European art (two wives, six mistresses, many lovers). His 1931 painting Figures by the Sea is one of the paintings included in The art of eroticism (Phaidon, Â£ 59.95); breasts, tongues, thighs taken, like the notes in a “sculptural jumble”.
In her introduction, Rowan Pelling, editor of The Amorist, worries about the gap between eroticism and arousal. The plaques included here show no such qualms. It is art as Eros; from Greek vases to Tracey Emin.
From undressed to well dressed. According to Welsh fashion photographer Jason Evans, “Fashion photography at best is a great place to dream, fantasize and project …”
If so, then Eugenie Shinkle’s book Fashion photography: history in 180 images (Thames and Hudson, Â£ 39.95) strong dream.
It is a great introduction for those interested in the history of fashion photography; one who recognizes the importance of famous greats such as Penn, Bailey and Guy Bourdin, but also recognizes those who have fallen out of history. Like Bill King who was a regular in the fashion press from the 1960s until his death of AIDS in 1987, and Yva (aka Else Neulander), a pioneer in advertising photography. A Jew in Berlin, she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942. Her fate is unknown, but the possibility of her dying in a concentration camp is heartbreaking.
Richard Avedon also presents but for a more concentrated dose of his minimalist black and white imagery then Avedon’s France: the new look of the Old World (Abrams, Â£ 25) is, frankly, a joy.
Vanity Fair yard photographer Annie Liebovitz, meanwhile, has her maximalist moments as seen in her latest book. Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005 – 2016 (Phaidon, Â£ 69.95). The image of George Clooney leading a swarm of half-naked models must have taken a long time to fall into place. But Leibovitz can also be simple. Beautifully lit simplicity, as shown in his image of Bruce Springsteen.
After all that beauty, turn to Daido Morayama’s visions of cables, street corners, and urban clutter in Save (Thames & Hudson, Â£ 50)
A collection of images from the Japanese photographer’s magazine, it’s packed with images so grainy and murky you can imagine the ink flowing over your hands.
Morayama has an eye for the beautiful and the ugly: tarmac and electric cables and machines and street cats and hair and graffiti and fencing. On Coney Island, he photographs a singular high-heeled shoe dipped in tomato sauce or could it be …?
These are photographs that induce synesthesia. Can you smell the rain?
If Christmas plunges you into dreamlike nostalgia, then Martin Salisbury’s The illustrated the jacket 1920 – 1970 (Thames and Hudson, Â£ 24.95) is for you. In its pages, the illustrated book covers of Edward Ardizzone, John Minton and Edward Gorey evoke hazy visions of the literary pleasures of yesterday. Many of them speak of such a rosy vision of English bucolic. So much so that the crime covers can be a shock to the system, but perhaps not as much as what looks a lot like a naked Donald Trump on the cover of a 1966 edition of William Golding’s The Pyramid.
Other than that, it’s a pretty, slightly redhead thing, perfect for Boxing Day.
Ultimately, Colors (Private books, Â£ 20) an idiosyncratic hand-painted exploration of the color spectrum in life and art by Scottish illustrator Marion Deuchars. Flipping through its pages causes explosions of sunshine inside your skull.