From cave painting to Maggi Hambling: the best Christmas art books

Andrew Lambirth’s choice includes Berger, Bacon, Bown, and Bawden among many others

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

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. Worth looking into.

Björk, by Jane Bown From Jane Bown: A Lifetime of Looking, edited by Luke Dodd (Guardian Faber)
Björk, by Jane Bown From Jane Bown: A Lifetime of Looking, edited by Luke Dodd (Guardian Faber)

Another substantial achievement is Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall by William Vaughan (Yale, £50). This is the big book that Palmer devotees have been awaiting since Geoffrey Grigson’s brilliant pioneering study of the artist in 1947. It’s a superb and authoritative account which brings together all the invaluable research done by other scholars (such as Raymond Lister) and offers a new interpretation of it. This highly individual 19th-century Romantic landscape painter is often seen as a precursor of Modernism: Vaughan usefully questions all assumptions and steers a knowledgeable path to the core of Palmer’s vision.

The People’s Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain, 1800–1914 by Giles Waterfield (Yale, £45) is an extended enquiry into the rise of municipal galleries and the exhibitions they mounted in London and the regions. Radical experiment met local energy and didactic enthusiasm. The recent notion that museums were intended to control and suppress the common man is ludicrously one-sided (has no one heard of philanthropy?), and Waterfield examines the subject with appropriate scholarship and fairness. Museums (or at least exhibitions) are more popular today than ever, but books can also maintain high standards of liberal education.

Body of Art by various authors (Phaidon, £39.95) is one of those compendious volumes so useful for looking things up, a survey of how the body has been represented in art over 35 millennia, through the work of more than 400 artists. A browser’s delight, its chief virtue is juxtaposition: wonderful to see Lucian Freud’s ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ opposite ‘Sleeping Lady of Malta’ in painted terracotta from 3300–3000 bc, artist unknown. The range of imagery is impressive, though I would have liked rather fewer fashionable artists included.

It’s a real pleasure to recommend Jane Bown: A Lifetime of Looking, edited by Luke Dodd (Guardian Faber, £30), the definitive monograph on the unassuming photographer they called ‘Tenacity Jane’ because she never returned without the shot. Bown worked for the Observer for 60 years and was responsible for that marvellous photo of John Betjeman roaring with laughter on a Cornish headland. The book is full of such treasures: profoundly human and compassionate, many of her pictures are pure gold — though mostly in black and white. She never took to colour, maintaining: ‘Colour is too busy, the eye never knows where to rest’; a poignant comment on today’s unceasing image-barrage.

Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield, edited by Gill Saunders and Malcolm Yorke (V&A, £25), is a celebration of the mid-20th-century artists’ community in north-west Essex, published in association with the Fry Art Gallery, one of the best small public galleries in England, specialising in the Great Bardfield artists. There’s huge interest in Bawden and Ravilious these days, but their lesser-known contemporaries are also worth investigation, as this beautiful book amply demonstrates, through splendidly illustrated essays on such figures as Kenneth Rowntree, John Aldridge, Walter Hoyle and the weaver and textile designer Marianne Straub. Rowntree’s early topographical watercolours are especially beguiling, but Aldridge is the artist who most deserves reassessment.

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