As soon as the rain starts, I seek refuge in my arts and crafts again–drawing, coloring, beading, designing, sewing, and writing. And, I read about the artists and arts that inspire me. This collection of books is only a small selection of what I would like to recommend. There are many, many others, so there will be more book reviews to come on this topic. If you look at this list and think it peculiar–it is. Just like some of the following artists, who interpret the world in ways we cannot.
A family memoir, written by well-known ceramicist de Waal, is as beautiful and compelling as an award-winning mystery. A unique collection of small Japanese carvings, called netsukes, were acquired by a famous Jewish banker who lived in Vienna and was a relative of de Waal’s. When the war came, the family was not only routed from their majestic home by the Nazi regime, but their art and priceless furnishings confiscated. What the family did not know was that their precious netsuke collection was hidden by a family employee and smuggled out of Europe. It ended up in the possession of de Waal’s uncle (a fascinating man himself) then passed to de Waal when his uncle died. I love the way most people catch their breath when they mention having read this book, and I still catch my breath too. It is that unique, that memorable.
The theme of this story is not new: based on the famous 1990 art theft of Degas drawings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the largest (and largely) unsolved art theft in history. It is a rich canvas to use, and Shapiro has done an excellent job painting it. A young woman artist, who is struggling to overcome an earlier scandal in her career, paints copies of famous art works for online sale. She still yearns for a foothold in the highly competitive art scene. Then a noted local gallery owner brings her a proposition: if she recreates one of the famous paintings she can have her own art show at his gallery. As she creates this new painting, she starts to suspect that the copy she is working from is a fake, which twists the story into exploring her multiple suspicions. A satisfying, smoothly written read!
When a famous artist goes mad and attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art, psychiatrist Andrew Marlow is given the job of sorting out why–challenging because artist Robert Oliver won’t talk to him. Sounds like the making of a mystery, but this book is much, much more. Shifting back and forth in time to an earlier century, the story is complex and absorbing. It takes a long time for Marlow to unearth the connection between the painting Oliver attacked and his mental breakdown, and I was captivated by this story all the way. Particularly intriguing are the psychiatrist’s interactions with Oliver’s former wife, and other people that Oliver, a former art teacher, knew before his breakdown. Ingenious!
In looking over my overflowing bookshelves recently, I was surprised and pleased to rediscover old Penguin copies of almost all of Maugham’s works–reaffirming what a long-time favorite author he is for me. This work, published in 1919 right after his famous Of Human Bondage, follows the career of London stockbroker Charles Strickland, who suddenly leaves his family and career behind to become a painter. Based loosely on the life of Paul Gauguin, much of the story is set in Paris, but toward the end it describes his rich, rustic life in Tahiti, the inspiration for so many of his sensuous, color-saturated works. Maugham uses, to excellent effect, a curious and wide-eyed narrator, who is both shocked and taken in by the tortured and talented Strickland.
The first artist’s biography I remember reading as an adult, this book has stayed with me over many years (first published in 1964) n0t only because it portrays a “much larger than life” man, but because of the intricate and fascinating character of Gilot. She mothered two children with Picasso: Paloma (a famous jewelry designer) and Claude (executor of his father’s estate and art critic). Gilot, an aspiring artist herself, met Picasso in Paris during WWII, when she was 21 and he 62. Their relationship was detailed in this book, making Picasso so furious he cut off his relationship with their two children in retaliation. In retrospect, what may have been considered a gossipy story has since become praised for a complex and nuanced portrait of one of the world’s most famous artists–ever. An even more worthy read now than when first published.
Seeing a Robert Irwin show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in the early 70′s inspired changes in my thinking about art. The minimalist/conceptual art that was coming on strong during that period was controversial, at best. The Irwin show was an “experience” that I could not describe to others–rooms of light that changed with the movement from one place to another–it was almost mystical. When this biography of the artist was published in 1982 I bought it immediately and lapped it up. What struck me was the dichotomy between the amazingly affable character of Irwin and the intense discipline he applied to his body of work. Surprisingly readable and not at all esoteric, this biography captures a time and aesthetic that still strongly influences contemporary art.
More a long essay than full-on story, it amazed me that this was first published in 1975. Yet it still seems delightfully relevant and insightful today. Wolfe, always in the middle of current trends but apparently never really seduced by them, has his journalist’s eye open to take in all sides of the issues. This adds layers of interest and complexity to the topics he selects. In this irreverent piece (a Wolfe specialty), abstract expressionism is about to be toppled by a new movement called Pop Art, and the players in this lively overthrow–art critics, collectors, artists and patrons–make for a fascinating read. Wolfe is a unique painter in his own right, and even if you have read it, you will enjoy taking it on again.