Brief Reviews

The Shameful Life of
Salvador Dalí

According to his biographer, "Salvador Dalí is not a trustworthy source of information about himself." Dalí could be an amusing source of misinformation, however, and in one respect he seems to have been accurate. He once announced, "The only difference between Dalí and a madman is that DALÍ IS NOT MAD." Mr. Gibson's deeply researched, very well written biography demonstrates that Dalí had the narrowly focused self-absorption of certain maniacs, but knew how to use it to his advantage -- which maniacs rarely do. Mr. Gibson believes that Dalí, who grew from an exceptionally timid child into a sexually incompetent adult, was ruled all his life by shame -- although by normal standards the juvenile examples of it that survive hardly amount to more than embarrassment. Whatever drove him, the teenaged Dalí wrote out a general plan for success as a painter and followed it, with whatever details of action seemed necessary, to the end. The plan did not include gratitude, loyalty, or financial honesty, but gave plenty of room for experiment, theatricalism, publicity, and adventures that were sometimes even funnier than Dalí intended -- and he was a great comedian. He was also, of course, a greatly influential Surrealist painter, and Mr. Gibson gives thorough, intelligent attention to Dalí's work. It is hard to imagine a more satisfactory life of this very complicated artist.

Sarajevo Blues

Mr. Mehmedinovic left his native Bosnia in 1996, but his record of the horrifying events he observed there is vividly immediate. In short pieces of prose and poetry the author recaptures the stoicism created by constant danger and the incongruous survival of pre-war habits. A woman, a Chetnik gunner, sunbathes semi-nude between shots. Cigarettes still come wrapped, but in any paper that is handy, which "might be toilet paper or even pages from a book so that in the leisure time tobacco affords you can read fragments of a poem or the ingredients of a bar of soap." The mundane and the terrible merged in Sarajevo. Mr. Mehmedinovic takes the reader there.

Jack Yeats

John Butler Yeats (feckless son of intellectual Irish gentry) and Susan Pollexfen (daughter of a prosperous Irish businessman) had four surviving children: Willie (William), Lily (Susan), Lolly (Elizabeth), and Jack (John). Jack became an artist, like his father. Unlike his father, he made a sound living, first as a successful illustrator, eventually as the revered grand old man of twentieth-century Irish painters. Mr. Arnold's biography gives proper attention to Yeats's art, but covers many other matters as well. Yeats lived for years in Devon with his English wife. He became a friend of John Masefield, with whom he shared an enthusiasm for ballads, pirates, and model boats that were launched to heroic disaster on a Devonshire river. He became a friend of the playwright John Millington Synge, when the two traveled in the west of Ireland as writer and illustrator of pieces on the area for the Manchester Guardian. He came to know, and admire, the painter Oskar Kokoschka, whose slashing style had some influence on his own late brushwork. The Yeats family as a whole -- the poet, the painter, and their two energetic sisters -- was influential in all aspects of the Irish renascence of the early twentieth century, a fact that gives Mr. Arnold a wonderful, and wonderfully quotable, cast of characters for this splendid, well-illustrated biography. If the book has a defect, it is the shortage of examples from Jack Yeats's written work. Yes, he did that, too.

One Man's Chorus

Burgess, whose essays on writers, composers, historical events, and his own idiosyncratic notions make up this collection, did not fancy the position of critic. He saw himself as a fiction writer who had vainly wished to be a composer, and a critic only for want of a better way to earn ready cash. But he was never a hack. The occasional pieces written, presumably, to butter daily bread display the same taste, wit, learning, and elegance of style that distinguish Burgess's novels, and make delightful reading.

Nordic Landscape
Painting in the
Nineteenth Century

Mr. Gunnarsson provides more than a catalogue of painters and their lives. He examines the ideas and political situations that led, after the Napoleonic Wars, to the realization among Scandinavian artists that fjords and fir trees are as paintable as Roman ruins, and silvery northern mist as interesting as golden Italian sunlight. The book is lavishly illustrated with excellent, often striking works -- most of them located in Scandinavian museums. Those painters found an appreciative audience on their home ground.

Harlequin on the Moon:
Commedia dell'Arte
and the Visual Arts

Commedia dell'Arte originated (probably) in sixteenth-century Italy, and has been around ever since. It has added characters and changed names with changing countries, but its basic pattern runs through painting, circus, all forms of theater, and on into cinema. It will probably reach outer space in time. The characters have become archetypes; their antics are infinitely variable, and their relationships fluid enough to give artists the leeway to convert them into sad or merry symbols at will. Ms. Lawner's history of the genre makes a pretty, amusing book that is also informative.

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