Reader's Choice

This has been a good, though not exactly a vintage year for art books. Several excellent volumes appeared; some important series were launched or continued impressively; and there was an accumulation of fairly attractive items on standard masters and periods. Such a record might seem to merit only simple gratitude toward the publishers who were willing to undertake the production of these large expensive books with many colored plates. But the miracles of modern photographic reproduction, which have brought “the museum without walls” into our own homes, have also made us more demanding about the uses to which these techniques can be put. After all, the price of art books — from seventeen to twentyseven dollars also represents an investment on the part of the buyer, who may not be willing to settle for just any book of pretty pictures when he pays his money. The fact is that the art book does not have one but many functions; and the more these uses are discriminated, the more likely we are to have less confused editing.
The simplest use (commercially, it may be the most important) is as a gift. A large handsome volume with many pictures makes an immediate impression; the recipient need not be a specialist or connoisseur to turn the pages and look with pleasure, even skipping, if he chooses, the drudgery of a text, TREASURES OF THE VATICAN by MAURIZIO CALVESI (Skira-World, $27.50) seems to have been edited with just this purpose in mind. It makes no contribution to scholarship; the masterpieces it reproduces are all well known, like a standard assortment of bonbons; and they are, moreover, accessible to the tourist in one place. The photographs have been taken in a monotonously even, steady, bright light, so that St. Peter’s is made to look more than ever like a garish grand opera house all lit up. Nevertheless, the buyer who wants a big splashy gift will be getting his money’s worth; for that particular relative or friend who has been abroad and seen the originals, this book is ideally suited as a spectacular memento of his trip.
A more serious art book assembles works that are not readily accessible or that belong to widely scattered collections, and so gives a sense of an artist’s personality or the individual style of a school that would not be available otherwise. Two excellent examples are CARPACCIO by JAN LAUTS (Phaidon, $18.00) and THE HISTORY OF IMPRESSIONISM by JOHN REWALD (Museum of Modern ArtDoubleday, $20.00). Both are profusely and handsomely illustrated, yet the texts do matter very much; and in this marriage of text and pictures these two books seem to me the outstanding contributions of the current season.
Carpaccio, the great link in Italian painting between Bellini and Titian, has left us an unrivaled record of the life of his native city. In marvelous color and detail he sets before us the vigorous commerce of wharves and canals, the solemn pageantry of public rites and ceremonies. But for all the meticulous realism of detail, a curious dreamlike quality runs through his paintings. His Venice is a city turned toward the East. Turks in colorful fez or turban parade through the streets. The light that floods the canvases seems to live a secret life of its own. The Venice of Carpaccio is a fantastic city out of the thousand and one nights of the Orient. Dr. Lauts’s perceptive and scholarly monograph not only places and dates the work; it also evokes the unique personality of the painter himself.
Mr. Rewald’s History, a vastly enlarged and completely revised version of a work that appeared in 1946, deals with some of the most dramatic and significant years in the development of modern art. In 1874 a group of young French painters defied the official Salon in Paris and organized an exhibition of their own. The original group included Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Cézanne, and Berthe Morisot. They were later to be joined by Gauguin and Seurat, and, more remotely, Van Gogh. The name impressionism, largely an invention of chance, was not added until much later.
Mr. Rewald’s narrative begins twenty years before the open break with official art and continues to 1886, when the impressionists held their eighth and last show as a group. His approach is documentary and factual, yet the sheer human interest of his materials — the friendships, quarrels, and intrigues of these complex and volatile geniuses — makes altogether fascinating reading. By 1886, the original group had fallen into hopeless dissension; and, besides, the new and different discoveries of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat had advanced into territories alien to the original bent of impressionism. The date 1886, Mr. Rewald concludes, marks not a tombstone but a milestone; the impressionists had done their work and opened the door to different and bolder forms of experiment by artists.
One of the most versatile personalities of our time, novelist, political revolutionary, and war hero, and presently Minister of Culture in the , De Gaulle government, André Malraux has in recent years returned to his original career as an archaeologist dealing with the history of art. In addition to his own impressive writings on the subject, he has now undertaken, together with Georges Salles, formerly Director of the National Museums of France, to edit a series, “The Arts of Mankind.” From the look of the series so far — a first volume on Sumerian art by ANDRÉ PARROT has now been followed BYTHEARTSOF ASSYRIA (Golden Press, $25.00) by the same author — M. Malraux seems to have set his own stamp on the whole series. Art history, as M. Malraux understands it, has to be told from the point of view of the human condition itself, as man’s eternal struggle to express by image and symbol the riddle of his own fate and the mystery of the universe confronting him.
Such, in any case, is the ambitious line followed by M. Parrot, who discusses Assyrian art in relation to the religion, mythology, and social forms of that ancient people. The result is an account of a whole civilization, rich and varied in detail, broad and suggestive in its links with other cultures.
The Assyrians are one of the least attractive of ancient peoples. A race of warriors, they left behind in their art the images of brutal power. Bearded kings and warriors smile in tight-lipped arrogance, and the figures of bull-headed gods stare out at us from some primitive horror. However stiff and hieratic his treatment of the human figure, the Assyrian artist could be wonderfully fluent and expressive in his treatment of animals. One great frieze, representing a lion hunt, shows us the death throes of a dying lioness in almost cinematic sequence. The great beast, pierced with arrows, sags, falls, rolls over; and one cannot help but feel a sympathy and identification on the artist’s part that was absent from his treatment of human beings.
The Assyrians may have been more ingratiating in other aspects of their personal life too. Until 1929, when frescoes were unearthed at Til Barslip, all that was known of Assyrian art was its sculpture, principally bas-relief. The newly excavated wall paintings show a lively and very decorative sense of color. The Assyrian techniques of glazed colors were passed down to their conquerors, the neo-Babylonians, and later to the Persians. M. Parrot emphasizes that excavations show a continuity in art from the Sumerians through the Assyrians down through the Persians. Apparently, while the kings and captains warred and empires rose and fell, the artists went quietly about their work, assimilating the past and handing it down to the future.


Skira, most enterprising, flamboyant, and at times possibly the most careless of art publishers, has come up with a new series, this one on the painting of Asia. So far, two volumes — JAPANESE PAINTING by AKIYAMA TERUKAZU and AKAB PAINTING by RICHARD ETTINGHAUSEN (World, $22.50 each) — have appeared, and they are very solid and handsome achievements indeed.
Though a century has passed since the West discovered the art of Japan, our views of Japanese painting are still largely overshadowed by the popularity of the Japanese print. Mr. Terukazu takes great pains to make clear that these prints represent a later and more limited style, which was in fact the outcome of a thousand years of evolution. His book elaborates in depth and detail providing a fuller account of the variety and wealth of Japanese painting than has yet appeared anywhere. Perhaps Japan’s position as an isolated island helped its painters. At any rate, from its beginnings in the seventh century, under the influence of the Chinese masters of the early Tang period, Japanese painting was to go through an almost unrivaled development until the nineteenth century, when contact with the West and Western influences at last broke the great chain. At the time of his death in 1849, three years before Admiral Perry arrived to open Japan to the West, the master Hokusai was probably as great an artist as was to be found anywhere in the world.
While Mr. Terukazu feels compelled to broaden our views and make us familiar with more than one kind of Japanese art, Mr. Ettinghausen, on the other hand, has to begin by convincing us that there really was such a thing as Arab painting. Since Mohammedanism forbade the use of images, the aesthetic impulses of the Arabs turned toward design and arabesque rather than representation. Painting developed only as a technique for the illustration of books, and at first mainly for medical and scientific treatises. Yet painting it was; and though, compared with the great styles of the West or Far East, Arab painting is a minor form, it is nevertheless an exquisite one. and without it we would not have had the later, much-admired Persian miniatures. Indeed, in their very lack of great ambition, there is a kind of roly-poly and humorous slyness about these colored illuminations that evokes the world of the Arabian Nights. At times these miniatures oddly suggest some very modern experiments: one picture of an encampment pours men, tents, and camels higgledypiggledy on top of each other in an unstructured and riotous clutter of space that resembles nothing so much as a painting by Dubuffet.
Lying between China and Japan, Korea has continually been invaded by its two more powerful neighbors. Despite this political turbulence, Korean art has had a long and rich history, THE ARTS OF KOHKA by EVELYN MCCUNE (Tuttle, $17.50) was for me an absolutely eye-opening experience, since I had not known that Korean art, in nearly all the major forms, could stand on a par with the Chinese masters from about the fifth century onward. Our ignorance of this art is due in great part to the fact that the Koreans kept it to themselves. Only after the annexation by Japan in 1910 did Japanese historians begin to put together an artistic history of the subject country. Perhaps the conquerors were paying back a debt owed by their artists, who had originally borrowed so much from the Koreans. Mrs. McCune was born in Korea, knows the land and its people intimately, and this book has obviously been a labor ot love on her part. Detailed but very readable, her long account of Korean history goes far toward making that troubled nation understandable to us.
In LOOKING AT MODERN PAINTING (Norton, $10.00 hard-cover; $4.50 paperback) four professors of art — GIBSON A. DANES, THERESA z. FULTON, CARL D. SHEPPARD, and FREDERICK S. WIGHT — under the general editorship of Leonard Freedman seek to explain contemporary art in all its facets lor the serious gallerygoer. As is perhaps inevitable in a work with so many co-authors, the text lacks something in individual personality; but on the whole it is very well done and a useful guide through the labyrinth of the contemporary schools. The worst flaw is an indulgence at times in that windy and pompous rhetoric that has become familiar to us in art manifestos. The exposition is best, it seems to me, when it is most meticulous and plodding. To be sure, a good many of the analyses will have to be digested and then forgotten in order to approach the paintings with any degree of spontaneity. But who would deny the usefulness of the crutch after he is able to throw it away and walk?
The artist explaining his art is likely to go to the other extreme from the professor and become too personal, oblique, or oracular in tone. NAUM GABO, in OF DIVERS ARTS (Bollingen-Pantheon, $7.50), the Mellon lectures for 1959, provides a disappointingly insubstantial text in a rather pontifical manner. The light of insight does pierce the vapors now and then, particularly toward the end, where Mr. Gabo defends the positive spirit behind modern art. The world has changed, Mr. Gabo argues, more drastically than any of us would like to admit, and that is why the vision of the modern artist, which departs radically from the past, frightens us. Not a new point, but well stated.
Occasionally, however, the waitten opinions of painters, by a kind of left-handed grace, go spontaneously to the heart of their matter as no coldly analytical critic could. THE WORK OF JEAN DUBUFFET by PETER SELZ (Museum of Modern Art-Doubleday, $7.50 hard-cover; $3.75 paperback) fortunately includes many of the painter’s own words, which are among the most profound and revelatory yet spoken about modern art. The book itself memorializes a large Dubuffet exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art last fall, and for both the excellence of Mr. Selz’s text and his choice of illustrations it is easily one of the most distinguished, if more modest, items of the whole season.
Dubuffet’s paintings have seemed shocking and ugly to many, perhaps because their beauty consists precisely in an effort to redeem the , materials of life that do not fit outordinary human purposes. In an age when we have spread our highways all over nature, there is some point to a painter who does a landscape where the soil lives a bacterial life of its own and seems ready to devour the puny little figures of men, who have thrown the whole system out of whack. The street scenes of Paris, where the passing figures seem to be scrawled upon the walls, are cruel caricatures by a wise child who sees all these humans trapped among their own man-made ways. The artist’s words go hand in hand with his paintings — searching, poetical, direct. Dubuffet came late to painting, and much of the deeply reflective quality of his paintings and writings may spring from his abundant experience of the world before he sat down to his easel.
If you have been under the impression that early American art consists mainly of the cigar-store Indian sculpture or the barroom poster depicting Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn, then you are in for a very delightful surprise from 101 MASTERPIECES OF AMERICAN PRIMITIVE PAINTING (Doubleclay, $10.00). Our national heritage is not only more considerable than many of us might have thought: its quality — quite apart from its specifically historical charm — gives it its own secure place in the world of art. Much of our knowledge of this past is due to the dedicated and intelligent searches of Colonel and Mrs. Edgar W. Garbisch, who have in this book made their own private collection available to the public.
One may well question whether the word “primitive” is not being stretched, to cover all the pictures here. Many of these works, particularly those by unknown artists, have the naïve quality we usually label as primitive. But there are also examples of portrait painting — a well-established art in this country during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century — which show the artist aware of European, paiticularly English, models. There are, for example, the notable names of professionals like Joseph Badger, Jeremiah Thens, John Durand, Benjamin West, and Winthrop Chandler in the eighteenth century; Horace Bundy in the nineteenth. To be sure, they are much less polished and refined than Raeburn or Reynolds. Their styles are unmistakably American, reflecting the rawboned energies of a frontier country without the luxurious ornaments of a royal family and peers. Yet for their direct vigor of expression. their ability to catch the simple earthbound reality of their subjects, I would rate many of these portraits above the work done by English contemporaries.
Many of the paintings were intended merely as pictorial reports on the life of their times. Even in this genre, however, there are works of surprising quality. One remarkable painting, meant to record the advent of the railroads in American life, is “The Neigh of an Iron Horse,” by an unknown artist, about 1855. A horse on the prairie, frightened by the hoot of a locomotive, gallops across the foreground, his figure dwarfing a tiny train coming around the bend in the background left. The drawing of the horse, fluent in line and electric with fear, might be the envy of a Géricault or Delacroix. The painters, moreover, did not always confine themselves to mere literal representation: in one painting the immense face of a cat, with a dead bird in its mouth, hovers at the edge of a meadow while two other birds, unaware of their danger, perch on branches nearby. For the sheer feline menace of the beast I can only think of a similar fantastic study by Paul Klee. At times the naïve artist, with a singular directness of imagination, crosses the frontier into surrealism.