Book Buzz Meets the Art World
Edvard Munch might be screaming for joy, if only he was still alive. His eerie expressionist painting, "The Scream," completed over a century ago, is headed to auction in New York, with the price expected to top $80 million. Meanwhile, a van Gogh once owned by Elizabeth Taylor recently sold at auction in London for $16 million -- not bad, either.
Those sky-high prices remind me that art is about nuance, subtleties that often escape the unsophisticated. Which is why, I think, I'm fascinated by books about art and artists, volumes that offer insights into the nature of true greatness. (In this magazine article for the Los Angeles Times, I once explored at length the question of what constitutes quality in art, a field so maddeningly subjective.)
So I'm pleased to report that several new books about the art world are generating significant buzz among reviewers and readers. One of the most intriguing concerns itself with a single painting. The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" focuses on another near-priceless work. The 1907 painting set a record in 2006 when it sold for $135 million.
In her book, author Anne-Marie O'Connor traces the tortuous path of the luminous, mosaic-like portrait known as "Austria's Mona Lisa" after it was stolen by Nazi looters in the 1940s. The uneven narrative "tends to wax sentimental" about art and love, reviewer Suzanne Muchnic writes in the Los Angeles Times, where O'Connor worked when she began the project. "Still, following the trail of a single painting -- with many side trips -- provides a fresh focus for the tragically familiar Holocaust story." The book is a gripping read about "Jewish families destroyed and art collections ransacked during Hitler's reign," Muchnic adds. Carlo Wolff of the Christian Science Monitor, who notes that Hitler was a failed painter, calls the book "a celebration of art and persistence" that, despite being overly burdened by anecdotes, "is a largely successful demonstration of the way artistic provenance can tell a much larger story."
Here are four other art books also gaining attention:
1. Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. A one-time cultural backwater, Los Angeles experienced a transformation in the 1960s, when Andy Warhol exhibited his portraits of Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor, and galleries sprang up, showcasing the works of David Hockney, Bruce Nauman, Judy Chicago and others. Muchnic weighs in by saying Drohojowska-Philp's breezy book is "more Vanity Fair than standard art history . . . an affectionate, deliciously gossipy account of the decade when a convergence of renegade artists, entrepreneurs, curators, collectors and writers put Los Angeles on the art world's map." The author is especially concerned with the artistic "scene" -- obscure young talents banding together "to form a cool cohort, ultimately achieving L.A.'s grand prize: celebrity," says Michael S. Roth in The Washington Post. Holland Cotter of The New York Times offers a broader perspective, noting that, "For contemporary art in the 1950s and '60s, there was New York and that was it." Los Angeles was wrongly ignored, Cotter says, a slight that Drohojowska-Philp helps to correct, albeit without giving due credit to the African-American and Latino artists of the day.
2. Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art, 1945-1980 edited by Rebecca Peabody, Andrew Perchuk, Glenn Phillips, Rani Sinsh and Lucy Bradnock. This hardcover volume contains many photographs of memorable art from the period with the diversity that critics found lacking in Rebels in Paradise. A companion piece -- and memento -- of the Pacific Standard Time art exhibitions throughout Los Angeles, the book salutes notable names such as Simon Rodia, crafter of the Watts Towers; Charles and Ray Eames of lounge chair fame; and Kenneth Anger, the author and filmmaker. The impact of the citywide exhibitions has been enormous, says Roberta Smith of The New York Times. The story of art in Los Angeles, she says, is now divided "into two periods: before and after Pacific Standard Time." Publishers Weekly says the book is "heavy on gorgeous reproductions of iconic L.A. artwork, and, ambitious in scale and scope, represents a significant effort and achievement."
3. The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination by Fiona MacCarthy. This new biography of the versatile 19th century British artist, known for his sensitive oil paintings, stained-glass works, jewelry and crafts, shines for its intimate understanding of the Arts and Crafts movement, says Michael Dirda of The Washington Post. Dirda reflects on coming across one of Burne-Jones's stained-glass pieces, of a patron saint, in a museum, and falling into such a reverie that it was soon closing time. "During his lifetime, Burne-Jones's art frequently had this mesmerizing effect on people," Dirda writes, and MacCarthy captures the artist's belief "in the power of art to counteract spiritual degradation." Perhaps the best of a band of eccentric artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Burne-Jones drew inspiration from Greek myths and painted in the style of Michelangelo and Mantegna, the artists he most admired, The Economist notes, praising the hefty volume for its generous number of illustrations.
4. Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families by Susanne Kippenberger. Martin Kippenberger, a baby boomer hailed as the most talented German artist of his generation, was prolific despite his hard-partying lifestyle. The "restless, charismatic exhibitionist, multitasker and motormouth -- a man with "no off switch" -- drank heavily and was dead by age 44 in 1997, says Robert Smith in The New York Times. Before succumbing to liver cancer, Kippenberger produced a huge array of paintings, sculptures, collages, drawings, and other works. His sister Susanne "offers a tender, reasonably clear-eyed, oddly gripping account of her only brother's headlong plunge through life," Smith says. "A journalist for a Berlin newspaper, she writes in a brisk, personable style that has been sensitively translated by Damion Searls."
SecondAct asks: So what books are you enjoying? Share your recent reads in the comments section below.
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