The Arts and Literature

My reading in the arts mostly focuses on the static visual arts: painting, sculpture, and architecture. Often the books I read are as much about history and biography as they are about the arts, so I am likely to cross-list at least some of them (like the Snyder volume) with that category. I will also include books on literature, mostly about literature rather than literary works themselves. Paradoxically, I was an English literature major for the first three years of my undergraduate studies, before switching to psychology. I have a lifelong fondness for good literature, but read less of it these days. I am still very fascinated with writers, and with the process of writing.

Mason Currey. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.


This is a fascinating collection (according to the book flap, of 161 “artists”) of accounts of how well-known writers, artists, scientists, and other creative sorts used their time on a typical day. It comes as no surprise that many were quite disciplined about their use of time. And the rituals included not just the hours spent working, but the environment, the stimulants, the emotions that all played a role. Reading about the discipline of these creative folks makes me appreciate why my oeuvre is so modest. Thank you Judith Donath for calling this book to our attention.

David Hockney. Hockney’s Pictures: The Definitive Retrospective, Compiled with Commentary by David Hockney. New York: Bulfinch Press, 2004.


David Hockney is my favorite living artist. We have a large print of one of his Grand Canyon paintings in Judy’s study. We’ve enjoyed his paintings at many different galleries. I especially love his use of color, and his focus on the details of even everyday life. This volume is a collection of his paintings selected by himself. It is a wonderful collection, interspersed with interesting commentary by the artist himself. He is such an exploratory artist, interested as much in the process as in the product. This of course led him to his controversial book reviewed below.

David Hockney. Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (New and Expanded Edition). London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.


This is a truly amazing volume. Hockney became interested in how painters did their work, fascinated with the detail with which they portrayed people and the natural world. He put up printouts of hundreds of paintings on a long wall, in chronological order, and studied them intensely. He came to the conclusion that many of the artists had used optical devices to help them capture the detail of the world. And interestingly, he does not call this “cheating.” He tried the techniques himself, and discovered that it takes incredible artistry to use mirrors and lenses to focus on the details of real life. I am fascinated by this, because I already knew about the reasonably well-documented case of Johannes Vermeer, who apparently used a camera obscura to help him render the fine details of the beautiful paintings he did. To find out, with Hockney’s help, that such methods were common, is fascinating. This volume makes the case with hundreds of examples and detailed analyses, along with an extensive collection of texts that discuss these issues.

David Michaelis. Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.


Those of us who grew up with Peanuts have long wanted to know more about the author, Charles Schulz. Michaelis’ volume is a rich answer to this quest. It is hardly surprising that the comic strip, with its cast of interesting characters, embodies much about Schulz’s life and times. Though Schulz is deceased, and thus no new Peanuts strips are being created, the comic still enjoys a continued life of reruns in many of today’s newspapers. The book is richly illustrated with photos and scores of Peanuts comics. Interestingly, on a visit to the Schulz museum in Santa Rosa, California, shortly after Michaelis’ biography was published, no copies were in evidence. This is still true on the museum’s web site. Such rejection should not stop you from reading this fascinating account.

Ann-Marie O’Connor. The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.


This book goes through three phases. The first is the period of the 1920s and 30s, when Klimt painted, often fashionable women, in a style that was new and often shocking. This book follows the fate of his painting of the Jewish socialite, Adele Bloch-Bauer. It’s often called the Mona Lisa of Austria. The second phase is what happened in World War II, when the Nazi’s terrorized the Jews and confiscated all of their property, including art. Klimt’s paintings had a bumpy ride, and many precious ones were destroyed by rampaging SS men at the war’s end. But the Adele masterpiece survived. The third phase is the long sequel to the war, when the Bloch-Bauer ancestors tried to reclaim the paintings the Nazi’s had stolen. In particular, Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece, hired a Los Angeles lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, to try to reclaim the lost collection of Bloch-Bauer Klimt paintings. Through a long and winding trail of intrigue and court battles, including going all the way to the US Supreme Court, Schoenberg was able to win custody of a collection of five Klimt paintings for the Bloch-Bauer descendants. But even that “victory” is full of angst, especially in Austria. O’Connors recounting of all three phases is vivid and insightful. So much of the history of Germany, Austria, and the entanglements that resulted from the horrible war that included the Holocaust, are recounted in often horrible detail. But it’s an incredible story of the intermingling of art and the affairs of state.

A footnote. I found this book at Cherry Street Books in Alexandria, MN, a beautiful little independent bookstore in the small Midwestern town where members of my extended family lived. It’s great to have a place in s small town in mid-America where the best books being published are available.

Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith. Van Gogh: The Life. New York:Random House, 2011.


Van Gogh has always been one of my most favorite artists. When Judy was regularly teaching in The Netherlands, we frequently visited exhibits of his art. One memorable occasion was a show of his drawings that he did to plan his paintings. His life, of course, was at least as complex and interesting as his art. This biography by Naifeh and Smith is superb. It is rich in detail about his life, his milieu, his art, his complicated relationship with his brother Theo, and his limited artistic influence during his life. He sold almost none of his art when he was alive — quite a contrast to the record-breaking prices his art has drawn in our times. He lived at the edge, both financially and psychologically. In the end, he was institutionalized, and  his life ended early under still mysterious circumstances. This is exactly the kind of biography you want to read about an artist.

Michael Sims. Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.


I would not characterize myself as a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, but I’ve read the stories with pleasure ever since I was in junior high school. This is just the kind of book about Doyle and Holmes that whets the appetite to return to the genre. It  also traces the influences on Doyle, who wrote widely on other matters before settling in to the Holmes genre. His major influence was Dr. Joseph Bell, from whom he learned to be observant and analytical while he was in medical school. But he was also influenced by other predecessors to Holmes, such as Poe’s Dupin. Sims traces these and many other influences both historic and contemporary. Once he begins to write about Holmes and Watson, he has uncertain fortunes with publishers until The Strand, a new magazine, offers him a series of contracts that elevate him to fame and fortune.

 Laura J. Snyder. Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016.


This interesting volume explores how the emergence of optical instruments changed how both artists and scientists came to see the world. Leeuwenhoek, of course, carried out an amazing array of observations using a microscope. Vermeer is now widely believed to have used a camera obscura to create images of the world that he could study, and perhaps even copy (though this latter claim is controversial). Along with Grayling’s The Age of Genius (see History and Biography section), this book got me interested in reading more widely about the 17th century.

Rebecca Solnit. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.


The late 19th century had numerous developments that shaped our modern world. The railroads emerged as a sophisticated and reliable transportation system. It was enabled in large part by telegraphy, which allowed for instantaneous communication between distant places. Photography matured, and had a big impact on art as well as how we communicated about and reflected upon the world. And many more. Solnit describes this period through the lens of an especially interesting figure, Eadweard Muybridge, who perfected high-speed photography. This was in part enabled by an attempt to verify whether a horse’s feet at speed were ever all off the ground. The eye could not decide. But Muybridge’s photos showed clearly that there were fleeting moments when all four legs were off the ground. Muybridge photographed many other human and animal motions, freezing them in ways that astonished his viewers. But his techniques laid the groundwork for the emergence of motion pictures, a technology that had a huge impact on California. Solnit traces many other threads that led to Hollywood on the one hand and Silicon Valley on the other. She is a master of informed storytelling.

David Sweetman. The Love of Many Things: A Life of Vincent van Gogh. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990.


This volume, long out of print, sadly, was pioneering in covering much of van Gogh’s early life. His later life, his struggles with insanity, his pioneering “modern” art, have always been the best known parts of his life. But his early life and earliest art are also remarkable elements of the story of his life and his work. This volume has personal meaning for me, as it was purchased at Cambridge’s great bookshop, Heffers, absorbed by Oxford’s bigger brother, Blackwell’s, in 1999. On our sabbatical year, 1989-90, I moved a non-trivial portion of Heffers’ inventory to our flat along the Cam.

Miles J. Unger. Picasso and the Painting that Shocked the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.


This book focuses on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his 1907 painting that transformed modern art as well as Picasso’s career as an artist. Most of the book recounts Picasso’s history leading up to this work, and briefly recounts what happened as a result. Even though I own Richardson’s major biography of Picasso, I haven’t read it yet, so much of the biography of his early years was new to me in detail. And the interesting relations among the artists of this period were also new to me. Picasso and Matisse were in direct competition for the leadership of the avant garde. Both were deeply influenced by Cezanne. Picasso had a close working relationship with Georges Braque, the other major figure in the emergence of Cubism. It makes me want to read a lot more about all of these figures. The biographical material is rich in detail about all of the many figures that were in and out of Picasso’s life, and Unger also spends a lot of time analyzing specific works by both Picasso and others. One drawback is that many of the works that are discussed in detail are not included, so it makes it harder to follow the analyses.

Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger. Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings. Cologne: Taschen, 2012.


This is a truly remarkable volume. It is everything van Gogh painted, in 740 excellent pages, mostly in color, with insightful commentary about the work and the life. It is a necessary companion to any of the many great biographies of the artist. And, amazingly, Taschen has made it available at a remarkably low price as part of its Bibliotheca Universalis series ($19.99 on Amazon for the hardcover).

Mariet Westerman. A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

511m0pr7msl-_sx336_bo1204203200_The Dutch art of the period covered by this book has been known for its realistic depiction of scenes of everyday life. This was in marked contrast to much of the European art that came before. Westerman’s book reviews the artists and art of this period, and offers insights into why this art had the characteristics that it did. The Dutch Republic was young and vibrant. The Protestant revolution was in the process of changing how people thought about the world. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Steen and others populate the profusely illustrated pages. All in all, it’s a rich story involving political, religious, and artistic threads from one of the most interesting periods of European history.