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Season's Readings

Our art critic selects his favorite books of the year.

Essay collections have always been among my favorite books. And the collections I like the most are by no means devoted to the visual arts. One of this year's revelations is Ballet's Magic Kingdom: Selected Writings on Dance in Russia, 1911-1925, by Akim Volynsky. Volynsky's writing--urgent, lucid, adventuresome--brings lost performers and performances back to life. And when he turns his attention to the metaphysics of dance, his prose can be revelatory. Volynsky reminds us that you cannot write about art without writing about life as well, and this is surely true of American Audacity: Literary Essays North and South, by (TNR contributor) Christopher Benfey. There is a wonderful easiness about Benfey's essays on a range of 19th and 20th century American writers--a casual ardor. He knows how to slip deep into a subject, whether Frost or Dos Passos or Gary Snyder; the writing is playful and exacting. Today, when publishers are reluctant to bring out essay collections, American Audacity is welcome news. And it is also terrific to have one of the greatest of all modern collections dedicated to the visual arts back in print, Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935-1975, by the painter Fairfield Porter. Porter's essays and reviews have surprising cadences; his prose mirrors the imagination's shifting priorities, leaping with delightful, mysterious rapidity from precisely analytical to poetically epigrammatic to almost mystical. Porter can describe the work of Morandi or Bonnard so that you see it in an entirely new way, and nobody is more alert to the metaphoric implications of pictorial particulars.

As for this year's art books, here are five of the loveliest--and most unexpected. Alessandra Zamperini's Ornament and the Grotesque: Fantastical Decorations from Antiquity to Art Nouveau is a glorious coffee table book, a salute to the human urge to cover surfaces with imaginative caprices, transforming real interiors into dreamscapes. Kirsten Hoving's Joseph Cornell and Astronomy: A Case for the Stars offers a remarkable new perspective on an essential American master, revealing the scientific seriousness that supported Cornell's poetic fancies. The Art of Natural History: Illustrated Treatises and Botanical Paintings, 1400-1850--the latest volume in the series Studies in the History of Art, published by the National Gallery--is scholarship at its most deliciously intricate, with lavishly illustrated essays that anybody with a garden will find fascinating. Diego Rivera: Great Illustrator is a gorgeously produced volume that highlights what I think are the most powerful of Rivera's works: the drawings, often in black and white, that he did for books and magazines. And Eric Karpeles's Paintings in Proust offers a fresh view of the greatest of all modern novelists; this is a beautifully brainy book, a gathering of works by the painters who were so essential a part of Proust's imaginative life, produced in a compact, elegant format that is as friendly to the hand as it is to the eye and the mind.

Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.

By Jed Perl