The most beautiful libraries exude a bookish rapture, and no libraries have more of this luminous poetry than the glorious confections, all polished wood and shining stone and white-and- gold stucco, that royal families and religious orders built in the eighteenth century, mostly in Austria, Germany, and
Switzerland. Working in a Europe where the late afternoon of the baroque was passing ever so swiftly into the giddy morning of the rococo, a legion of gifted architects and sculptors and painters and craftsmen created spaces in which vast bookcases are shaped into concavities and convexities, transforming row upon row of precious volumes into rooms that are as surprisingly curved and curled as the interiors of gigantic sea shells. What may strike a contemporary visitor is the visual openness of these libraries, with the center of the room left as bare as a ballroom's parquet, and the walls ringed with the surge of books, rimmed with statuary and decorative carvings, and completed by an elaborately painted ceiling. The effect is intellectual heedlessness--which can be a shock to anybody who has grown up in the libraries of later generations, where the tightly-packed rows of bookcases, filling a space from end to end, suggest not a visual frolic but the austere geometry of a classical temple.
In The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World (Abrams, $50), one of this season's crop of picture books, you will find the Benedictine abbey library of Admont, where the white-painted bookcases are topped with the wonderful drumrolls and flourishes of gilt ornamentation, the more opulent monastic library at Wiblingen, with columns painted to imitate red and green stone and an entire congregation of twisting, turning allegorical figures, and the abbey library of Saint Gall, where the lustrous browns and tans of carved and inlaid wood bookcases harmonize with the old leather bindings to create a mellow exultation. In the royal libraries that were built in the eighteenth century in Vienna, in Prague, and in Mafra, Portugal, architects pushed even further, creating interiors in which the serried ranks of books take on a symphonic power that suggests an intellectual riposte to the glittery aura of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
The Most Beautiful Libraries, with admirably lucid photographs by Guillaume de Laubier and an intelligent text by Jacques Bosser, reaches back to the Renaissance and forward to the democratic vistas of the New York Public Library. The book does not include buildings by several of the greatest architects who have taken an interest in library design; there is nothing by Borromini, nothing by Alvar Aalto, and Michelangelo's Laurentian Library is missing. And while there isn't a library in the book that you could really call cozy, there are spaces--the John Rylands library in Manchester, the Trinity College library in Dublin--that suggest the austerity of scholarly work. As for the abbey libraries of the eighteenth century, they are Europe's greatest salute to the teeming exaltation of bookishness, to the times when a passage that you've read gets you so excited that your mind careens upward, higher and higher, into the cloud-swagged empyrean that was so often painted on the ceilings of these unimaginably playful places of study.
Like the beautifully appointed library, the beautifully printed or bound volume can suggest a celebration of what is most essential in a book. And the eighteenth century was not only a great time for libraries, it was also a halcyon period for book illustration, with extraordinary works produced, to limit ourselves to France alone, by painters such as Oudry and Boucher and by dazzlingly gifted graphic artists such as Eisen, Gravelot, and Cochin fils, who are nowadays known only to specialists. The art-for-art's-sake frivolity of some of this work struck a special chord among artists and connoisseurs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
One of the modern artists who sought to bring back into book illustration a rococo wit was Raoul Dufy, a giant whose paintings and graphic works remain terribly undervalued. Dufy's revival of the eighteenth-century vignette in a long series of woodcut illustrations produced in the first quarter of the twentieth century remains too little appreciated. While his illustrations for Apollinaire's Le Bestiaire, ou Cortge d'Orphe (1911) are frequently discussed, much more could be said about his transcendent stenciled illustrations for Mallarm's Madrigaux (1920), with evocations of a fashionably dressed woman and a corner of a room and a painter at an easel so precise that they resurrect, in a series of flashes, a whole lost world of nineteenth-century moods, modes, and mentalities.
Another of Dufy's remarkable experiments in illustration, Mon Docteur le Vin (Yale University Press, $19.95), originally published in 1936, is back in print, so there is a chance that this wonderfully silly book that has had a cult following among a few Dufy fanatics will at last reach the audience that it deserves, although the reduced format and the imperfect clarity of the reproductions provide only an echo of the original edition, designed by the legendary graphic artist Cassandre. Mon Docteur le Vin was produced as an elaborate brochure by the wine merchant Etienne Nicolas, whose shops are still familiar in France. The text, by Gaston Derys, consists of a series of arguments, reinforced by the opinions of medical specialists, for the beneficial effects of wine--which turns out to be good for childhood ailments, as a treatment for typhoid fever and diabetes and appendicitis and obesity, as a morale booster, as a stimulant for athletes, and as a spur to creativity among artists and writers. To accompany these heaped- high encomia, Dufy provides a series of watercolors whose subject is the sociability of French life: the teeming railroad stations and parks and sports events and government receptions and auction rooms and galleries and theaters, as well as, of course, the endless meals eaten in cozily crowded rooms or out-of-doors, beneath tree-dappled skies. The throwaway charm of Dufy's watercolor technique is backed up by reserves of compositional know-how. Take a look at the lower right corner of the illustration for "Wine as a treatment for diabetes," in which the grouping of two dogs and a seated man, his head tipped way back, creates a drama of tilting triangles that sets the entire picture in motion with a confidence that Rubens could not have improved upon. And Dufy brings to the self-evidently over-the-top claims of Mon Docteur le Vin exactly the kind of easygoing, let-a-bit-of-the-wind-out-of- their-sails wisdom that the book needs. You can see that Dufy is laughing, or at least winking, at this fantasy that wine is a universal panacea, and yet at the same time he understands the need for this fantasy and goes right ahead and celebrates it.
There is something in Dufy's exacting yet upbeat spirit that recalls Jean Renoir: these artists take the precise measure of their fellow men, but ever so gently. If Dufy's graphic achievements have been overlooked, this is in part because there are such endless riches to be found among the illustrated books and periodicals of the twentieth century that it can be easy to leave whole areas out of consideration. Steven Heller's Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant- Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon, $75) is an excellently produced book that tracks the graphic gorgeousness of experimental magazines across the twentieth century. Although Heller shows us flashes of the rococo-revival in early modern circles--you see it in the illustrations in Das Plakat, a German magazine published between 1910 and 1921--what Heller emphasizes is modern austerity and angularity and a collagist sensibility that yields results ranging from the constructivist to the surrealist.
Heller presents covers and double-page spreads in periodicals ranging from early twentieth- century productions such as Broom, Futurismo, Dada, Merz, Der Sturm, Neue Jugend, and De Stijl to mid-century works including PM, View, VVV, Art d'Aujourd'Hui, Bizarre, and Portfolio. And we begin to see that the very look of each magazine reflects not only a particular aesthetic, but also a particular kind of sociability and a particular view of the world. Heller takes the story through the alternative press of the 1960s and right up to the present, but the point is not so much the narrative as the opportunity to come in close contact with the images themselves.
This is, I think, equally true for Gian Carlo Calza's Hokusai (Phaidon, $95), a finely printed volume that provides us with a close look at Hokusai's huge achievement, including his published sketchbooks, the Manga, as well as many other illustrated books, among them erotic images in which a lyric voluptuousness proves to be entirely consistent with a no-holds-barred sex-manual literalness. Calza's account of Hokusai concludes with a chapter about the artist's impact on nineteenth-century French art, and Hokusai's bold attack, both in black-and-white and in color, can also seem to vibrate deep into the twentieth century, with its echoes felt in the bracing clearheadedness of many of the designs that Heller includes in Merz to Emigre and Beyond.
When we approach certain large, unruly subjects--the history of the modern magazine or the place of fashion in culture--we may find that a book offers a better introduction than an exhibition, for as we turn the pages we are able to grasp the subject as a whole. The value of Isabelle Denamur's Moroccan Textile Embroidery (Flammarion, $60) is that she presents us not only with color photographs of these magnificent eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cloths but also with vintage photographs, mostly late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century, of women wearing the clothes, so that we understand the densely worked decorative surfaces not only as two-dimensional arabesques but also as sculptural objects, alive in time and space. While these Moroccan textiles draw on what is perhaps the most sophisticated decorative arts tradition in the world, a tradition that has its origins in the ancient Middle East, they have a folkloric bluntness, a likeably brash spirit. It's as if the whispered subtleties of a Persian carpet had been crossed with the spirited navet of an early American sampler. The decorative excess of these silk-embroidered Moroccan shawls and turbans and sashes and door hangings and tablecloths is almost comically gleeful. Islamic geometry is given a refreshingly blunt attack.
While some may feel that it is stretching the point to see comic high spirits in the decorative work of Moroccan women, nobody can doubt that the comedy of fashion was an abiding theme for Elsa Schiaparelli, the designer who is the subject of a book, Shocking!: The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli (Yale University Press, $65) that accompanies an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 4. Schiaparelli earned her toehold in the history of art through collaborations with Dal, including a dress fabric decorated with lobsters, a crustacean that the poshest of the Surrealists incorporated in his work during the 1930s. But her place in the twentieth-century adventure transcends her witty allusions to Dal, Cocteau, Meret Oppenheim, and countless others, for Schiaparelli knew what the very best of her artist friends also knew, which is that style must always express structure--that style, if it is to have meaning, is an effect of structure.
In Schiaparelli's work, there is always an underlying logic to the fizz of decorative embroidery or the tongue-in-cheek flashiness of the fabric design. She uses her flights of fancy to emphasize the lithe, swaggering bodies of the coolly yet humorously sexy women who wore her amazing clothes. Despite her passion for trompe l'oeil gags--the scarves designed to mimic newsprint, the evening gowns made of silks printed with regimental flags, the dinner suit embroidered with mirrors to echo the interiors of Versailles--she never lost a formalist's instinct for the basic question, which for a designer of clothes is how to make people look good. In Shocking!--the word describes a particularly vivid pink that she favored-- Schiaparelli comes across as a woman who through her tireless attention to the craft of fashion made something imperishable out of the exigencies of dress.
If Schiaparelli's most extravagant inventions are forever associated with the high bohemia of the years between the wars-- with Dal's glossy Surrealism and Cocteau's Neo- Romanticism--one of the earliest works in Shocking!, a 1928 sweater in black, white, and red, with a trompe l'oeil collar and bow knitted right into the fabric, suggests the astringency of the Constructivist tradition--of Cubist collage, Russian avant-garde graphics, Sonia Delaunay's fabrics, and Bauhaus weavings. There were quite a few artists in early twentieth-century Europe who believed that the revolutionary implications of abstract art had swept aside the old distinctions between painting and sculpture and architecture and design. And the result, so many believed, was going to be a new, more thoroughly integrated understanding of the visual world.
Such ideas circulated at the Bauhaus, and when Hitler's rise to power sent some of the artists and architects who had worked at the Bauhaus to the United States, this dream of a unified theory of the arts took hold in various places in the states, including Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Josef and Anni Albers arrived in the 1930s. Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art (MIT Press, $75) is the English version of the catalogue of a show mounted at the Reina Sofa in Madrid last year, and Vincent Katz, who edited the volume and wrote a good deal of the text, gets at the catalytic complexity of an institution that stands at the crossroads of mid-twentieth century American culture. Black Mountain College has the richness of a scrapbook--a scrapbook devoted to the works and days of the extended family of mid-twentieth-century American experimentation. The college brought together creative spirits from several different continents and several different generations, and what held everybody together was a belief in elective affinities--in the freely chosen community of artistic individuals that was an American re-imagining of the revolutionary artistic spirit of romantic Europe in the early nineteenth century.
Among the figures who moved through Black Mountain, either as teachers or students, either during the winter sessions or the summer sessions, were Josef and Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Eric Bentley, Ilya Bolotowsky, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Fielding Dawson, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Lou Harrison, Fannie Hillsmith, Alfred Kazin, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert de Niro, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, Roger Sessions, Aaron Siskind, David Tudor, Cy Twombly, Peter Voulkos, Susan Weil, and Jonathan Williams. Like any immensely complex family saga, this one bears telling and re-telling, and Katz's book adds colorings and shadings to the excellent accounts that we already have in Martin Duberman's Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, Mary Emma Harris's The Arts at Black Mountain College, and Dawson's resonant memoir, The Black Mountain Book. Of special value in the new volume are the pages on "Olson and Black Mountain College" by Creeley, the poet whose recollections of the mid-century years, collected in a small group of lyrical essays, are never less than extraordinary. "What I first saw," Creeley recalls of meeting Olson, "was this very big man, clothed only with a towel, still wet from the shower, saying and gesturing, come in, come in! In I went and moments later, it seemed, we were altogether engaged with talking of all that our letters had touched on and worked to locate--writing, magazine, person, history, presence, conjecture."
That was Black Mountain College. Black Mountain had an incalculable importance for the development of the modern crafts traditions in America. Anni Albers brought an unsparing formalist vision to the art of the loom, and a revival of Asian pottery techniques that was having an international impact in the second quarter of the century was also felt at the college. What makes the Black Mountain story so difficult to tell is that it is part of a larger story of how modern art's back-to-the-basics spirit could reinvigorate pre- industrial techniques, with repercussions that were felt from the triumphs of Scandinavian design to the revival by Isamu Noguchi and others of traditional Japanese crafts. Nature Form %amp% Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima (Abrams, $75) turns our attention to a large figure in this story, the Japanese-American woodworker who knew how to bend his own will to a formal necessity that emerged from the very grain of the exquisite pieces of walnut, cherry, oak, laurel, and rosewood out of which he crafted his tables and chairs and benches.
Written by Nakashima's daughter, Mira Nakashima, who has directed his studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania since his death in 1990, Nature Form %amp% Spirit reflects the plainspoken idealism that you feel in the beautifully polished tops of Nakashima's tables, with their surprising forms that are nothing more or less than a section of the trunk of a great old tree, and their finely inlaid butterfly clamps, often in a contrasting wood, that reinforce natural cracks and fissures and double as decorative punctuation. When Nakashima gave the Mies van der Rohe lectures at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1977, he said that "my relationship to furniture and construction is basically my dialogue with a tree, with a complete and psychic empathy." Some readers may recoil from the unabashed romanticism of this view, but when you turn to Nakashima's work, you can see that he believed every word that he said. This man was a demanding, disciplined romantic. "Since design need not be a (personal) expression," he continued, "the functions of construction become primary." Even people who know Nakashima's furniture may close this book with a deepened admiration for the man, because we are also presented with a generous selection of his architectural experiments, among them his own New Hope home and the addition that he made to the house of Ben and Bernarda Shahn. I am not sure that there has ever been a time when so many engaging books about the twentieth-century decorative arts were coming off the presses.
Bent Ply: The Art of Plywood Furniture (Princeton Architectural Press, $45), by Dung Ngo and Eric Pfeiffer, contains a useful technological history and a good selection of furniture, ranging from Aalto and Eames to new designs, including a beautifully severe dining table by Jens Denecke; but what is going to make this volume a must for design- book collectors is the binding, which consists of two sheets of stout, blond plywood, the front one niftily stamped with the title in black and green. Marimekko: Fabrics Fashion Architecture (Yale University Press, $75), the catalogue of an exhibition that is at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts through February 15, promises a walk down memory lane for the youth-oriented intellectual set of the early 1960s, who flocked to the Design Research stores in Cambridge, New York, and San Francisco, where they loaded up on the brilliant, big-scaled Marimekko textiles that were made into pillows, dresses, tablecloths, wall hangings, and curtains emblazoned with snaky stripes and stylized flowers. The popularity of the Marimekko designs--and the Design Research stores that marketed Marimekko in the United States--is now being interpreted historically, as one of a succession of more or less successful attempts to give mass-produced industrial products a freestanding distinction. In the past few years, it has been the Ikea superstores that have been re-interpreting modern design, at prices infinitely more affordable than those of the old Design Research, where in spite of the youthful ambience you needed the salary of a full professor to be able to afford anything larger than an ashtray. As for the investigations into the egalitarian spirit of the decorative arts that were pursued by old modern masters such as Picasso, Lger, Mir, and Chagall in the years after World War II, they never produced anything that was available at bargain prices, although the Picasso ceramics sold in limited editions by the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris were affordable enough to become for a time a sort of upper-middle-class souvenir of the postwar grand tour.
While the ceramics that Chagall produced, mostly in the 1950s, lack the feverish brilliance of Picasso's work, some of these lyrical tiles and vases and platters have a likeable and even seductive spirit. Marc Chagall: Ceramic Masterpieces (Prestel, $65), the English version of the catalogue of an exhibition held in Germany last summer, does not live up to its over-the-top title, but this beautifully produced volume, edited by Roland Doschka, certainly shows how a formidable artist works to find his own truth in an unfamiliar medium. Some of the most successful ceramics are the vases that sprout human figures and animal heads, so that the shapes begin to echo the fantastical, improvisatory zest of Chagall's draftsmanship. And in many of these works Chagall shows a likeably unfussy way with the glazes, a light touch that brings to mind the tossed-off decorations on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European folk pottery. Although these ceramics are a divertimento in the master's later career, Chagall's post-World War II achievement is large enough to include a few frolics, and those who see only kitsch in the Jerusalem Windows and the cycle of biblical paintings in the Chagall museum in Nice are missing out on some signal modern achievements. As Meyer Schapiro wrote in 1956, in his essay on Chagall's illustrations for the Bible, "modern artists have greater resources than modernity allows them to disclose--resources which are often unsuspected by the artists themselves, who would welcome, we may venture to suppose, the prospect of great walls to cover or monuments to erect, and would not be at a loss for subjects worthy of this scale, if their art were open to all that they felt or loved." In his later years Chagall had embarked on precisely this quest.
While the dream of the unity of the arts recurs in every period, no group of creative spirits may have been as passionately devoted to that dream as the artists and architects of the baroque, and Giovanni Careri, a professor at the cole des Hautes tudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, salutes their dreams with an inspiriting fervor in a book titled simply Baroques (Princeton University Press, $75). The combination of Careri's fast-moving prose and Ferrante Ferranti's dramatically poised photographs makes for an experience that has some of the broad-brush exuberance of a top-notch survey course; Careri is not concerned about getting all the details right so long as he is true to the temper of the times. Scrupulous art historians may cringe at the sweeping themes that Careri aims to tackle in chapters entitled "Ecstasies," "Angels," "Vanities," and "Images of Power"--or at the way that he bounces from country to country. Yet this is a book that I would not hesitate to hand to a person whom I wanted to introduce to the intoxications of the baroque. Careri's vehemence works with this most insistent of styles. And his meditations can be challenging. Writing about Pozzo's great, absurd illusionistic ceiling in Sant'Ignazio in Rome, Careri argues that there are theological implications in the very weakness of this vast perspectival construction. As visitors to Sant'Ignazio will recall, Pozzo's trompe l'oeil juggernaut only makes perfect visual sense when viewed from one location--when you're standing on that famous circle inlaid in the middle of the floor. Careri, in his eagerness to re-imagine Pozzo's awesome cleverness as something closer to genius, argues that when you move away from that point--and the perspective illusion collapses--you are reminded of "the vanity of the eye."
That is a sly way to justify Pozzo's virtuoso turn. But nobody who remembers the first time that they experienced the madcap perspectival hijinks of Sant' Ignazio will be indifferent to Careri's ingenious remarks. The baroque, like the gothic before it, was an international style. And no city is as inextricably linked with this hyperbolic worldview as Rome, where the salient formal characteristics of the baroque--the oval and the spiral and the S-curve and the unification of spaces through a ceaseless process of visual elaboration--feel inevitable, as ordinary as breathing.
There will always be a limit to how closely you want to link particular places with particular styles, and yet everybody will know what you mean if you say that a baroque sculpture embodies the spirit of Rome or an Impressionist painting embodies the spirit of Paris or a black and white photograph embodies the spirit of New York. Certainly New Yorkers as Seen by Magnum Photographers (powerHouse, $45), edited by the Max Kozloff, catches the reckless extremes that define the melting pot city--and considering that the preponderance of the photographs in this collection are in black- and-white, the color images included begin to seem like sparks and fireworks set off by the dialectical clash of those colors that are no color and all color.
New Yorkers as Seen by Magnum Photographers is about as good a visual introduction to the frenzied enchantments of New York as I can imagine. The title of this collection of work by members of the legendary Magnum photo agency--they include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Eve Arnold, Susan Meiselas, and many others--tells the story. By emphasizing the people rather than the place--New Yorkers rather than New York--Kozloff gets at the dizzying heterogeneity that New Yorkers accept as a sort of timeless value, as an abstraction by which they live. By rejecting a chronological organization in favor of a grouping of images in loose-knit themes--"Life is a Party," "On the Go," "Interiors," "Notables," and so forth--Kozloff suggests the peculiar collaging of periods, the almost time-warp quality that will strike a walker through this city where the Meatpacking District can today feel like a neighborhood that has forgotten everything before 2003, while the glittering skyscrapers of Park Avenue still hold some of the optimistic perfume of the 1950s, and the streets lined with townhouses just north of Washington Square remain locked in Greenwich Village's ancient nostalgia for its own forever retreating golden past. A few pages in New Yorkers as Seen by Magnum Photographers are devoted to images of 9/11, which is exactly right. The book is about why people come to New York, and why they stay here, and why, if they leave, they do not forget the times that they had here.
Another delicious look at New York is provided by This is New York (Universe, $17.95), a reprint of one of a series of children's books by the Czech-born illustrator M. Sasek. Beginning in 1958 with This is Paris, Sasek brought his acute eye to cities around the world, producing This is New York in 1960 and, in 1962, This is San Francisco (also back in print from Universe, $17.95). Sasek's New York, a mingling of legendary landmarks and quotidian streetscapes, is exactly what a child would take away from a week in the city. Working with bright blocks of color in a bold but casual style, Sasek shows a city full of big-eyed, genial figures who make their way along streets that are a likeably unpredictable collage. Sasek includes all the monuments--the United Nations and the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge and Rockefeller Center and the Guggenheim Museum--but he also notices the fire hydrants and the heaps of Sunday papers at the newsstands and the hot dog vendors. Sasek loves the discordant layering of signage. "You can shop in any language," he announces, and shows us a German Brauhaus, a Spanish movie theater, a Jewish butcher, a Czech restaurant, a Hungarian hardware store, and an Italian pizzeria. He mixes up the big things and the little things. A page devoted to Chinatown includes, as a grace note in a corner, the profile of a man holding a Chinese newspaper. And Sasek shows us the exhilaration that people experience as they take their parts in the drama that is the city, whether they are workers on a picket line or kids playing in the streets.
Children's books sometimes show us things that books designed for adults pass over. Sasek's eye for the details of the Manhattan streetscape may recall the equally steady attention that Maurice Sendak brought to the plain-as-plain-can-be attached houses in Brooklyn where all the kids are growing up together in a book such as The Sign on Rosie's Door. Sendak's extraordinary career, first explored by Selma Lanes in 1980 in The Art of Maurice Sendak, is now the subject of a companion volume, The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present (Abrams, $60), with a text by Tony Kushner. When Lanes published her book, Sendak was already a legendary figure who counted among his varied achievements dozens of children's books, collaborations with Randall Jarrell and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and two volumes--Where the Wild Things Are in 1963 and In the Night Kitchen in 1970--whose frank treatment of childhood fantasies and fears had stirred controversy among educators, psychologists, and cultural commentators that reached into the newspapers and newsmagazines where children's books are rarely discussed.
While Sendak has never rejected his place in the public imagination, in recent years he has often pursued projects--illustrations to Melville's Pierre and Kleist's Penthesilea and sets for Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito--that are so quirky or so erudite or so frankly experimental that many of them have scarcely registered among the audience that will forever think of Sendak as the King of the Wild Things. What fame has given Sendak is absolute creative freedom. From time to time he still works in a high comic mode derived from the supercharged imagery of Winsor McCay's early twentieth- century comic strips. And Sendak can still shake up our sense of how kids are living, as in his 1993 examination of homelessness, We Are All In The Dumps With Jack and Guy. But increasingly in recent years, Sendak has turned away from the present in order to resurrect the phantasmagorical landscapes and talismanic domestic situations that date from the beginnings of the romantic myth of childhood, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the sets and the costumes that he has designed for The Nutcracker, L'Enfant et les Sortilges, L'Heure Espagnole, The Magic Flute, Idomeneo, and La Clemenza di Tito, Sendak has created a vision of childhood as a stylistic house of mirrors, in which the comforts of the humble bedroom in Rosie's house in Brooklyn overlap with the opulent art nouveau nursery in Ravel's opera, which in turn overlaps with the exotic garden room where Mozart, the boy genius, sits deep into the night, composing the sublime music for The Magic Flute.
In his designs for Ravel and Mozart, Sendak gives into a yearning for a quirky, idiosyncratic architectural grandeur, for a spirit not unlike the spirit of the great rococo libraries of the eighteenth century, where bookishness was a kind of ecstasy. And surely we can imagine the remarkable expanse of Sendak's artistic production, so full of wild fantasy and delicious detail and serrated historical allusion, displayed on the curving shelves of one of those rococo libraries. There can be no better setting for the work of this artist who has done so much to honor the unquenchable dream of what can--and will--happen when you open the pages of a book.
By Jed Perl