Picture books are the first books that any of us know. Before we can decode words or even letters, we are clutching their covers and awkwardly turning their pages. These books are our introduction to the mysteries of metaphor, to a combination of paper and printer's ink that can take us anywhere, reveal anything, whether fact or fiction or some mix of the two. You might say that picture books, even when we are too young actually to read them, are our primal reading experiences. And when we are grown-ups and find that we are again reaching for big and extravagantly illustrated volumes, our encounters can seem to be charged with many of the same expectations.
Such volumes, to a far greater degree than most books, are the product of a collaborative effort. There must be a number of minds and imaginations at play, not just those of the artist or artists whose work is represented, but also those of the people who write the text, design the layout, decide exactly how the book will be printed. Collaborative efforts pose special challenges for the critical imagination, yet the possibilities of the illustrated book seem to be little discussed, at least in print, at least now. This was not always the case. Fifty or sixty years ago, when sophisticated art books were just beginning to be available at popular prices, there was more discussion of matters such as the quality of reproductions, even by a critic of the caliber of Clement Greenberg.
Early in the last century, fine reproductions of works of art had been a sort of luxury commodity, but changes in printing technology made their increased availability one more element in the cultural boom after World War II. These books, many of which were first produced by Albert Skira in Switzerland and by Harry N. Abrams in the United States, were relatively affordable even with their gorgeous tipped-in reproductions. They proved a revelation to the book-buying public. Major writers were involved. Meyer Schapiro wrote the Abrams monographs on Cézanne and Van Gogh, published in the early 1950s; they are still in print. Clement Greenberg provided the text for the volume on Matisse in Abrams's "Pocket Library of Great Art" series in 1953. Measuring four and a half by six and a half inches and containing some twenty color plates and a commentary on each painting, this book was priced at fifty cents.
It was Skira who published André Malraux's study of the history of art. This lyrical summation of the artistic imagination through the ages unfolds in not one but a number of volumes, with the steadily dramatic juxtaposition of reproductions in black-and-white and color achieving a visual flow of symphonic richness and complexity. The Psychology of Art, as Malraux's work was originally titled, is perhaps the most sophisticated of all modern experiments in the imaginative joining of image and text, but it seems almost forgotten today, though The Voices of Silence, one of a number of versions that appeared over the years, still finds an admiring public among some artists and museumgoers.
Malraux's work has been attacked by art historians as vague and unreliable, while others have suggested that his claim that photographic reproduction could create what he called a "Museum Without Walls" endangered the unique one-on-one experience of a work of art. At the time that it appeared, though, The Psychology of Art was taken very seriously indeed. In a long and measured review in Partisan Review in 1950, Joseph Frank found in Malraux's book resemblances to Nietzsche's "coruscating verbal brilliance" and way of using "contemporary aesthetic phenomenon ... to offer a new insight into the universal meaning of art." And Edmund Wilson concluded in The New Yorker that it would not be "out of place" to compare it with "inquiries into mankind's position and purpose" that elude conventional genres, such as The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Das Kapital, and War and Peace.
In the 1950s, painting and sculpture were the focus of the majority of sumptuous art books, but nowadays the most beautiful volumes are often devoted to photography. This may reflect a general sense in the art world that photography is the form to which all other forms have been aspiring--that the Museum Without Walls that is made out of photographs has become the whole of the museum. I do not accept that proposition, but the extraordinary frequency with which beautifully designed and produced photography books have appeared in recent years may well lead us to conclude that the art of photography is, at least for the time being, the picture book's destiny.
Certainly no book about painting or sculpture published this year can compare with the tempered opulence of Ansel Adams at 100 (Little, Brown, $150). This volume, which accompanies a show that is in San Francisco until January, aims to free Adams from the reputation of picture-postcard prettiness that overtook his work in the last thirty years. We are returned to the romantic delicacy and force of his images of mountains and snow-dappled trees in the American West. We see Adams adapting the astringency of the straight photography aesthetic that was beginning to emerge in the 1910s and 1920s, giving it a surge of old-fashioned sublimity--and a close-grained sumptuousness.
Ansel Adams at 100 is one of several recent photography books that benefit immeasurably from the presence of texts by John Szarkowski, who was for many years the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. The essays that Szarkowski is writing these days have a remarkable broadness; you feel that a man who has been thinking about photography for a lifetime is offering some deeply pondered summations. He begins by speaking of William James's ideas about order in the world, and argues that "artists of the wild landscape might be thought of as a community of inventors who, generation by generation, produce and revise an evolving sketch of order out of the great farrago." He can illuminate a person or a period with a few words. Regarding Adams's youth in California, Szarkowski writes that he had a "strain of otherworldliness--sometimes approaching estrangement," and that this "alternated with moods of manic gregariousness. Beneath the compulsory optimism and misty pantheism with which California then faced the larger world, such dark moods were not uncommon." That is a fine capsule image of the artistic side of early twentieth-century California. The combination of writing of this order with ravishingly produced plates makes the book a wonder.
Szarkowski is expert at divining how photography's imaginative fireworks often emerge out of what is most prosaic or idiosyncratic in a culture. Those who respond to the speculative freedom of his writing will want to have his Atget (Museum of Modern Art/Callaway, $60), a distillate of Szarkowski's long work with MoMA's great Atget collection. Here Szarkowski carefully nurses the few facts that we know about the man, using them as the springboard for a series of beautiful speculations. Of a group of photographs of the gardens at Saint-Cloud, done in 1926, he writes that "they are about the horizon: the line that marks perspective's farthest cast, that separates the visible from the invisible, understanding from knowing, ambition from longing."
With observations such as this, Szarkowski brings Atget's Paris, so much the homeland of the modern imagination, close to Proust's Paris, which is the subject of a small book by the great photographer Brassaï, Proust in the Power of Photography (University of Chicago Press, $35). Brassaï--who was, like a remarkable number of photographers, also a wonderful prose stylist--offers a series of verbal snapshots of Proust's various intersections with photography, observing the avidity with which Proust the man collected photographs of friends and acquaintances and revered theatrical personalities, how photography became a theme in his novel, and how the idea of the darkroom, of the development in private of impressions gathered in the world, may offer a larger metaphor for Proust's enterprise. Brassai's book, while not offering anything like a complete guide to Proust, is an enormously appealing salute by an artist who captured for all time the night world of 1930s Paris to a writer who, as much as any man who ever lived, understood what makes a metropolis tick. "It does seem clear that honesty must mean something different to a magician than to an accountant," Szarkowski observes in his introduction to yet another new book, Still Life (Bulfinch, $85), a collection of work by Irving Penn. Penn's style, with its cool, up-close imagery, has been so widely imitated in advertisements and editorial layouts that many people mistake it for a sort of generic statement. They miss the ironic shadings that give Penn's best still-life work, often done on assignment for Vogue, a quirky power. Ranging from postwar evocations of the pleasures of drinking and eating (glasses of deeply colored liqueurs, a bowl of bouillabaisse), to black-and-white work including close-ups of cigarettes and skulls, to more color work done in the 1980s and 1990s, Penn's images are not always as easy on the eye as they first appear. There is a reek of elegance to this work, but the reek is precisely understood. The man has a sense of humor about photography's capacity to catch the lusciousness of the world. Penn takes a poker-faced joy in the surface of things. A swank stoicism animates such recent photographs as a group of blocks of frozen foods, pulled straight from their boxes; a glass of water, a loaf of bread, a pile of salt; a steak piled with two eggs, two pats of butter, and a single potato chip, titled "Cholesterol's Revenge."
Irving Penn's name will forever be linked with Richard Avedon's. They are the two Americans who revolutionized fashion-magazine photography after World War II, and Avedon also has a new book out this season, Made in France (Fraenkel Gallery, $75). Here we are taken back to what may be Avedon's finest work, the photographs that he did in the 1950s of sublimely beautiful models in the most fantastic Parisian fashions gallivanting through the City of Light. Made in France is quite a piece of bookmaking. The prints reproduced here were prepared for the engravers at Harper's Bazaar, who had commissioned the photo shoots in the first place, and they are now being presented on their original mounts, which are covered with handwritten and typed notations about the specifics of the clothing and the settings and how the images are to be laid out in the magazine.
This deluxe production, which goes to great lengths to simulate the knockabout look of layout materials piled on the editor's desk in the age before the computer, is just right for Avedon's photographs of women in couture, who are having their own knockabout fun--playing pinball or having a drink at a café or visiting backstage at the Moulin Rouge. Often accompanied by men who look every bit as elegant in their tuxedos as Suzy Parker does in her Dior, the photographs are some kind of ultimate fantasy of Paris after the war, with young Americans tearing through the town. There is an almost Kabuki elaborateness to the clothing and the makeup, and the theatrical element is complete when Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, and Buster Keaton appear in a few shots. When Suzy Parker and her date, the actor Gardner McKay, nuzzle up at the bar of the Café des Beaux-Arts, we are in a fantasy world that is all the more incredible because Avedon insists on presenting it as cinema vérité.
Avedon's work in Paris in the 1950s, with its meticulously plotted informality, was a parody of the very idea of the rapidity of the camera's shutter as having some special purchase on the truth; he turned that idea into self-conscious theater. Among the pioneers of the direct approach was Dr. Emil Mayer, a Viennese lawyer and photographer, most of whose work was destroyed by the Gestapo after his death. Viennese Types (Blind River Editions, $40) is a finely produced book that takes you into the streets and cafes of Vienna around 1910. Mayer's imagery has a pictorialist softness, but his pictures of people at work and at play are so exactly observed that after turning the pages of this album you may feel as if you have bought some roasted chestnuts from the man with the flowing moustache and sat reading a newspaper behind the plate glass window of that café. The dominant emotion here is not nostalgia but a sensuous response to the present, to the encounters of the street, to a morning spent visiting familiar places.
Helen Levitt, working in the streets of New York several decades later, catches a very different version of the quotidian. Her new book, Crosstown (powerHouse, $75), is full of her famous sense of the dance-like casual feel of New York neighborhood streets in the 1930s and 1940s. What especially holds me here are the sections of color photographs, many taken twenty or thirty years later, in which the cacophony of the city--the signs, the trucks, the people in their jazzy outfits--creates a mellow yet jaunty unity, as if the compositional stresses of one of those pink and gray and green de Koonings of the 1960s had been discovered amid the double-parked trucks on Fourteenth Street.
What Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment can be rediscovered, it seems, over and over again. No photographer who is working in this vein today exerts quite the fascination of Sebastião Salgado, whose impressions of people who have lost their homes in war-torn Africa or the Balkans or are looking for work in the growing cities of Asia are gathered in Migrations: Humanity in Transition (Aperture, $100). Salgado's work, which has achieved an enormous popularity of late, also kicks off controversy. Some people are made uneasy by the beauty that he uncovers in the face of calamity and outright tragedy, by his way of drawing our attention not only to the shattered homes and the panicked refugees and the heaped corpses but also to the elegance of a face or the Tiepoloesque movement of the clouds that frame the horrible scene.
Salgado has been accused of aestheticizing disaster. His reply would probably be that we make a mistake when we look at the most terrible things that have happened to a person or a people and assume that this is the sum total of their experience. The beauty that Salgado sees gives his images a rootedness: he seems to be suggesting that people can hold on to or someday regain the saving significance of the places where they once lived, with their particular light and spirit. The lavishness of Salgado's black-and-whites has a life-force quality. His chiaroscuro is a form of hope.
Some may also find too much beauty in New York September 11 (powerHouse, $29.95), a collection of work done by Magnum photographers during and after the attacks on the World Trade Center. I think that the work here, much of it in color, gains strength from something fundamentally modest and unprepossessing in the attitudes of the photographers. Trained to move fast and to respond almost automatically, these photographers do not generally get in the way of what they are showing us. The photographs of the early hours of the murderous mayhem-by Steve McCurry, Susan Meiselas, Larry Towell, Gilles Peress, and Alex Webb--feel mercifully unedited. I have the impression that with these artists the craft is instinctive, that they are reacting directly as they move through suddenly unfamiliar streets and avenues and find this dusty hell. The final pages of the book are devoted to images of the World Trade Center before the terrible day. Thomas Hoepker's photograph of the towers seen in dusky blue light from across the river, where they form the backdrop for some casual flirtations in a weedy lot, is an uneasy elegy.
Another perspective on recent events is to be found in Gandhara: The Memory of Afghanistan (Assouline, $18.95), a modest guide to the sculpture and painting produced along the Silk Road in what is now Afghanistan from the second to the eighth centuries C.E. This art holds us through the complicated authority with which Greco-Roman forms are wedded with Asian impulses, achieving sometimes a melting eroticism, sometimes a sensuous severity. In a brief text, which contains a postscript written just after the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was completed in early 2001, Bérénice Geoffroy-Schneiter writes that "the whole essence of Gandharan art resides precisely in its subtle blend of Indianity and Hellenism, of the art of the Steppes and the classical canons." André Malraux devoted many pages in his Museum Without Walls to the immemorial internationalism of this work, and it is precisely this quality that has made Gandharan art anathema to parochial minds in our own time.
There is no mystery as to why photographs fit so naturally on the printed page. They begin life as pieces of paper, and it is possible to trade the chemical mix that produces a photographic image for the printer's ink of the book illustration and avoid jarring distortions. Any image created on paper will, by and large, make an easier transition to the printed page than a painting executed on canvas or wood, which is by definition an object of an altogether different order. Belles Lettres: Manuscripts by the Masters of French Literature (Abrams, $60) reminds us that writing itself is a kind of picture-making by offering full-page reproductions of autograph manuscripts from French writers from Ronsard to Proust and Colette. The English translations allow us to make out even the places where the manuscripts become too chaotic to read.
Covering more than five hundred years, Belles Lettres includes a vast range of material, from rough drafts to immaculate sheets obviously prepared for presentation. This is a big and far-ranging volume, and although it does not have any overarching point, studying it can be addictive. There are some interesting combinations of writing and pictures. A page of Blaise Cendrars's Elastic Poems of 1919 is ornamented with slashing pen strokes and a telegraphic drawing of a crucifixion that brings to mind Matisse's Stations of the Cross, done thirty years later. A manuscript by René Char is decorated with tracings after drawings by his friend Braque.
The perfect joining of image and text, which is suggested at certain points in Belles Lettres, is the great dream that haunts the illustrated book. The Tale of Genji: Legends and Paintings (Braziller, $45) reproduces at close to actual size a cycle of small, square-format seventeenth-century images that follow the chapters of Lady Murasaki's classic novel of courtly intrigue and love. These scenes of luxurious aristocratic life, awash in gold borders that merge with stylized gold clouds, are presented from the overhead vantage point that gives classical Japanese painting a delicately tilted, otherworldly quality. The anonymous creator of these pictures is not a giant of Japanese art; there is not enough surprise in the decorative rhythms that give these compositions their animating principle. Yet as you turn the pages of The Tale of Genji, Lady Murasaki's gorgeously dressed protagonists, moving like chess pieces on an elaborately patterned game board, take on the haunted power of puppets in Bunraku theater. As for the question of how a major Japanese artist uses compositional asymmetries to create an emotional impact, there is The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige (Braziller, $39.95). Hiroshige's dazzlingly abbreviated figures are not marshaled for narrative effect, but the speed and exactitude of his brushstroke is story enough.
Another opportunity to connect with a great artist's intimate musings is provided by A Degas Sketchbook (J. Paul Getty Museum, $39.95). Degas, an admirer of the art of Japan, would probably have been pleased to know that the sly wit of his casually composed pages brings Hiroshige to mind. There are even some performers in Hiroshige's Sketchbooks, though no0 where near the number that are gathered in this small Degas cahier, which is full of tentative yet riveting observations of dancers and singers and the men who are attracted to them like bees to honey. Roger Shattuck, in his foreword to a new edition of Apollinaire on Art (Museum of Fine Arts, $19.95), reminds us that Apollinaire said that Degas captured "all the bitterness and all the exquisite charm of the nineteenth century, which people have so often maligned without being willing to appreciate its delicacy, its subtlety, and even its cruel, lyrical truth." I feel all these mingled emotions in this Sketchbook. And for a view of the nineteenth century in which the bitterness greatly outweighs the charm, there is Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor (University of Minnesota Press, $34.95). What holds most strongly in this expertly produced book are some images in which Ensor's densely naturalistic renderings--of a sleeping woman, of a dark iron stove--are circled by fantastic, fly-weight sketches of a Greek chorus of freaks and gremlins. The effect is pure Freud, with Jugendstil nightmares bubbling out of Ensor's stolid bourgeois renderings.
The strangest narrative among the new picture books must be Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum (Abrams, $29.95), a compact volume that reproduces the meticulously colored drawings of hordes of girls, often with nothing on, that were dreamed up by Henry Darger, a Chicago janitor who died in 1973. Darger's drawings, done in pencil and watercolor on scroll-like pieces of paper, have developed a big following in recent years; he is the king of outsider artists. Darger's work, with its demented view of some small-town American childhood of the imagination, might be described as what you would get if you combined Norman Rockwell and the Marquis de Sade. Or imagine a Kate Greenaway picture book gone completely awry, with marauding gangs of military men bearing down on the little women in their summer camp idylls. Or are they little women? Despite the Mary Jane shoes, neat pinafores, pert caps, and pageboy haircuts, these creatures who are so anxious to take it all off generally turn out to be equipped with tiny penises. Darger gives the little-girl kitsch of the 1920s a go-my-own-way perversity, yet the girls are depicted in such vast numbers that they seem not only the toys of Darger's libido but a force that threatens to consume him.
I find something a little wan about Darger's drawings. The work has a remote, second-hand feel, with its even accents and bland color; a Sunday-afternoon-in-the-suburbs boredom muffles every twist of this maniac's imagination. I feel that I am in the presence of an uninteresting lunatic, but there is no question that Darger can get your imagination going. A good accompaniment to this Darger album would be Girls on the Run (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20), the full-length poem about Darger's work that John Ashbery wrote a couple of years ago. For Ashbery, Darger seems to suggest a let-the-lid-off-experience excitement. Ashbery wants to give voice to the swarming imaginations of Darger's children; I think he does it far better than Darger himself.
School was over,
not just for that day but forever and for
seasons to come.
The reason was that the truth was just
on the iniquity scale, and nobody wanted
to get involved.
Ashbery describes Girls on the Run as "after Darger," and of course his interest in visual artists is as long-running as that of any poet; he has produced an important body of art criticism, he has written about Parmigianino in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and he has collaborated with visual artists on a large and still-growing list of books. The Vermont Notebook (Granary Books/Z Press, $15.95), in which Ashbery's prose is joined to black-and-white drawings by Joe Brainard, is back in print. Ashbery writes of autumn in New England, with its "darkness, eventide, shadows, roost, perch, leaf, light, evasion, sentinel, plug, dream, mope, urchin, distress." You can feel his impressions gathering, presented here at some point before they have assembled into the autonomy of his poems. Brainard's drawings, often of ordinary objects (a T-shirt, a window, a television), do not have a magic that meets the prose; Brainard, whose work looks like Warhol one minute and Fairfield Porter the next, does not deserve the reputation that he now enjoys.
For a more satisfying Ashbery collaboration--at a far stiffer price--there is Novel (Grenfell Press, $900), an astringent yet opulent affair in an edition of one hundred copies that joins an Ashbery prose poem from 1954 with a series of black-and-white drawings by Trevor Winkfield. Winkfield's images, in a style that is like John Flaxman on acid, are a perfect match for Ashbery's invocations of "fragments of iron lace" and "the little ship" that has "just spouted away from the sandy dock." Both the poet and the painter are fantasists who in this instance operate with an almost Neoclassical restraint. This volume, with its big format, thick rag paper, and richly inked blacks, is one of the most beautiful illustrated books of recent years; it has an emotional tingle like bare black branches seen against pristine snow.
Collaborations between painters and writers have a very ancient history, a history that is fueled by the ageless utopian promise of an alliance of all the arts. In the twentieth century, there were many painters and writers who dreamed of a unity of the arts, but there were also many people who were inclined to argue that the visual arts should exist in a state beyond the reach of words. That argument for the purity of visual experience has recently gone into what will no doubt be a temporary eclipse. And the result has been a resurgence of interest in allegory and narrative and subject matter of all kinds, interests that had to some degree gone underground since the days of the Surrealists in art and the Warburgians in art history.
In the museums, exhibitions of Northern European Renaissance art, with its deeply encoded meanings, have a renewed fascination, an outstanding example being Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Prints and Drawings (Yale University Press, $60). This show, which has been at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this fall, pairs the allegorical drawings that Bruegel designed to be reproduced as engravings with the relevant prints and also includes a large group of Bruegel's landscape drawings as well as remarkable works by some of his contemporaries. There is a giddily uncoiling power to Bruegel's imagination. The landscape drawings join a fervor for the particulars with a feeling for vastness that is almost Oriental in spirit. In the allegorical works we are carried through a seemingly endless succession of piquant incidents, until a picaresque visual narrative has been unfurled. Some of these drawings, with their one-thing-just-leads-straight-to-the-next visual comedy, are like divine versions of Rube Goldberg contraptions. Nothing can match the experience of seeing such drawings first-hand, but this intelligently produced catalogue comes pretty close. I was particularly taken with the discussion of Bruegel's relation to Italian drawing styles in Martin Royalton-Kisch's "Pieter Bruegel as a Draftsman: The Changing Image," in which complicated questions of stylistic influence are described with an extraordinary directness and simplicity.
The allegorical elaborations of Bruegel's designs for prints were seen in his time as related to the work of Bosch, who has also been the subject of a show this season, at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. The interest of Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Paintings and Drawings (Abrams, $60) is that it brings together works definitely attributed to Bosch with a large body of drawings and paintings from his studio or by his followers. Although the layout is sometimes a bit too fancy, with details presented in ways that, while graphically dramatic, do not necessarily underscore the drama of the painting, the images, joined with useful texts by three European scholars (Jos Koldeweij, Paul Vandenbroeck, and Bernard Vermet), pull us into a vision of supreme weirdness that holds us with its paradoxical lucidity.
Bosch's horrors are so tenderly described that they can seem beatific; his monsters have a crystalline beauty. His works are extremely rare; he is almost impossible to understand if you have not been to Holland or Spain. The same is probably true of the painter of the Isenheim Altarpiece, the subject of Horst Ziermann's Matthias Grünewald (Prestel, $75). Grünewald, like Bosch, is one of those artists whose small body of work describes a temperament and a sensibility so unique that it seems to represent a climate of feeling unto itself. An entire worldview is contained in the contorted fingers of any hand that Grünewald ever drew or painted; he gives tormented emotions a rare exultation.
Museumgoers who wish to unlock the enigmas of Northern European art--of how artists created such sparkling details, such startlingly true-to-life effects--may be tempted to pick up a copy of the artist David Hockney's Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (Viking Studio, $60). Hockney's thesis here is that artists since the fifteenth century have been more heavily reliant on various kinds of optical devices to construct accurate representations of the world than has hitherto been believed. The core of this book, which is chockablock with reproductions of works by Van Eyck and Caravaggio and Vermeer and a host of other artists, is the extensive captions in which Hockney argues that certain sharp-focus effects and peculiar shifts in vantage point or perspective are the result of the use of mirrors and lenses and the various kinds of refocusing that these devices can require. The book has its origins in Hockney's belief that Ingres used a camera lucida, a prism that makes it possible for the artist to see simultaneously the subject in front of him and the paper on which he is drawing. Hockney, who has always had a knack for giving a pop appeal to the inner workings of the artist's studio, suggests a demystification of the Old Masters, and that may be useful to a certain degree.
Hockney is a complex figure, a man who understands, as he says, that optics do not make works of art, but who would also like to wow the wide public by suggesting that what Van Eyck or Ingres might have done with lenses is part of a history of the technological development of art that leads to photography and then to the computer. Hockney may believe that optical devices can help an artist to give shape to his most private imaginings, but the book is an audience-grabber because it suggests a technophile sensibility. As for the drawings that Hockney has been doing in the past few years, inspired by what he believes is Ingres's use of the camera lucida, they are a classic demonstration that art has nothing much to do with gadgetry. Hockney may well be right about Ingres and the camera lucida, but the klutziness of Hockney's pencil drawings only underscores the extent to which the magic of those Ingres drawings is a triumph not of science but of sensibility. It is the artist, as Hockney himself admits, who has to create a sense of sculptural fullness, and Hockney is not up to the task, no matter what equipment he has on hand. Suddenly it seems to matter very little whether or not Van Eyck used mirrors or lenses.
Hockney's obsession with the optical apparatus that was available in the studios of the Old Masters is intriguing, but it can also seem symptomatic of an art world in which many people are no longer convinced that works of art have an inviolable, stand-alone formal value. There are dangers in becoming too attached to the idea that artists and scientists and engineers--or, for that matter, artists and writers--speak the same language. (Robert Rauschenberg was once a great supporter of art-and-engineering experiments, and the results look ludicrous today.) Analytical pyrotechnics should not become a sort of replacement for what is missing in an image; analysis should not be a bulwark or a smoke screen that keeps us from a direct experience of images that may not require or justify as much explanation as they are given.
Mary Tompkins Lewis is an art historian who obviously subscribes to this view, and her book Cézanne (Phaidon, $19.95) stands out as a study in which the pressure of literary forms and ideas, which was so strong in nineteenth-century culture, is given its rightful place in a broad assessment of a great painter's achievement. Lewis writes out of an understanding of how the literary meanings that lie behind an image are re-made in the process of building a work of visual art. She is remarkable, for example, on the difficult subject of Cézanne's Mardi Gras, that surprisingly grave image of the Pierrot and harlequin of the commedia dell'arte. Lewis sees Cézanne "stepp[ing] back from his immediate visual motif to create a monumental costume piece that explores, as did the commedia dell'arte itself, the creative tension between traditional forms of narrative and the theatrical language of artifice, masquerade and improvisation."
This new study of Cézanne is part of Phaidon's "Art and Ideas" series, and Lewis takes the mandate to address the general reader as an occasion to frame C´ezanne's life in the kind of broad terms that will be of interest to the most sophisticated reader. She has a delicate way of connecting Cézanne's peasants and still objects to a resurgence of interest in Provencal traditions; she deals with tricky questions of interpretation while never losing track of the ultimate autonomy of the work of art. Cézanne's elusive relationship with subject matter may strike some as signaling the modern retreat from certain kinds of meanings, but one can also argue that Cézanne's there-but-not-there attitude toward allegorical or psychological or narrative content became a model for the twentieth century.
Matisse raises similar difficulties in interpretation. In Matisse Portraits (Yale University Press, $55), John Klein confronts a very challenging subject. Although I am unconvinced by his attempts to locate Matisse's work in a broad analysis of the social nature of portraiture, this art historian does have a real gift when it comes to interpreting specific works of art. Klein respects Matisse's psychological elusiveness; he is not flummoxed by Matisse's veiled emotions. What is remarkable about Klein's approach is that without in any way denying the artist's abiding faith that the feeling is in the form, he presses at the particulars of those forms, bringing in biographical information that deepens our understanding of the paintings. His book is a reminder that Matisse himself saw his interest in portraiture as a key aspect of his work; one of his last projects was a book called Portraits, a careful selection of works spanning his entire career for which he wrote one of his longer texts. Matisse Portraits is also valuable as a gathering of far-flung images; I have never seen so many of Matisse's self-portrait drawings and prints together in one place, and they give an electrifying picture of the man's shifting moods.
Books such as Klein's Matisse Portraits and Lewis's Cézanne bring image and text together in a way that keeps eye and mind in a state of happy collaboration. So too does Robert L. Herbert in Seurat: Drawings and Paintings (Yale University Press, $65), a collection of essays written over a period of decades in which an important scholar knits Seurat's figure compositions into the imaginative world of nineteenth-century Paris and reveals some fascinating patterns and unexpected relationships. To learn about aspects of a work of art that are not immediately evident even as you weigh that information against the evidence of your eyes is an opportunity that the best illustrated books have always given us, and it is an experience that can feel tonic, curative. To meet the challenge of image and text in juxtaposition can suggest a mediating process in an art world that has, for generations now, been going to extremes, split between those who believe that art is a matter for the eye with the mind pretty much shut off, and those who believe that art is a play of the imagination with no recourse to the evidence of the eye.
Forty years ago, in an essay about the growing interest in art books, Harold Rosenberg worried that although "for a sound art education we need to augment our knowledge through art books," we also must not forget that we need to "develop our ignorance through works of art." This was Rosenberg's way of saying that we had to let ourselves be compelled by the freestanding, autonomous, perhaps ultimately inexplicable power of the painting hanging on the wall. Yet when Rosenberg argued, with a coating of irony, that "the art book is one means by which the individual painting is rescued from its corner and brought into the program," he was perhaps giving too little credit to the possibility that we might be able to use a picture book as a way to see how the program works, to test its relation to the work of art. The images in a book can offer a standpoint from which to criticize the text; there is nothing more damning to an author's argument than a reproduction that refutes a written description.
Picture books bring far-flung images close. They fulfill a childhood dream of holding the world in the palm of your hand. A beautiful art book is an extension of the investigative spirit that drew us to picture books in the first place. The juxtapositions of illustrations with one another and with text are a way of re-mapping or re-imagining the world. And although such books are themselves sometimes beautiful objects, they are also instruments for the analysis of beauty. It is in this sense that even the most luxurious volume can turn out to be a primary text.
This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001, issue of the magazine.