Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Power of Art Books

When I was a child, my parents had a large bookcase with a random assortment of books in it. Books on history. Various cheerful tomes about wars, DH Lawrence, ancient greek writers, stuff about economics and a selection of cookery books.

Being a child – most of these were fairly unexciting and pretty unreadable fare. But in amongst them were a small group of art books – which I would pull out and look at regularly. There was a book of Durer’s engravings. A book on sculpture. A weird book called The Waking Dream about surrealist graphic art. And a gorgeous little book called The Enchanted Garden.

I still have The Enchanted Garden. It is a tiny, jewel-like book – very attractive for a child – almost like a picturebook in its small format and inviting quality. It had – of all things – a picture of part of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights on the front.

Jan the Elder

The Garden of Eden, c. 1620, Jan Brueghel, V&A Museum, London. Note all the parrots – just wish I could show you a detail

Whenever that famous triptych appears on documentaries these days we tend to focus on the hell part. The weird bird-headed creature eating humans and shitting them out the other end. The ear with the knife, the demons and strange surreal half-man half-molluscs and other weirdnesses that populate the third part of the panel.  We don’t tend to pay much attention to the beauty of the “heaven” side. Perhaps that doesn’t match our modern cynical selves. The strange crystal fountains, the stately giraffes and unicorns – as a child I was enchanted by this. Everything in The Enchanted Garden was great art from famous works – but much of it brought to the fore delightful details – a German expressionist daschund with cartoon-like wagging tail scurrying along at the feet of his mistress – who we never see, the amazing detail of a bright parrot sitting in a tree, unnoticed, in one of Jan Brueghel the Elder’s pictures. I was delighted to see this picture in the flesh quite recently, and looked at it even more fervently for having been so taken with one – easily unnoticed -detail.

Where The Enchanted Garden spoke to the happy side of my imagination, other books informed the nightmarish. A book of Magritte’s paintings unsettled me hugely as a child. It is funny to think of this now, in the face of what children are exposed to today – but it is not always the straightforward that disturbs, and art by its very unsettling ambiguity, can be even more powerful.


An image that haunted me as a child: Magritte’s – Le Château des Pyrénées (1959)

Two paintings in particular stick in my mind: Magritte’s – Le Château des Pyrénées (1959) and a work I have just looked up and seems to be called “The Gigantic Days“. “The Gigantic Days” is a disturbing picture of a naked woman being groped/assaulted by a clothed man in a suit and bowler hat but – in one of Magritte’s typical trademark moves – the scene is contained within the shape of the woman herself, with the spectre of the man and assault appearing within the outline of her shape. I think it’s pretty obvious why this one disturbed me. There is nothing joyously sexual about this picture and the signature jigsaw effect just adds to the feeling of trap/claustrophia/can’t escape of the woman’s experience.

What bothered me so much about “Le Chateau des Pyrenees” is a little more mysterious. This was the image that haunted me from this book as a child. Why? I don’t know. Looking at it as a grown-up it is pretty easy to see connotations of bombs, of war, of imminent nuclear threat. As a child, I simply responded in a most simple and open way to the visual image presented. To me, this is the greatest picture I’ve ever seen that visually captures the idea of threat. It is strange and uncanny, your mind fights its impossibility – which adds the horrible tension. The way it is painted is muddy and dark – this is not a joyous fantasy flying castle. The greyness and shape and sense of weight of the rock pulls inexorably against its hovering. The hovering itself feels unpleasant rather than free. The rock looms and hovers casting a dark shadow. It does soar above or fly free.

I thought it was a horrible picture. I’ve come to admire it, since, for those very reasons I hated it so much then.

These paintings have stayed in my head – in my repetoire of formative images, if you like, and I am sure my relationship with this very small collection of books and images increased my interest and engagement with painting.

These days, I am constantly disappointed by paintings – trudging round stately homes or even national museums, you are inevitably faced with numerous bad or completely uninspiring paintings or paintings with no visual or emotional power.

However, for me, great paintings have a power that nothing else does. As a child, I did not know what it was that drew me to look at these books, time and time again – even the ones that disturbed me – but I did.

In later years I bought myself other books and the art of various period forms a leit motif for different periods of time.

One of the most beautiful books I have now is a book called The Helga Pictures which is about a collection of paintings made around one woman living in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania by the great American watercolourist Andrew Wyeth.  Simple studies of one woman with an interesting face in all types of weather, or posing nude. I cannot describe what the power of these paintings is, but I feel it every time I look at them. They capture humanity, the human condition, time, seasons, relationship to place, to landscape, to the ouside world – the interior life -but of course we don’t have to put all that into words. We just have to look at them to feel it all in a moment.

When I look back I realise my experience of art books comes from a very brief flowering of a form that hardly existed before it was bound to wither and die.

When my parents were buying art books in the 60s and 70s, there was not the reproductive quality of today. Many of the books they owned were,  for that reason, of graphic works (such as Durer). Their black and white book of Rodin’s sculptures was a complete failure due to terrible reproduction values – with no power at all.

In the period I grew up – the quality of printed reproductions suddenly shot forward. I have an extraordinary book of Van Gogh’s flowers including detailed close-ups where you can see the whorls of paint and every brushstroke with vivid, gorgeous colour. I have a book of Soutine – no the reproductions don’t compare to the original but I have one of my all-time favourite painters, in my hand, to look at and be inspired by any time I like. Sometimes (not in the case of Van Gogh but certainly in the case of – say – Degas) some paintings even disappoint in the flesh if you have formed a relationship with them from a book, particularly if you subsequently  forced to view them filing along in a queue surrounded by other gawping tourists, amidst chatter and noise, your view ruined by where they are hung or by reflective glass, at a distance where you can’t possibly damage them but where you can’t properly look at them in any detail either. The big exhibitions and galleries that hold the great paintings have turned the viewing experience into something totally exterior. With a book, it is interior. You can return to an image over time. You can sit with it. It’s part of your life. You relate to it, in fact, more as you should relate to a painting if you were to live with one on your wall. It takes on a contemplative, meditative role. It’s not just a “sight” you troop past, with some headphones telling you what to think, surrounded by gaggles of touring schoolkids.

Books don’t just deliver classic old-fashioned art either. One of my favourite books is called Varieties of Visual Experience – which juxtaposes all sorts of thing from the old to the classic to the conceptual to the performative, all together in one chaotic, explosively interesting and inspiring volume.

The Helga Pictures

For me, in the absence of the riches required to live with some of the paintings I’d love to live with, the book is the perfect alternative medium. I am amazed at the technology now on offer on sites like the National Gallery in London site. You are able to zoom in on paintings and see their details like never before – in a way that reminds me of how The Enchanted Garden showed me those magical details years ago. You are able to appreciate brushstrokes in a way you may not get a chance to as you stand behind a rail trying to get a view in a crowded room. The technology is absolutely fantastic if you like actual painting (as opposed to just the image) or want to see how it’s done.

But there is still something missing.

The technology – fabulous though it is – is distancing. The medium seems to me to be moving away from the power of the painting itself. The power of the individual, the touched, the made. Although we can see evidence of this “madeness” as never before through our ability to zoom in and see brushstrokes (even hairs of brushes left by that person in the past), the fact that we are viewing this all through something so alien to that time – the screen, associated with everything public in the modern world, and that what we see is backlit, surrounded by plastic or metal…takes away that contemplative, personal power that I found from browsing art books as a child.

Of course, a lot of paintings are public. Pompous, grandiose, statements of societies or groups, images for the masses to see of their leaders as figures of absolute power…But there are other pictures, the personal pictures such as the Helgas or studies or drawings, the tender portraits – say – of Toulouse Lautrec depicting prostitutes asleep together; the studies and drawings of Rembrandt or Leonardo – of dogs, of street sellers, of women in  Rembrandt’s life. I’d say for these, books are best. And not only these, but other pictures too – those pictures that exist in our imaginations. That speak to something sub-conscious – whether the delightful jewels of The Enchanted Garden, or the disturbing images of Magritte – I still believe that books have the most to offer when it comes to art so we can encounter them quietly, in our own space and our own time – with a medium that is physical, made, under our fingers.

No doubt, I am attached to art books because they have formed such a part of my experience, my relationship with art. Perhaps it will be no loss to future generations who will not find the experience of viewing a painting through a shiny laptop screen at all alienating in terms of how they relate to that picture. But, for me, it would be a loss if we lost the physical art book. Because books – physical books – can offer a personal experience as no other written medium can.

5 comments on “The Power of Art Books

  1. Lisa
    July 8, 2013

    Brilliant post, Rosy. I was drawn to art books too (at school – none at home) and bird books. I was also near-obsessed with a very weird photo book of Victorian freak show performers (found by friends in a skip outside a factory). Used to pore over these for ages. Children are odd little critters.

  2. Jackie
    July 8, 2013

    Wow, this was a fantastic piece! I was looking forward to it & it surpassed my expectations. You really captured the lure of art books & I like how you compared the experience not only with the real thing, but also looking at them as a child and an adult.
    And you describe the feeling of Wyeth’s portraits perfectly, though i prefer his landscapes, there is still something compelling about his pictures of people. I didn’t see Magritte’s work until I was a teenager and now I think that was a good thing after your experience, considering that I’m way wimpier than you are.
    I really like the Garden of Eden pic that you posted at the beginning,it’s unfamiliar to me and I’m having fun trying to find all the animals in it.
    And can I say again how fantastic this post is? Yeah!

  3. rosyb
    July 9, 2013 I’ve managed to lock myself out of the editing feature – argh – but remembered this post you did on Wyeth, Jackie, featuring a couple of his landscapes. I’ll try and add it in to the post when VL lets me in again! I need to know more about this Victorian freakshow book now. Things you see at certain ages can have a lot of impact.

  4. Pingback: Michael Palin in Wyeth’s World: An Interview with Director, Eleanor Yule | Vulpes Libris

  5. Pingback: The Power of Art Books | paintscape

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This entry was posted on July 8, 2013 by in Entries by Rosy, Non-fiction:art, Uncategorized.



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