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Books


Betwixt and Between

Art Books: What to Read Now

BY Christian House
freelance arts and books writer for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph

Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1857) © Honolulu Museum of Art


Whether troubling or liberating, necessary or enforced, limbo is a state that taps into our fundamental need to belong. As these three books illustrate, presciently it seems, when we’re in between harbors our identity is all at sea.

The Passport Book

New Zealand Passport Cover © New Zealand

One of the pleasures of international travel is spotting a peculiar passport in the hand of some Phileas Fogg or Jason Bourne. They emerge out of pockets weighted with authority and mystery and sometimes look very odd indeed.

Well, you can now refer to The Passport Book, which provides a survey of all those curious volumes scrutinized by customs officers. Each cover is illustrated in color and accompanied by statistics—population, area, GDP—and a statement about national character (Norway: “Highly congenial people, including the royal family. Very expensive”).

We have the French Revolution to thank for the modern passport: King Louis XVI supposedly tried to cross the border dressed as a manservant. After that it was: “Vous papiers s’il vous plait.” In the years since, however, they have saved countless people caught up in conflicts.

This fascinating book illustrates how your passport says a lot about where you are from, even if the modest format—125 by 88mm—offers little scope for eccentricities. They are issued in various shades of blue, red, green or black (although the Dutch do an eye-catching version in pink).

Dark covers are the most popular. “Smudges are less visible,” notes editor Nicola von Velsen. Fonts err on the side of stuffy (only two countries dare to italicize). The Vatican City passport is the only one not to feature text—just a small crest, gold on black.

Indeed, it’s the heraldry that creates variety. Most national coats of arms are muscle-flexing—a menace of lions, eagles, spears and sabers—with an occasional palm leaf or olive branch to soften the scene.

But there are anomalies. The countries that reach for a sense of informality and character are a delight. The Barbadians provide a jolly pelican; New Zealand includes a spray of silver ferns; Cyprus peppers its paper with golden birds. African nations look to the wilds: zebras (Botswana), camels (Eritrea) and elephants (Ivory Coast).

For me, however, it’s the Swedes who have perfected the passport: their deep red document illustrates a tree-lined avenue of Belle Epoque mansions. And in the bottom right-hand corner a small, embossed airplane is beginning its descent to land: coming home.

 

*The Passport Book is published by Prestel

The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens

John Everett Millais, Speak! Speak! (1895) © Tate

I have a fondness for ghosts. Everyone I love will, one day, die and the thought that I might see them again is a comfort. Ghosts are generally considered to be figures to fear but, as Susan Owens reminds us in her fascinating study The Ghost: A Cultural History, they “do not always set out to frighten us”. 

She references early 11th and 12th-century ghosts with protective intentions; others appear benevolent, comical and even romantic. Of course, from the pen of M R James and Susan Hill to the pictures of William Blake, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray, specters have also scared us senseless.

Owens is the former curator of paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum and has written and lectured widely on British art and natural history. Here she finds a subject which ignites both her passion and expertise. “What captivates me are the ghosts that we create in our imagination,” Owens observes. “It is here that ghosts hold up a mirror to us, one that reveals our desires and fears. 

The gallery of ghouls on view includes prints, oils, drawings, photographs, book dust jackets and film stills. Owens has curated a wonderful range of images, from evil revenants to willowy women in white floating around four-poster beds. Those gothic-obsessed Victorians—Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt—are well covered. Later, Paul Nash created wartime ghost stories in watercolor and Rachel Whiteread made eerie plaster casts.

Each era provides a new lens on the subject, explains Owens. The Reformation did away with the notion of purgatory, changing the reasoning for a ghost’s presence. In the 19th century they were uninvited guests at country house weekends. More recently, they have become vehicles for psychological and social narratives.

There are even ghosts in conceptual art: on 1 July 2016, to mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, more than 1,500 men dressed in First World War uniforms silently mingled with commuters all over Britain in Jeremy Deller’s performance work We’re Here Because We’re Here. Owens has written an illuminating—dare one say, haunting—book about artistic endeavor and existential curiosity.

 

*The Ghost: A Cultural History is published by Tate

Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings by Matthi Forrer

Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1857) © Honolulu Museum of Art

“The trick would be to put the bridge at an angle for some compositional tension … and miss the graffiti on the walls,” observes Robert Kincaid, the fictional grizzled 1960s photographer in the 1995 film The Bridges of Madison County. A century earlier, Hiroshige, the 19th-century Japanese firefighter-turned-printmaker had similar concerns—albeit without the graffiti issue.

Utagawa Hiroshige created magnificent woodblock prints that captured the natural beauty and bustling life in and around Kyoto, Osaka and, in particular, Edo (now Tokyo). A key and constant motif in these prints—or “Famous Views” as he called them—are the bridges that cross the bays and large rivers, as well as the myriad streams and tributaries that lace through the landscape. 

“Edo’s bridges figure abundantly in his views,” acknowledges Matthi Forrer in Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings, a beautifully presented new monograph on the artist. Ferrer, who is curator of Japanese Arts at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, is a superb guide to the artist’s series, working practices and thematic interests.

Hiroshige’s bridges create narratives. Tradesmen, merchants, locals and visitors, are momentarily caught on a temporary stage. Here they experience life’s theatre: huge bridges teem with the flow of commuters; small ones provide humpback havens for women to talk; on toll bridges, samurai cross for free.

Sometimes the structures’ beams, struts and towers frame the surroundings; in others, a bridge is itself bordered by cherry blossom. Hiroshige pictures them in snow, rain and sun. There are bridges in winter nocturnes and summer idylls. Above them, kites hover and fireworks explode. The reproductions here are stunning, printed on looped paper stock. It is perhaps the finest art monograph of the year.

Hiroshige’s influence traversed continents and centuries. Pissarro called him a “marvelous Impressionist”—Monet and Van Gogh were equally enamored—and Whistler looked to him for inspiration when painting London’s Battersea Bridge in the green-black light of the night. Even Hergé was stirred by his themes: Tintin dashes across a lot of railway, road and rope bridges. As Hiroshige noted, these periods of transit create both drama and quietude alike.

 

*Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings is published by Prestel



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