As a festive gift, a book should deliver an entire world, jacketed and wrapped ready to transport the season-weary reader to another place. And so for this selection I have chosen four immersive titles: the definitive study of a cult-collecting field; the ultimate coffee-table book on Warhol; a photographic survey of a much-loved city; and a dazzling—but all-too-brief—life of an idiosyncratic artist. These are escape capsules for the turkey-stuffed and overly mulled.
The Impossible Collection of Warhol
There are books that slip into your pocket and those, like The Impossible Collection of Warhol, that require structural advice from an architect. Eric Shiner’s gigantic paean to Warhol’s oeuvre—a tour through 100 of his works, a dream collection if you will—is also, to quote his publisher, an “homage to the art of luxury bookmaking”.
There is something rather fabulous about seeing work produced in The Factory reproduced in such artisanal fashion. This personal selection of large-format, hand-bound, hand-tipped color plates leaves a wallet-shattering—$845 a Pop—but highly sensorial impression. Included in Assouline’s Ultimate Collection, it is published in a limited-edition, each volume encased in a linen clamshell presentation box.
But what of the works? Well Shiner, senior vice president of Contemporary art at Sotheby’s, was previously director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and he sets out his stall with a sure hand: “Within these pages lie the most important, poignant, and intriguing works of art created by the 20th-century legend Andy Warhol,” he claims in his introduction. It’s an assertion that is ably confirmed.
Delivered chronologically, the works cover some four decades (from 1948 to 1987, the year of Warhol’s death), miniature and massive formats and a dizzying variety of mediums—watercolors and oils, gold leaf and crayon, silkscreen and celluloid—emphasizing Warhol’s egalitarian approach to his work. There are iconic images—the soup cans and flowers, Marilyns and Maos—but also lesser-known and more idiosyncratic material: there is an early study of his family’s living room, executed on cardboard when Warhol was an undergraduate at Carnegie Institute of Technology, and “silver clouds” created in the mid-1960s out of helium-filled metalized plastic bags.
“I have always been in awe of the fact that Warhol changed the very definition of art,” states Shiner. In fact, this extraordinary book illustrates a whole series of changes: dazzlingly bright, shiny fluctuations.
*The Impossible Collection of Warhol by Eric Shiner is published by Assouline
The Snail that Climbed the Eiffel Tower
Another centenary this month, marking the birth of John Minton, the neo-Romantic artist and illustrator who was born on Christmas Day 1917. A Renaissance man, Minton was also a set designer, art-schoolteacher and a well-oiled regular at London’s Colony Room in the 1950s. A prodigious talent, he was also a homosexual when it was a criminal offense and prone to bouts of depression and alcoholic fugues.
Minton remains a peripheral figure in post-war art history, but Martin Salisbury’s The Snail that Climbed the Eiffel Tower and Other Work by John Minton proves that he was a master of commercial illustration. The curious title is borrowed from a book of stories by Odo Cross, illustrated by Minton in 1947 (including the adventurous gastropod).
This beautifully produced volume (a limited edition of 2,000 copies) covers an array of commissions taken by Minton in the late 1940s and 1950s: book jackets for publishers Methuen, Secker & Warburg and John Lehrmann; stamp and wallpaper designs; magazine illustrations; advertising, and travel and film posters.
As a portraitist and painter of stylized landscapes, he could match his contemporary Lucian Freud but Minton’s striking dust jackets were his forte. For these he employed an acid palette of yellows and oranges that pulse on the page.
For Time Was Away: A Notebook in Corsica, he collaborated with the writer Alan Ross, to whose rambling narrative he matched images of hazy, lazy days in which the skies were, oddly but effectively, sheets of lime green. And for Elizabeth David’s French cookery books, Minton detailed Mediterranean spreads of lobsters, melon and wine. His travels informed his illustrations of mangroves, fortress towns and sailing dinghies. He provided readers with a dash of the exotic in a period of austerity.
And yet Minton’s lust for life was undermined by a sense of alienation, both from an art world obsessed with abstraction and from human intimacy. In 1957, aged 40, he took an overdose of sleeping tablets and a remarkable talent was lost. “His was the saddest face I have ever seen,” observed Ross. “It was painted by El Greco and it had the lines of a Modigliani.”
*The Snail That Climbed the Eiffel Tower and Other Work by John Minton by Martin Salisbury is published by The Mainstone Press
Like Herring With Dill
This month marks the centenary of Finland’s independence from Russia, an event triggered by the Russian Revolution. As illustrated in Modern Scandinavian Design, being outside the Soviet bloc helped Finland become a global leader in product, furniture, graphic and architectural design. From Alvar Aalto’s angular halls to Gunnel Nyman’s bubble vases, Finland developed an eye for icy lines.
Of course, the Swedes, Danes and Norwegians match the Finns in this field: there is clearly something in the Nordic air. This impressive survey—a fjord-damming book of nearly 600 pages and 1,000 illustrations—shows how, since 1925, design from the region has been tied to the progressive social attitudes of its citizens.
The book’s introduction links the “beautifully executed Modern wares for domestic use” produced in Denmark to its concept of hygge (and all its cozy connotations). Meanwhile Sweden “could be said to have built a modern democratic society through the harnessing of Modern democratic design”. Architecture, lighting, glass, ceramics, metalwork, jewellery, woodenware, plastics, textiles and posters—to the Nordic eye, these are as political as they can be beautiful, combining “ethics with aesthetics”, like herring with dill.
This book shows how practical and elegant Scandinavian design can be. The balance of materials, bold color, form and affordability can transport a cup, bowl, toy or teapot from the functional to the sublime. Scandinavian Modernism wasn’t created at the easel but rather the drawing board, kiln and lathe. And it was to be democratic: as the Swedish writer Ellen Key declared, “skönhet för alla” (beauty for all).
Fine artists played their part. “One of the earliest publications that helped to shape the evolution of Modern Scandinavian design,” note the authors, “was a book of illustrations by the Swedish artist Carl Larsson that depicted his family’s simple yet aesthetic life in their summer house.” And motifs inspired by nature—the flora and fauna of the forests and lakes—drew on centuries of folk art. Each of the Nordic countries had their approach, but the guiding principle was for designs that “delight the eye and the hand, but also the heart”.
*Modern Scandinavian Design by Charlotte and Peter Fiell and Magnus Englund is published by Laurence King
The Manicured City of Light
Shortly before his death in 2016, I interviewed Louis Stettner, the great photographer of Paris and New York and asked him how the two cities differed. New York could still take you by surprise, he said, but Paris had become too manicured. In Stettner’s startling 1947 shot, Two Ways of Wearing a Beret, we see two boys on a stormy Parisian street in a composition that is as sinister as it is Gallic. This is just one highlight of Paris: Portrait of a City, a photographic survey of the city sans Photoshop.
This revised, hardback edition (directed by Benedikt Taschen) allows plenty of darkness to creep into the city of light. The 300 photographs include work by 19th-century pioneers such as Atget, Fox Talbot and Nadar; classic street photography from Lartigue, Cartier–Bresson, Willy Ronis and Brassai; and contemporary views from Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller.
Works date from the 1830s to the present day, and broach fashion, entertainment and architecture, the impact of industry, wartime occupation and romantic liaisons, the formal and the casual. There are famous prints including Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss in Front of the Hôtel de Ville (1950) and Coco Chanel by Man Ray (1935) as well as obscure shots (I particularly enjoyed the fin-de-siècle ballooning pictures).
There is also a feast for those interested in the city’s relationship with art: Giacometti caught in the rain, the Louvre hiding its holdings from the Nazis, Matisse with a model, Picasso in repose and Toulouse–Lautrec enjoying a bordello on the Rue des Moulins. We see Paris as muse and as gallery—even as a canvas: Wolfgang Volz photographed the Pont Neuf bridge, wrapped in 40,000 sq m of gold material by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Now, that is quite a manicure.
*Paris: Portrait of a City is published by Taschen