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The Line of Beauty

Art Books: What to Read Now

Josef Frank, Bird's-Eye View and Area Plan for the Slum Clearance Project in New York (1942) © Albertina Museum

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

In Books


Grand Designs and Human Folly

“I draw all the time,” David Hockney once declared. “Wasn’t it Degas who said, ‘I’m just a man who likes to draw’? That’s me!” The appeal of drawing has persisted through the ages, and this week’s selection of books celebrates this most fundamental of artistic practices.

It’s always fun to compare landmark buildings to the original architectural impressions, the often outrageous display of ambition put down on paper before ground is broken. Masterworks of Architectural Drawing From the Albertina Museum delivers a panoply of examples, from Modernist homes and grand Habsburg palaces to fountains and domes, arches and bridges, that have all been “shaped by political, social and scientific developments”. Some were realized, others dismissed.

The Albertina‘s architecture collection, established in 1920, comprises some 40,000 works and the selection of 140 in this volume includes diverse drawings and graphic representations by Bernini, Dürer, Canaletto, Frank Lloyd Wright, Adolf Loos and Zaha Hadid. 

These are works of art with a structural and cultural impetus, but often something else, something more personal. “The architectural drawing represents the most complex and at the same time multifaceted medium,” writes the museum’s director Klaus Albrecht Schröder. “It integrates in singular fashion mathematical and geometric principles and reflections on architectural theory with the individual style.”

The book highlights the distinction between architectural drawings (those with a professional purpose) and drawings with a freer aesthetic, here described as the “Other View”. Accompanying text uncovers unusual biographies (we find that the 17th-century painter and theoretician Andrea Pozzo was also a Jesuit brother) and plenty of “what ifs”, such as Josef Frank’s rejected plans for the slum clearances of south Manhattan and Walter Pichler’s utopian commune designed for a lunar crater, a “protective cave” to suit the space race. The book is a fascinating exploration of the fluid boundaries between grand designs and human folly.  

*Masterworks of Architectural Drawing From the Albertina Museum by Christian Benedik (Prestel)


2B or not 2B?

Inside spread of Alex Hammond, Secret Life of Pencils (2017). Laurence King Publishing. Photos © Mike Tinney

2B or not 2B? It’s a question many an artist has pondered. In his introduction to The Secret Life of the Pencil, novelist William Boyd notes that the pencil is a utensil of “unrivalled subtlety with almost two-dozen grades of hardness to softness”. There’s a lead for every taste. Boyd himself favors a rather battered Faber-Castell propelling pencil with a 2.2mm point. “This model” he laments, “has been discontinued. The only one I could find was a pink one.”

This book, a companion piece to a research project by industrial designer Alex Hammond and photographer Mike Tinney, surveys the pencils of 74 creatives including artists, architects, illustrators, writers, photographers, composers, designers and film-makers.

Tinney’s bold, colorful photographs of various cherished pencils are portraits as still lifes: the old adage that owners look like their dogs can extend to their pencils. So designer Philippe Starck makes his mark with a matte-black futuristic mechanical model; Gerald Scarfe’s FaberCastell 9000s are as paint-splattered as his anarchic cartoons.

The pencil is a divining rod of fundamental artistic talent. The artists here, including Sir Peter Blake, Cindy Sherman, Glenn Brown and Tracey Emin, are enthusiastic about its power. “There is something about the act of drawing that bypasses mundane consciousness and reaches straight to the brain,” Emin says.

*The Secret Life of the Pencil: Great Creatives and Their Pencils by Alex Hammond and Mike Tinney (Laurence King Publishing)


Get Your Rocks Off

Iggy Pop modeling for a life drawing class in New York © Elena Olivo

A room full of drawings of the wrinkly rocker Iggy Pop is at the center of the current Royal Academy exhibition “From Life” (until 11 March). Pop posed for a New York Academy of Art life drawing class last February that was attended by 22 artists of varying experience and conceived by the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller—making it a work of art in itself.

Pop’s body, a wiry pylon of energy, is instantly recognizable because he has been stripped to the waist for most all of his performances over the past four decades. The exhibition catalogue contains a chapter on the project, which is one of the highlights of the book (Deller has also produced a separate large-format volume about the event).

There is a precarious relationship between the artists and the sitter when drawing from life. The book expands on the works in the exhibition with its series of interviews with, and profiles of, the artists depicted, from David Hockney and Lucian Freud to Antony Gormley and Gillian Wearing.

Annette Wickham, the academy’s curator of works on paper, provides an amusing history of life drawing at the RA. The caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson was threatened with expulsion for using a pea shooter to annoy one of the female models; hourglasses were used to give the hourglass figures a tea break; women were not allowed to draw male models—even those enrobed —until 1893.

*Artists Working From Life edited by Sam Phillips (Royal Academy)


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