Giving someone a book is a risky business, and with art books there are specific, complex tastes to navigate. This column recommends some top titles to wrap up this festive season— but with some suggestions on who to (and not to) give them to.
For: Fellini fans / Not for: Star Wars fans
My photography book of the year is NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960, a volume full of human drama. During the mid-20th century Italy rolled with the punches of Fascism, war and poverty to emerge like a Fiat 500 accelerating out of a tunnel. This photographic survey delivers extraordinary instances of pomp, such as Mussolini’s rallies, alongside moments of hardship and joy (an elderly seamstress threading her needle; a clarinetist on feast day).
Neorealism worked “in the service of the here and now and the everyday courage to live with dignity”, writes Martin Scorsese in his foreword. Shots by celebrated photographers, such as Ugo Mulas and Mario Giacomelli, show just such humility and poise in Neapolitan brothels, Milanese markets and the cafes of Emilia-Romagna. Fotografia paradiso.
NeoRealismo: The New Image of Italy, 1932-1960 is published by Delmonico Prestel
For: ramblers / Not for: agoraphobics
The great outdoors is the focus of Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood, an elegant monograph on his current exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (“Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood”, 26 May 2018-28 April 2019). It is a perfect stage for the work of the Arte Povera veteran. Penone’s trees, cast in bronze and gold as well as carved out of trunks of oak, fir and elm, reflect the human body, the mysteries of time and the strengths and weaknesses of the natural world.
Penone’s other materials include boulders, leaves and even potatoes. “As an artist, and a person, he emerges from the forest,” writes Martin Gayford in his introduction. This is a book forged at the intersection of the organic and ornate.
Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood is published by YSP
For: Northern Lights lovers / Not for: city types
It is heartwarming when an artist’s reputation goes beyond their national borders. 2019 looks set to be the year of Norwegian landscape painter Harald Sohlberg, whose turn-of-the-century panoramas blend precision with Scandinavian symbolism to striking effect. Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes —accompanying a traveling exhibition to Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Museum Weisbaden—showcases the breadth of his eye.
It’s a revelation. Sohlberg’s meticulous works include sweeping scenes of flower meadows, coastal cottages and, most famously, the spires and streets of Røros, a 17th-century mining town in the heart of Norway. As one critic observes: “It’s this attention to detail that makes you believe a world could exist in a dewdrop.”
Published by Hirmer
For: interior decorators / Not for: the color-blind
A special mention for Spectrum by John Pawson (Phaidon) which makes a mood-board out of a photobook.
A vast selection of the British architect’s snaps, taken by over 30 years, forms a color palette (the cold blue of an Argentinian iceberg is paired with the washed-out blue of a Tuscan morning). Hues ebb and flow across seasons and surfaces.
Spectrum is published by Phaidon
For: the tactile / Not for: futurists
One of the ironies of the tech-era has been a new appreciation for the hand crafted. Fewer, Better Things by Glenn Adamson is a considered treatise on how globalization, the drive towards virtual realms and mass production have all taken us away from something essential—the sense of attachment, physical and psychological, to beautiful objects. This could be a tea cup, chair or doll house.
Adamson, who is Senior Scholar at Yale Center for British Art, writes convincingly about “material intelligence: a deep understanding of the material world around us”. Along the way, he draws on a variety of voices, from Alexandre Dumas to Thomas Heatherwick.
Fewer, Better Things by Glenn Adamson is published by Bloomsbury
For: readers of The Paris Review / Not for: readers of the National Enquirer
In the early 20th century, feminist Vernon Lee was a popular author of supernatural fiction, but she had another literary life as an art critic.
In The Psychology of an Art Writer, Lee is refreshingly honest about the constraints of criticism. “At least nine times out of ten,” she claims, “the description of a painting will never amount to more than a description of the objects represented in the painting”.
The Psychology of an Art Writer by Vernon Lee is published by David Zwirner Books
For: fans of Michel Foucault / Not for: fans of Agatha Christie
The bounds of knowledge shape Via Roma 398. Palermo. This is (possibly) a murder mystery and (undoubtedly) a conceptual work of art. In 1933, the body of French poet Raymond Roussel was found in the Grand Hotel et des Palmes in Palermo. Artist Luca Trevisani compiles an investigation into his death, written by Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia in the 1960s, with other texts and photographs of the hotel.
“Via Roma 398 is not a book you browse through or read,” writes Trevisani. “It is an environment into which you fall.” A woozy time-travelling environment.
Via Roma 398. Palermo is published by Humboldt Books
For: dreamers / Not for: drones
A final word from the late great Joan Miró, the Catalonian artist who nurtured his paintings like crops. “Things come slowly,” he said. “They grow, they ripen.” In the tiny but beautiful I Work Like a Gardener, an interview with Miró from 1958 provides a window into the painter’s philosophy of art and life.
He was a pessimist who found beauty everywhere. And he delivers possibly my favorite observation made by any artist: “People who go bathing on a beach and who move about impress me much less than the stillness of a pebble.”
I Work Like a Gardener by Joan Miró is published by Princeton Architectural Press