Benfey in the New York Times on the Year's Best Art Books

Monday, December 3, 2001 - 12:00

This review ran in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, December 2, 2001.


This year provided too many reminders of the vulnerability of works of art. In March, the towering twin Buddhas of Bamiyan -- the greatest remaining monuments of Greco-Buddhist art in Afghanistan -- vanished in a hail of Taliban missiles and antiaircraft fire.

Artworks provisionally valued at $10 million (the least precise measure of the hold such things can have on us) disappeared in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. These included Alexander Calder's 25-foot-tall ''Bent Propeller'' and Louise Nevelson's ''Sky Gate New York'' (inspired by an aerial view of the Manhattan skyline) -- the titles of which add a painful irony to the attacks of Sept. 11. In the face of such fragility, art books -- sometimes containing unnerving captions like ''presumed lost'' and ''location unknown'' -- preserve our cultural memory. This year's harvest was notably rich in this saving grace.

LEONARDO: The Last Supper. By Pinin Brambilla Barcilon and Pietro C. Marani. Translated by Harlow Tighe. (University of Chicago, $95.) LEONARDO'S INCESSANT LAST SUPPER. By Leo Steinberg. (Zone, $43.) Leonardo da Vinci painted his ''Last Supper'' on the north wall of the monastery refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan during the last decade of the 15th century. He might as well have painted it in bread and wine, so quickly did it begin to deteriorate. Damp walls, failed experiments with paint, food fights of Napoleonic soldiers, a door rammed through Christ's feet -- the indignities suffered by the painting were legion. Leonardo's brushstrokes were buried under successive attempts to preserve and restore the painting; copyists recorded in turn each stage of these doomed attempts to fix for all time the Twelve Apostles experiencing what Pietro C. Marani calls ''an emotional ripple like a wave spreading out from Christ.'' These two books take opposite tacks in trying to salvage Leonardo from the debacle. Pinin Barcilon was entrusted with the unenviable task of restoring the mural -- again. Her highly controversial approach has been to pry away every bit of paint not clearly Leonardo's, with the result that a pale but evocative ghost remains. Was too much removed? Readers can judge by perusing the extraordinary 1:1 scale photographs of sections from the painting. Leo Steinberg argues that the only way to unearth Leonardo is to look at the many copies of the painting through the centuries, since only they can tell us what the painting had to say before meddlers and marrers had their way with it. What he finds is a profound punster, a trafficker in double meanings. Christ's ''doubly transitive'' hand reaches for both the ''treason dish'' in front of Judas and the Eucharistic wine. In what Steinberg calls ''the profoundest pun in all art,'' Christ's right hand ''summons the agent of his human death even as it offers the means of salvation.''

IMPRESSIONIST STILL LIFE. By Eliza E. Rathbone and George T. M. Shackelford. (Phillips Collection/Abrams, $45.) If Cezanne's apples seem like the apotheosis of still life, take a look at the green-hued skulls he placed on his table late in his life. The two sides of still life -- celebrations of life's riches and reminders of life's end -- find vivid illustration in this handsome culling of familiar and little-known Impressionist stunners. Among the core group of Impressionists, pure still life is rare. Manet is the big exception, and Eliza E. Rathbone notes that while Manet's human figures look like ''still'' objects, his flowers and vegetables are quick with life. In his overwhelming ''Bunch of Asparagus,'' the white spears wound with gold string lie on a bed of greens ''like a body stretched out on a messy coverlet.'' Similarly, Renoir's luminescent onions on a crumpled white napkin look like a family hanging out on the beach in midsummer. The authors have stretched the meaning of both still life (to include figure paintings by Mary Cassatt and Degas with still life elements) and Impressionist (to include van Gogh and Gauguin). But Impressionism set the scene for all that came after; when the Abstract Expressionists came along, as Harold Rosenberg wrote, the apples were ''brushed off the table . . . so that nothing would get in the way of the act of painting.''

PIETER BRUEGEL THE ELDER: Drawings and Prints. Edited by Nadine M. Orenstein. (Metropolitan Museum/Yale University, $60.) Who are these faceless creatures wrapped in white robes, stealthily carrying away great conical pods in their arms? The name of Bruegel's famous drawing is ''The Beekeepers,'' but something more sinister than stealing honey seems to be going on here. Is Bruegel, a merciless cataloger of human vices, illustrating avarice? Does the picture protest attacks on Flemish churches, emptied of their clergy (bees) and their contents (honey)? Maybe so, and maybe not. With Bruegel's drawings, of which a mere 61 survive, each meticulous detail just seems to add to the overall enigma. Sometimes Bruegel seems like two different artists, as he shifts back and forth between Bosch-like dreamscapes, where the trees look like bits of wave-worn coral, to forests and towns that seem almost photographically real. Bruegel's biography is equally inscrutable. ''It is possible,'' Nadine Orenstein explains, ''that he was born in either of two towns named Breughel or Brogel -- one in the northern Netherlands, the other in the southern Netherlands.'' And a few sentences later: ''It may well be that he did not come from a town called Bruegel but rather that he was the son of a man named Brueghel.'' But the real mysteries here are in the timeless wonders on the page.

THE ANATOMY OF NATURE: Geology & American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. By Rebecca Bedell. (Princeton University, $45.) In this wide-ranging book, Rebecca Bedell looks beyond the usual labels -- Hudson River School, Luminism, American Impressionism -- to find an unexpected continuity in 19th-century American landscape painting: its obsession with the once fashionable science of geology. In lucid prose free of academic jargon, Bedell surveys the intersection of art, tourism and geology in the work of such painters as Thomas Cole, John Kensett and Thomas Moran. If these artists preferred to see divine intentions rather than Darwinian randomness in ''the sculpting hands of fire and ice,'' they nonetheless brought a taste for adventure (Moran accompanied the great geological surveys as they charted the Yellowstone and Grand Canyon) and a zealous desire to get geological details right. Bedell is at her best in noticing how these artists found ways to replicate, in the very handling of their paint, the geological processes they recorded. Moran's layering of pigment in a painting of the Yellowstone River, for example, ''reminds us of the slow accumulation of strata over time.''

CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH: Moonwatchers. By Sabine Rewald with an essay by Kasper Monrad. (Metropolitan Museum/Yale University, $16.95.) For German painters circa 1825, moon viewing was as alluring a recreation as it was for Japanese painters in Kyoto. Caspar David Friedrich, who looms over German Romantic painting as Goethe and Beethoven tower over the words and music, ''rarely depicted daylight, and never sunlight if he could help it,'' Sabine Rewald writes. In three closely related small paintings (one of which was just acquired by the Metropolitan Museum), Friedrich portrayed two figures standing by a blasted tree contemplating the rising moon. Rewald is right that the elements of these beguiling pictures ''evoke theatrical props''; the Dresden version of ''Moonwatchers'' inspired Samuel Beckett's bleak setting of ''Waiting for Godot.'' This slender volume tells us what we need to know about Friedrich and his melancholy milieu -- including contemporary scientific accounts of the moon -- and how he disappeared from view (as the moon increasingly did with the invention of gaslight and electricity) until his work won admirers at the dawn of the 20th century.

VAN GOGH AND GAUGUIN: The Studio of the South. By Douglas W. Druick and Peter Kort Zegers. (Thames and Hudson, $65.) GAUGUIN'S NIRVANA: Painters at Le Pouldu, 1889-90. Edited by Eric M. Zafran. (Wadsworth Atheneum/Yale University , $50.) THE YELLOW HOUSE: Vincent van Gogh & Paul Gauguin Side by Side. By Susan Goldman Rubin. Illustrated by Jos. A. Smith. (Abrams, $17.95.) Before their tumultuous nine weeks together in the yellow house in Arles, van Gogh and Gauguin, like future college roommates, traded self-portraits: Vincent as a Japanese Buddhist monk, Gauguin as Jean Valjean. ''Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South,'' the catalog of the show of that name at the Art Institute of Chicago, takes us day by day, and sometimes hour by hour, through one of the key collaborations in the history of Western art. Using maps, weather reports and calendars, as well as scientific procedures to establish precisely what works were painted in Arles and when, Douglas W. Druick and Peter Kort Zegers bring some of van Gogh's clarifying yellow light to both the fraught friendship and the extraordinary paintings it inspired. They draw sharp contrasts between the unhinged and manic Vincent, seeking peace and an art of ''consolation,'' and the lapsed businessman Gauguin, sick of normalcy and longing for a ''savage'' life.

Gauguin's next stop on his way to the tropics was the remote Breton fishing village of Le Pouldu, where he teamed up with another Dutch painter, an owl-eyed hunchback called Meyer de Haan. Their two-year sojourn is the subject of the handsomely illustrated ''Gauguin's Nirvana.'' ''When my wooden shoes ring on this granite,'' Gauguin wrote of Brittany, ''I hear the muffled, dull, powerful tone I seek in my painting.''

The sun-drenched children's book called ''The Yellow House'' was commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago to complement their ''Studio of the South'' exhibition. Kids will like Gauguin's description of soup a la Vincent: ''I have no idea what mixtures he used -- they seemed like those of the colors on his canvases -- but we could never eat it.'' The accompanying vignette shows a little puddle of red paint squeezed from a tube, mingled with chives and a slice of red apple.

MUNCH: In His Own Words. Edited by Paul Erik Tojner. (Prestel, $65.) EDVARD MUNCH: The Complete Graphic Works. By Gerd Woll. (Abrams, $175.) There are artists we treasure almost as much for their words as for their works of art: van Gogh in his fiery letters; Paul Klee and Fairfield Porter in their quieter meditations on art. The Norwegian Symbolist-cum-Expressionist Edvard Munch, despite his wordless ''Scream,'' has hitherto been silent. Now, for the first time in English, we can see if he is worth listening to. ''Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied the recesses of the human body and dissected cadavers, I try to dissect souls.'' That has the right competitive edge: reduce Leonardo to a coroner and turn yourself into Sigmund Freud. Munch's tonic railing at favorite betes noires like photography (''The camera cannot compete with painting as long as it cannot be used in heaven or hell'') is balanced with smart advice to artists: ''It is better to paint a good, unfinished painting than finish a bad one.'' For the Munch enthusiast, ''The Complete Graphic Works'' fills all the blanks; one wishes the pictures were bigger, but Gerd Woll's meticulous commentary is instructively attentive to Munch's evolving mastery of printing technique. There is a Halloween feel to some of Munch's finest work. Fearing that he had inherited both tuberculosis from his mother's side of the family and mental illness from his father's, he explored the fate of body and soul in such multiple-format pictures as ''The Sick Child'' and ''Jealousy.'' It is no surprise that Munch, who died in 1944, was high on the Nazi list of ''degenerate art.''

AFRICAN ROCK ART: Paintings and Engravings on Stone. By David Coulson and Alec Campbell. (Abrams, $60.) The Stone Age cave art of Europe, especially the images at Lascaux in France, has received a great deal of attention, not least from Picasso and other cultural raiders of a lost ''primitive'' world. But the great repository of Paleolithic stone art is Africa, with three main concentrations in the central Sahara, central Tanzania and southern Africa. A preservationist push -- for the art itself, time is running out'' -- inspired the photographer David Coulson and a museum administrator, Alec Campbell, to travel in 15 nations, often in rough country with military protection. Their forays yield a stunningly varied array of images: 20-foot giraffes carved into mountains in Niger; in southern Algeria, wild cattle carved among natural rock depressions in which rainwater collects so the cattle can drink; the amazing ''Great God of Sefar,'' also in Algeria, a big-eared standing male figure surrounded by dancing animals and women. What does not survive defacing by tourists or Kalashnikov rifles will last at least in these photographs, which preserve the work of the very earliest artists -- artists from whom all of us (as Campbell reminds us) are descended.

MOSTLY MINIATURES: An Introduction to Persian Painting. By Oleg Grabar. (Princeton University, $49.50.) PERSIAN PAINTING: From the Mongols to the Qajars. Edited by Robert Hillenbrand. (I. B. Tauris, $59.95.) The serious study of Persian art is barely 100 years old, and Oleg Grabar's authoritative overview stresses how little we know about these brilliantly colored and wittily composed miniatures and manuscripts. ''It was a hidden, occult, almost inaccessible art, and a spellbinding one,'' according to Grabar, who believes that secular pleasure outweighed mystical thought in these intricately coded images.

A sense of current forays in the field can be gleaned from the richly illustrated essays on the whole spectrum of Iranian visual culture assembled in ''Persian Painting.'' Especially appealing to the general reader are Anthony Welch's lively disquisition on worldly and otherworldly love, and Barbara Brend's eye-catching ''Beyond the Pale,'' an analysis -- with telling asides on comic books and Chinese landscape painting -- of the extraordinary goings-on in the margins of Persian miniatures.

H. C. WESTERMANN. Essays by Dennis Adrian, Michael Rooks, Robert Storr and Lynne Warren. (Abrams, $49.50.) The G.I. Bill gave the Chicago-based sculptor H. C. Westermann his start in art in 1947, and what he had to say had a lot to do with what he had seen in the Pacific war, as a gunner's mate aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise. The absurd and the appalling are perfectly joined -- as are the deftly assembled wood, glass and brass -- in such unforgettable sculptures as ''Death Ship Runover by a '66 Lincoln Continental'' (1966). A carved plywood ship floats on a sea of dollar bills within a waterless aquarium. A shark fin breaks the surface, and across the mastless deck is a pair of clearly identifiable tire tracks. Such sculptures go beyond simple protest; palpable here are both a sailor's romance with the sea and a cabinetmaker's affair with the grain of polished wood. Westermann, who died in 1981, may not be a household name, but this lively book should lure more visitors to what he called, metaphorically, his ''Museum of Shattered Dreams.''

DESIGN OF THE 20th Century. By Charlotte and Peter Fiell. ROBOTS AND SPACESHIPS. By Teruhisa Kitahara and Yukio Shimizu. ART NOW. Edited by Burkhard Riemschneider and Uta Grosenick. CHAIRS. By Charlotte and Peter Fiell. TATTOOS. By Henk Schiffmacher and Burkhard Riemschneider. (Taschen, paper, $9.99 each.) These seductive little books, sold separately or in bundles of five wrapped with a red ribbon, have slick production values, excellent illustrations and smart texts. Each one is a fast-food, high-energy fix on the topic at hand. You will never feel quite the same way again about sitting down once you have leafed through ''Chairs,'' arranged by designers from Alvar Aalto to Frank Lloyd Wright. ''Art Now'' is a brisk run-through of currently hip artists like Cindy Sherman and Tony Oursler, while ''Design'' takes us back, with surprising depth, through past versions of compelling style -- Arts and Crafts, Bauhaus, Pop. ''Tattoos'' and the toy-intensive ''Robots and Spaceships'' are mainly picture books; the section on Japanese tattoos puts the other skin art in the shade. In his informative introduction, Henk Schiffmacher notes that tattoo art, which ''disappears along with the person who bears it,'' can be both ephemeral and enduring, as tribal artists preserve cultural memory over successive generations.

Christopher Benfey, author of ''Degas in New Orleans,'' is completing a book about Japanese and American cultural exchange during the Meiji era and the Gilded Age. He is co-director of the Weissman Center for Leadership at Mount Holyoke College.