Books: Art: The Britpack for breakfast

James Hall
Saturday 05 December 1998 00:02 GMT

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


OSCAR WILDE quipped that "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter". But even he may not have envisaged that a century later there would be artists whose oeuvre would consist of little but self-portraits: Gilbert and George, Anthony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Cindy Sherman...

It wasn't always thus. In Joanna Woods-Marsden's lucid and copiously illustrated study of Renaissance Self-Portraiture (Yale, pounds 45), we learn about the slow birth of the genre during the Renaissance. The proliferation of self-portraiture coincides with artists' attempts to move up the social and cultural pecking order, and distinguish themselves from "mere" craftsmen. Woods-Marsden's chapters on Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana can be read in tandem with Frances Borzello's discursive, if inconclusive, Seeing Ourselves: women's self-portraits (Thames & Hudson, pounds 28).

The greatest self-portrait of all may well be Velazquez's "Las Meninas", and the unique way in which this and 29 other works were created is the subject of Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido's eminently readable Velazquez: the technique of genius (Yale, pounds 29.95). Full-colour details allow us to stay with the argument. The modern cult of the artist, exemplified by solo exhibitions and personal museums (no more, please!), is explored in Oskar Batschmann's stimulating The Artist in the Modern World (Yale, pounds 30).

While self-portraits and their survival do reflect a genuine improvement in the status of the best artists, the vast majority remained anonymous drones. David Alan Brown's Leonardo da Vinci: origins of a genius (Yale, pounds 35) is a study of the busy workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, where the young Leonardo learned his trade. This gripping bit of art historical sleuthing hit the headlines because of Brown's plausible claim that Leonardo contributed a dog and a fish and other frilly bits to Verrocchio's "Tobias and the Angel" in the National Gallery. Brown believes that as Verrocchio was a sculptor who only turned to painting late in life, he was OK on figures, but got assistants to do many non-sculptural bits.

The often grim and sometimes sordid reality of painters' lives in Rome is meticulously explored in Helen Langdon's Caravaggio: a life (Chatto, pounds 25), the first full-length biography of the artist. Langdon takes full advantage of recent research to chart the complex network of relationships that sustained and thwarted Caravaggio through his brief life. She shows that his seemingly outlandish behaviour was not so unusual in a city full of unemployed soldiers, serviced by thousands of prostitutes. Tracey Emin and fellow Britpackers would have been eaten alive for prima colazione.

Bernini was another highly successful Roman thug. He set about his younger brother with a crowbar after discovering him with his own mistress (the wife of one of his studio assistants) and then had her disfigured with a razor. In his more creative guise, Bernini presides over Bruce Boucher's Italian Baroque Sculpture (Thames & Hudson, pounds 7.95), an elegant distillation of information on this massively under- researched area. Its thematic structure works well, with chapters on fountains, garden sculpture, and even ephemera such as sugar sculptures.

British art is given a professional check-up in Judy Egerton's catalogue to The British School in the National Gallery (National Gallery Publications, pounds 50). An introductory essay charts the uncertain position of British art within this institution, followed by detailed autopsies of 60 British pictures. Because of the matchless quality and range of so many parts of the collection, this new series of catalogues is an essential work.

William Blake has never been shown in the National. Not clubbable enough? For Blake, we can now gratefully turn to a landmark edition of his Illuminated Books, (Tate Gallery, six volumes, pounds 15-pounds 20 each). They are beautifully produced and great value. Sarah Symmons has done a deft job contextualising Blake's contemporary, Goya (Phaidon, pounds 12.99). She even reproduces a caricature of the Duke of Wellington as a vain peacock (these days, no aristocrat is sacred) and ends in the present with the Chapman Brothers.

There are several good books on modern sculpture. Richard Kendall's Degas and the Little Dancer (Yale, pounds 30) looks at the circumstances surrounding one of the oddest sculptures of the 19th century, while Sergiusz Michalski's Public Monuments (Reaktion, pounds 14.95) is a well-illustrated study of monuments from 1870 to the present. Michalski's discussion of the graceless German contribution is fascinating.

Andrew Causey's Sculpture Since 1945 (Oxford, pounds 8.99) is an extremely intelligent and thorough survey. Unusually for this type of book, Causey is as good on, say, Henry Moore as he is on Richard Serra. Ingo Walter's two-volume Art of the Twentieth Century (Taschen, pounds 49.99) is an attractive anthology that covers work in all media: stick it by the loo.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in