Books of Art for the Holiday Season

By Stuart Mitchner

Amsterdam was the first stop on my first trip to Europe and the first time in my life that I’d walked into a museum on a whim, on my own, casually, without thinking of it as a prescribed learning experience. Every painting was by the same artist. At 19, I knew about Van Gogh of course. I’d seen Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. But here was the reality, vividly, wildly, uncontainedly there in the gobs, clusters, and swirls of paint everywhere I looked, and no one else was around, no crowds to contend with; somehow some way I’d lucked out and had the place to myself, just me and Van Gogh. I could almost hear him breathing, smell the smoke from his pipe, as if he were working as I watched, no brush, I imagined him squeezing the paint between his fingers and then slapping it on. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I’d landed all by myself on the shore of a new world of art.

Deep in the Moment

Until some digital genius devises a way to make it possible to open a book and come as close to the painter as I felt that day in Amsterdam, Van Gogh and the Seasons (Princeton Univ. Press $60), edited by Sjraar van Heugten, former head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum, is the next best thing.

Van Gogh articulates his vision of the seasons in a letter quoted in the introduction (with his italics): “It is something to be deep in the snow in winter, to be deep in the yellow leaves in the autumn, to be deep in the ripe wheat in the summer, to be deep in the grass in the spring. It is something to always be with the mowers and the peasant girls, in summer with the big sky above, in the winter by the black fireplace. And to feel — this has always been so and always will be.”

“Deep” is the word for what I felt that day in the museum. Deep in the moment, so close to the substance of the paint I seemed to be touching and touched by it, with the ripe wheat and grass all around, the big sky overhead.

Other new books on the artist include Van Gogh & Japan (Yale Univ. Press $45), Martin Bailey’s Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum (White Lion $45), and Vincent, a graphic biography by Barbara Stok (Art Masters Series $19.95).

Drinking Delacroix

“Passion impassions him,” Baudelaire once observed of Delacroix. “On his inspired canvases he pours blood, light, and darkness in turn.” Cézanne’s response was still more visceral: “All this luminous colour …. It seems to me that it enters the eye like a glass of wine running into your gullet and it makes you drunk straight away.” Terms like these are somewhat belied by the warmth and intimacy of Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), the painting on the cover of Delacroix (Metropolitan Museum of Art $65), which accompanies what has become the show of the season, on view at the Met through January 6. The monograph is edited by chief curators Sébastien Allard and Côme Fabre, both in the Department of Paintings at the Louvre.

A Spiral Temple

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future (Guggenheim Museum Publications $65) accompanies another of the season’s must-see shows, which will be at the museum through April 23. According to the curator’s commentary, “Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) is now regarded as a pioneer of abstract art. Though her paintings were not seen publicly until 1987, her work from the early 20th century predates the first purely abstract paintings by Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich. Generated in part through her spiritualist practice as a medium, her paintings reflect an effort to articulate mystical views of reality.” Having imagined installing her work in a spiral temple, the title for her first group of largely non-objective works was Paintings for the Temple. Considering the shape of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building that houses the exhibit, af Klint’s art has found the right home.

Ninth Street Women

According to Ann Landi in The Wall Street Journal, Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art (Little Brown $35) “is like a great, sprawling Russian novel, filled with memorable characters and sharply etched scenes. It’s no mean feat to breathe life into five very different and very brave women …. Ms. Gabriel fleshes out her portraits with intimate details, astute analyses of the art and good old-fashioned storytelling.” Jennifer Szalai’s piece in The New York Times sums it up: “The story of New York’s postwar art world has been told many times over, but by wresting the perspective from the boozy, macho brawlers who tended to fixate on themselves and one another, Gabriel has found a way to newly illuminate the milieu and upend its clichés.”

“Something”

A natural for the Christmas season is The Art of Winnie-the-Pooh (Harper Design $29.99) by James Campbell, with a foreword by Minette Shephard, granddaughter of the original illustrator E.H. Shepard. The Portland Mercury calls the book “An effective overview of Shepard’s life and career, including sketches from periods throughout his life … Campbell’s book, in its understated way, makes a case for Shepard as one of the greatest children’s illustrators of all time.”

Shepard’s drawings of Pooh, Piglet, and Eeyore came early in my journey from childhood Christmases to Amsterdam and Van Gogh. The “something” Van Gogh gives special emphasis in his vision of the seasons, his sense that “this has always been and always will be” is evoked in the words on the back cover of The Art of Winnie the Pooh: “Together, Milne and Shepard created a timeless world with stories and images as resonant today as they ever were, and loved by children of all ages from generation to generation.”