Art, architecture and design books to look out for in 2021

Plundered treasures, Zen-like spaces and inspiring women artists — our selection of this year’s must-have titles

Best Art Books 2021

The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Collected, Rejected, and Rediscovered Modern Artby Donna Stein

During the 1970s, Donna Stein — a former curator at MoMA in New York — served as art adviser to the Empress of Iran, guiding her selection of paintings and sculptures for the new Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Opened in 1977, it housed masterpieces by Van Gogh, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Giacometti, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Moore, Magritte, Picasso, Warhol and more.

But the following year saw the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution, and since then the collection has been hidden away in vaults, barely seen by the public. 

Today, it’s said to be the most important collection of modern art outside Europe and the United States, and worth several billion dollars. The Empress and I  recounts Stein’s time spent building the collection, citing previously confidential correspondence with artists and dealers, while exploring the bond she formed with the Empress over a shared passion for art.

Carlo Scarpa: Beyond Matterby Patrizia Piccinini and Lorenzo Pennati

It has been said that Carlo Scarpa’s death — caused by falling down a flight of concrete stairs in Japan — was a poetic end to the life of an architect whose practice fused the grandiosity of his native Venice with the clean, modern lines of Japanese design.

The ground floor of the Olivetti store, Venice, with its Aurisina marble staircase. The stairs, staggered in relation to each other, appear to be floating

Rizzoli’s Carlo Scarpa: Beyond Matter  (published 23 March) features new photographs by Lorenzo Pennati of Scarpa’s major projects in Venice, Verona, Bologna and the Dolomites, and pays special attention to the minute details of material, shape and light that he obsessed over in order to achieve his Zen-inspired visions. The volume has a postscript written by the architect’s son, Tobia Scarpa, who is in the process of designing the Scarpa Museum in Treviso.

Out of the Cage: The Art of Isabel Rawsthorneby Carol Jacobi

The list of male artists for whom Isabel Rawsthorne modelled is almost a Who’s Who  of 20th-century art — Jacob Epstein, André Derain, Picasso, Giacometti and Francis Bacon among them.

Out of the Cage: The Art of Isabel Rawsthorne, by Carol Jacobi. The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing, supported by Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation Monaco, in association with Thames & Hudson

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

She was married three times, counted Ian Fleming and Dylan Thomas as friends, and created ‘black propaganda’ for the British government in the Second World War. She may also have been a spy. In Out of the Cage: The Art of Isabel Rawthorne  (published 18 February), Carol Jacobi, Curator of British Art at Tate Britain, will cover all of those bases but also remind us of Rawsthorne the artist, in which capacity she had a long and productive career.

Napoleon’s Plunder: The Theft of Veronese’s Feastby Cynthia Saltzman

In 1797 Napoleon’s invading troops ripped Veronese’s masterpiece, The Wedding Feast at Cana, off the refectory wall at the San Giorgio monastery. It was one of many paintings taken as spoils of war from Venice back to Paris.

Paolo Veronese, The Wedding of Cana (Le nozze di Cana), 1563. Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images

As the French army cut a swathe through Europe, North Africa and the Levant, it continued to confiscate its enemies’ finest artworks and artefacts. Using the Veronese as a jumping-off point, Cynthia Saltzman investigates Napoleon’s Plunder  (published 13 May), and how it helped turn the Louvre into both the greatest museum in the world and a monument to the emperor’s power.

The Mirror & the Palette — Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraitsby Jennifer Higgie

Until the 20th century, women were largely ignored by European art history; even in the modern era, they had to fight to be taken seriously. One thing they were able to do was to sit down at an easel, pick up a mirror and paint themselves — which is precisely what Catharina van Hemessen did in 1548, aged only 20.

‘She was the first artist — of any gender — to paint a self-portrait at the easel,’ says Jennifer Higgie, an art critic and author who also presents the Bow Down podcast on women in art history. In The Mirror and the Palette  (published 18 March) she celebrates 20 women artists — Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Loïs Mailou-Jones and Amrita Sher-Gil among them — who defied the odds and broke taboos to present themselves, and their female perspective on the times they lived in, to the world. 

Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His Worldby Jonathan Petropoulos

Professor Jonathan Petropolous has spent his career engaging with the apparent paradox that Nazi leaders could perform acts of sheer barbarism yet still see themselves as men of culture. Göring’s Man in Paris  (published 26 January) is a biography of Bruno Lohse (1911-2007), Hermann Göring’s art agent in Paris during much of the Second World War.

Bruno Lohse (second from right) leads Göring on a tour to select works of seized art with ERR Paris chief von Behr (second from left). (Bruno Lohse papers, author’s collection)

The job entailed overseeing the systematic theft of thousands of artworks, largely from French Jews, and dispatching them to Germany, where Reichsmarschall Göring amassed an enormous personal collection. Lohse, who testified at the Nuremberg trials after the war and escaped conviction, was interviewed by Petropolous a number of times towards the end of his life.

Jaeger-LeCoultre: Reversoby Nicholas Foulkes

Jaeger-LeCoultre has been a leader in micromechanics since 1844, when its founder, Antoine LeCoultre, invented a machine for measuring a thousandth of a millimetre. But the Swiss company is best known for the Reverso, a beautifully simple yet highly functional wristwatch with a case that flips to protect the delicate crystal, dial and movement within.

Illustration from the 1930s of the Reverso function, highlighting its versatility. © Jaeger-LeCoultre

Created in 1931 for polo players, the elegant, rectangular Art Deco design captured the zeitgeist, and has continued to do so through more than 500 calibers, several hundred dials and a flipside variously decorated with enamel, engravings or gemstones — indeed, the Duoface model turned the original into a two-time-zone watch.

Jaeger-LeCoultre: Reverso  (published 12 February) marks the 90th birthday of the iconic timepiece, tracing its history through archive images and photography, with text by the historian, journalist and horological specialist Nick Foulkes. 

The Essential Louis Kahnby Cemal Emden and Caroline Maniaque

The American Modernist architect Louis Kahn is best remembered as a maestro of light, an interest he claimed to have developed upon realising that the void between the columns of a Greek temple was just as significant as the space the columns filled. He brought this approach to more than 20 buildings, including Erdman Hall at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, the Sher-e-Bangla Nagar in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale Center for British Art. Photo: © Cemal Emden

For The Essential Louis Kahn  (published 1 April), the architectural photographer Cemal Emden has shot 280 images covering each project inside and out, focusing his lens on Kahn’s juxtaposition of materials, repetitions of lines, and preoccupation with light — as well as capturing the way in which his designs succeed whether in religious, governmental, educational or residential settings. 

Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzesby Barnaby Phillips

A timely contribution to the debate on cultural restitution, Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes  charts the story of the contested group of around 900 sculptures from the historic kingdom of Benin now held in the collection of the British Museum in London.

Phillips looks at everything from their creation — beginning in the 16th century — and their removal by the British in 1897, to their widely contested future, tapping a variety of sources and voices for insight into the controversy, among them the bronze casters of Benin City, museum directors and government officials.


Benin cockerel (from Antiquities from the City of Benin and from Other Parts of West Africa in the British Museum by Charles Read and Ormonde Dalton, 1899)

Rooted in fact, Loot  addresses important questions about ‘empire and the meaning of art, civilisation and culture’, as the critic Clive Myrie aptly puts it. Phillips’s succinct narrative also makes this a thrilling page-turner.

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The Art Museum in Modern Timesby Charles Saumarez Smith

With the world in and out of lockdown, the future of museums has never been so widely debated. As if on cue, The Art Museum in Modern Times  (published 13 April), by renowned museum director Charles Saumarez Smith, considers the ways in which art museums have evolved over the past 80 years and what their future holds.

View of a gallery in the Kimbell Musuem, Fort Worth, designed by Louis Kahn. Photo Robert LaPrelle. © 2020 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

For this survey Saumarez Smith visited museums around the world, from MoMA in New York and Tate in London to the West Bund Museum in Shanghai, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Benesse House Museum on the Japanese island of Naoshima. He considers not only how architecture, innovation and funding have shaped the experience of art, but also the reasons behind the public’s shifting attitudes towards visiting museums. Beautifully illustrated and filled with personal insights, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Rothko Chapel: An Oasis for Reflectionby Stephen Fox and Pamela Smart

In 1964, the Texan oil baron John de Menil and his art collector wife Dominique commissioned the abstract artist Mark Rothko to create a cycle of paintings for a chapel they were building in Houston, Texas. The artist set to work, mocking up a life-size model of the space in his Manhattan studio on East 69th Street. He painted 14 colossal canvases that he hoped would be his answer to the Renaissance frescoes he had admired on his trips to Italy.

Tragically Rothko never saw the paintings in situ, committing suicide a year before the chapel was completed in 1971. Now, on the 50th anniversary of the building’s opening, Rizzoli has published this comprehensive guide to Rothko’s final creation, which historians have described as an overwhelming synthesis of art and architecture. Rothko Chapel: An Oasis for Reflection  (published 2 March) also features an introduction from the artist’s son, Christopher.

Francis Bacon: Revelationsby Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

Numerous art historians have tried to pin down the enigma of Francis Bacon, searching for clues in the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, how he came to terms with his homosexuality, as well as his debilitating asthma. Bacon himself rarely spoke about his art, for fear that his words would distract from his work.

Mark Stevens and his wife Annalyn Swan — who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for de Kooning: An American Master — are the latest to have attempted the challenge, spending more than a decade researching their subject. The result of their dedication, Revelations  (published 21 January), is a widely praised portrayal of a man who was both serious and loving, but as warped as his art. It has set a new benchmark for his biographers.

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