The art books to add to your 2020 reading list
Christie’s writers, art critics, journalists and authors reveal the recent and upcoming releases they’re most excited about
‘Lucian Freud claimed that “gossip is only interesting because it’s all there is about anyone”. Not true in his case, of course, but his life still contained enough you-couldn’t-make-it-up incidents to sate the most ravenous of gossip-trufflers.
‘William Feaver’s The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth entertainingly presents the riotous profusion of the artist’s world; the high- and low-society friends, the lovers, the numberless children, and the pictures he somehow found time to paint amid it all. And there’s another volume still to come.’
‘Toby Ferris’s Short Life in a Strange World promises to be a different sort of book — a spiralling meditation on the mysteries of existence, prompted by the author’s quest to see all of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 42 surviving paintings. In among discussions of the pictures, he weaves memoir, travel, and musings on everything from bear-baiting and the nature of crowds to marriage and mortality. If the paintings teem, so do Ferris’s thoughts.’
Favourite book of 2019: Young Rembrandt by Onno Blom
‘Last year marked the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, and this book about his early years was as interesting as any of the commemorative exhibitions.
‘It posed the essential question: how did a humble miller’s son from south Holland become the greatest painter on Earth? Onno Blom doesn’t offer a straightforward answer, of course. The truth was much too rich, complex and unpredictable for that.’
‘How big a role did art and artists play in making London swing in the 1960s? Lisa Tickner’s book considers not just the individuals who shot to fame — many of them female (such as Bridget Riley, Ida Kar and Pauline Boty) — it will also look at a number of key episodes through the decade, from Ken Russell’s 1962 film Pop Goes the Easel to the student occupation of Hornsey College of Art in 1968.’
Favourite book of 2019: Gerhard Richter by Armin Zweite
‘Armin Zweite, former director of Lenbachhaus in Munich and Kunstsammlung NRW in Düsseldorf, is among the international art historians who know Gerhard Richter best.
‘In his large (480 pages) monograph (first published in October 2019 in German) he manages not to look at the phenomenon of Richter, but at the artist’s paintings and drawings. More than 250 excellent reproductions together with Zweite’s explanations and interpretations show why Richter, at nearly 88, is still one of the most important living artists.’
Most looking forward to reading in 2020: Rembrandt van Rijn by Jan Six
‘Amsterdam art historian and dealer Jan Six’s five volumes about Rembrandt van Rijn will be the first time in decades that a scientific publication about this great master was not compiled under the watch and control of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP). That said, for the publication of this book Six, himself a successful researcher, did join forces with Rembrandt doyen and RRP member Ernst van de Wetering.’
Favourite book of 2019: Legsicon by Laure Prouvost
‘Prouvost relishes wordplay and ambiguities: the accidental meaning that appears when established rules of language are defied. Thus this lexicon (legs icon) of concerns: from “Boobs” and “Bums” through “Grand Ma” to ‘Tea” and “You”.
‘Contributors include Prouvost’s heroes — Agnès Varda among them — but as a primer, it remains as witty, fleshy and tricksy as her work itself. “Ideally this description would be more idealist,” as the artist writes under one entry. But where would the fun be in that?’
‘Written collaboratively over many years, The Eleven Associates of Alma-Marceau is a mystery story with an arty edge. A page-turner rooted in the phenomena of pareidolia — the tendency to see images in textured surfaces such as clouds or dirt — it asks how much we can trust our own eyes, whether in examining great paintings, or trying to understand the world around us. Sounds like just the thing to curl up with in front of the fire this February.’
‘Lee Krasner’s raw abstracts judder with a nervous energy that reflected what the poet W.H. Auden described as “the age of anxiety”. Until recently, the prodigiously talented Abstract Expressionist was overshadowed by the work of her husband Jackson Pollock, but recent exhibitions have revealed her to be a modern master.
‘Gail Levin’s book is the first full-length account of the artist’s life, from her émigré beginnings in Brooklyn to the male-dominated New York art scene where she developed a dynamic, fractured style. In 1973 she protested, “There’s never any mention of me in those history books, it’s like I was never there.” This biography sets the record straight.’
Most looking forward to reading in 2020: An Apartment on Uranus by Paul B. Preciado
‘Described as “a bold, radical argument for new gender politics”, this art and science fiction-suffused essay reimagines Uranus, the coldest planet in the solar system, as a utopian place free of race, gender, class and disability distinctions.
‘Written by curator Paul B. Preciado, currently resident philosopher at Centre Pompidou, the book is said to reflect on the political issues facing the world today, including the rise of Neo-Fascism, the erosion of women’s rights, transgender harassment and the migration crisis, and asks who gets to decide what is deviant in society today.’
‘Last year I loved Julian Barnes’s The Man in the Red Coat. Lifting off from John Singer Sargent’s magnificently theatrical portrait of Dr Pozzi at Home, it takes a tour d’horizon of Belle Epoque Paris, swooping from the perfumed aestheticism of the Count de Montesquiou’s exquisite pavilion to the grim realities of the operating theatres where Pozzi (a gynaecological surgeon) did his innovative work.
‘Barnes seems to stroll at ease among his cast of poseurs and geniuses, but it takes consummate artistry to make a narrative as complex as this feel so charmingly nonchalant.’
Most looking forward to reading in 2020: Suzanne Cooper: A Forgotten Artist by Jenny Uglow and Lucy Hughes-Hallett
‘Now I’m looking forward to Suzanne Cooper, a beautifully produced volume from the Mainstone Press, honouring a long-neglected artist who was a rising star in the 1930s. Reminiscent of the work of Christopher Wood, but with a dynamic sense of movement and a subtle palette that are all her own, Cooper’s paintings are haunting and her fine wood engravings strikingly bold.’
Favourite book of 2019: The Art of Love by Kate Bryan
‘The explosive tales of love and loss behind modern art’s greatest couples are thrust centre stage in this enjoyable debut by Kate Bryan, Head of Collections for Soho House. Featuring 34 artist couples from 1880 to the present day, The Art of Love reveals how romantic relationships — whether fleeting, obsessional, tumultuous or life-long — can shape creativity, across painting, sculpture, photography and design.
‘It lacks reproductions of original artworks, but Asli Yazan’s engaging artist portraits in pen and ink more than compensate, while Bryan’s accessible, succinct prose makes this a holiday page-turner — or, indeed, a great gift for the blossoming art lover in your life.’
‘“I have a more or less irresistible passion for books,” Vincent van Gogh once famously said. “Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing for me.”
‘Described as a “thought-provoking original study”, drawn extensively from Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, Vincent’s Books explores the painter’s lifelong love affair with the written word, from Zola and Maupassant to Shakespeare and Dickens. During this meandering journey through Holland, Paris, Provence and beyond, Guzzoni reveals just how much Van Gogh’s favourite books and authors defined his life and art.’
‘There is a strange pleasure in trying to spot similarities between the handwriting of an artist and their work. Sometimes, a brief look into the inner workings of their brain can make you rethink their art.
‘My favourite titbit in this brilliantly researched book of 100 artists’ letters — each photographed, translated and contextualised — is from correspondence written by Francisco de Goya in 1794. At the top of the letter, in an attempt at humour, the Spaniard wrote a date six years in the future to try to confuse his old school friend.’
Most looking forward to reading in 2020: Warhol: A Life as Art by Blake Gopnik
‘Before I visit the Andy Warhol retrospective at Tate Modern, which opens in March, I’m going to try to find the time to read Blake Gopnik’s new biography of the artist.
‘It’s not the first biography of Warhol, and won’t be the last, but it’s always interesting to read a fresh take on his life and work — especially as Gopnik has spent years combing the archives, and conducted more than 260 interviews with Warhol’s family, lovers, friends and enemies.’
Favourite book of 2019: Walter Gropius by Fiona MacCarthy
‘The best art book of 2019 was surely Fiona MacCarthy’s Walter Gropius. It had mixed reviews and some specially snitty ones from America, but it’s a masterpiece of scrupulous research and gently witty observation. MacCarthy neither talks up nor down to readers, simply (and optimistically) assuming a shared level of interest and intelligence.’
Most looking forward to reading in 2020: Anything by Peter Schjeldahl
‘The book I am looking forward to most in 2020 may, alas, never be written. Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker is easily the best critic writing anywhere today, but in a touching magazine confessional published at the end of last year he revealed, with grim humour, a terminal diagnosis after a well-lived, if occasionally rackety, life. But sometimes the best books are the ones not (yet) written.’
Favourite book of 2019: The Last Leonardo by Ben Lewis
‘I very much enjoyed Ben Lewis’s The Last Leonardo, because I felt this was a book that was accessible to the general public as well as being well-researched. The whole backstory about Salvador Mundi’s successive sales and misattribution are laid out in detail, and kudos to the author for actually tracking down how it was rediscovered in an obscure auction room in the US. The mystery about the painting’s present whereabouts endures, but at least we know more about where it was before.’
Most looking forward to reading in 2020: Dorothea Tanning by Victoria Carruthers
‘Dorothea Tanning’s recent exhibition at Tate was a revelation, bringing her out of the shadow of her husband Max Ernst. Victoria Carruthers’ book is being produced in collaboration with the Destina Foundation and the artist’s estate; the author interviewed Tanning towards the end of her life, over a nine-year period, and this previously unpublished material will feature in the book.’
Favourite book of 2019: Essays by Lydia Davis
‘Lydia Davis’s Essays are mostly about the written word, but a few of them deal with visual art. There is a fabulous piece — no more than a brief anecdote — recalling a visit to Joan Mitchell’s studio outside Paris. There Davis saw Les Bluets, and was suddenly struck by the ineffable power of abstract painting. If the blue rectangles represent cornflowers is the painting really abstract? Is it “an emotional response to cornflowers” or “a memory of cornflowers”? Davis has no straight answers — only a big bouquet of questions.’
‘I like the sound of Toby Ferris’s Short Life in a Strange World, in which the recently bereaved author goes to see all 42 of Pieter Bruegel’s surviving paintings. Hunters in the Snow — or a picture of it in a book — was the first work of art ever to catch my attention. Aged six I thought it was deeply magical and mysterious, and I was overwhelmed when, years later, I saw it for real in Vienna. I am looking forward to discovering what propelled Ferris on his Bruegel pilgrimage.’