One-Minute Book Reviews

March 12, 2009

If Only the Recession Were Like This for Writers and Artists — More on R. A. Scotti’s Forthcoming ‘Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa’

The cover of the advance reader's edition of 'Vanished Smile'

I’ve been reading R. A. Scotti’s historical true-crime book Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa (Knopf, April 2009), which I mentioned yesterday. And it’s been a pleasure after trudging through the finalists for the 2009 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books, the winners of which will be announced Monday. Another quote from Scotti’s fascinating tale, this one about Picasso’s Rose period:

“In those happy days, Picasso would sell his art by the armful – a hundred francs (then worth about twenty dollars) for a stack of drawings; two thousand francs for thirty canvases. A few dealers – notably, Ambrose Vollard, astute and fair, and Clovis Sagot, an unscrupulous ex-clown who sold art out of an old apothecary – were scooping up Picasso’s harlequins and saltimbanques for the price of a meal … money was a luxury, and freeloading was a way of life. ‘You could owe money for years for your paints and canvases and rent and restaurant and practically everything except coal and luxuries,’ Picasso remembered.”

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 12, 2007

‘Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts on why I didn’t finish certain books

Title: Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art. By Justin Spring. Yale University Press, 384 pp. $48.

What it is: A biography of the great American realist Fairfield Porter (1907–1975), known partly for family scenes influenced by the work of French painters Vuillard and Bonnet. Porter was the brother of the photographer Eliot Porter and the husband of the poet Anne Porter. This biography has 27 color reproductions of his paintings and many black-and-white photographs or other illustrations.

How much I read: I read about a third of the book and skimmed much of the rest.

Why I stopped: I picked up this biography mainly because I wanted to learn more about Anne Porter, whose Living Things: Collected Poems (Steerforth, 2006) I admired and reviewed on March 28, 2007 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/. But Fairfield Porter is such an intelligent book that I read more than planned. A contributor to Artforum, Justin Spring writes with a neo-classical restraint that is all the more admirable because it so rare in modern biographies of artists. He tells you exactly what you need to know and no more, even when dealing with his Porter’s bisexuality and other subjects that could have led to sensationalism. Without special pleading, he makes a quietly persuasive case that Porter was perhaps the major American artist of his century. I stopped reading only because this book deserved more time than I had to give.

Best line in what I read: Spring gives wonderfully evocative details of the places where the Porters lived or vacationed – Manhattan, Southampton, Great Spruce Head Island. Spring writes that, soon after their wedding in 1932, Anne and Fairfield Porter took rooms at the Hotel Brevoort in Greenwich Village:

“The Brevoort, despite the Depression and the many bohemian socialists lingering in its café, still had a certain grandeur. Anne Porter recalled that at breakfast the management required her young husband to wear a tie at the table and that the waiter presented an egg for her inspection before sending it to the kitchen for soft-boiling.”

I also love a line that involves Fairfield Porter’s wake. He was laid out in the dining room of the family home in Southampton. Artist Jane Freilicher said that Anne told her that a friend had asked if she wanted a Valium. “Why on earth would anyone not want to have feelings at a time like this?” Anne said she replied.

Worst line: None.

Recommended? To serious readers interested in 20th-century American art. This is not a catalog but a full-strength biography.

Published: December 1999

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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