One-Minute Book Reviews

November 23, 2010

James Lord’s ‘A Giacometti Portrait’ — Sitting for a Master

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:27 pm
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A timeless memoir of watching an artist at work in Paris in the 1960s

A Giacometti Portrait. By James Lord. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 117 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1964 James Lord sat for a portrait by his friend Alberto Giacometti, who had won the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale two years earlier. Lord — a young, handsome, American writer — took notes and drew on them for an elegant memoir that has retained its appeal for nearly half a century.

A Giacometti Portrait gives a vibrant account of the work habits of a man who lit cigarettes as he painted (holding them in his left hand, which also held his palette and brushes) and seemed unaffected by the whorls of smoke that wreathed his head. The book is also a perceptive study of an artist who believed he could never reproduce on canvas what he saw but who had a compulsion to try that caused him continual anxiety.

At times it was exhausting take part in “an effort that acknowledged in advance its own futility but which at the same time insisted that nothing was more valid than to make that effort anyway,” Lord says. One day Giacometti lamented that the portrait was going badly: “It’s the revenge of the brush on the painter who doesn’t know how to use it.” Later that day, he seemed to change his mind. The painting gave him an “opening” to make progress: “This is the first time in my life I’ve had such an opening.”

For all the ups and downs, Lord enjoyed the 18 days that Giacometti spent on his portrait and had the foresight to take photographs of the picture different stages, a dozen of which appear in his book. He doesn’t speculate on whether his friend’s hairpin mood turns might betoken more than the usual artistic insecurities, perhaps a low-grade mania, and his restraint has helped to keep his work from becoming dated: It lacks the therapeutic cant that of recent memoirs. Apart from its insights into the creative processes of a modern master, A Giacometti Portrait has striking glimpses of the artist’s relations with his wife, his dealers, his admirers, and his brother Diego, and others who moved in and out of his Paris studio.

In an optimistic moment, Giacometti suggests to Lord that his portrait may lead to an artistic breakthrough: “You see, you’ve done me a tremendous favor.” No evidence suggests that the work was a watershed for an artist better known for his attenuated sculptures that suggest the weariness of Europe after World War II. But Lord did Giacometti another kind of favor with this memoir. In an afterword, he expresses the hope that people will see in his book a small part of what made the artist remarkable and adds, rightly, “To see even so little will be to see very much.”

Best line: Giacometti explains why he believes Cycladic heads are “more alive and convincing” than Roman busts: “To make a head really lifelike is impossible, and the more you struggle to make it lifelike the less like life it becomes. But since a work of art is an illusion anyway, if you heighten the illusory quality, then you come closer to the effect of life.”

Worst line: None.

Published: 1965 (Doubleday hardcover edition), 1980 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux paperback). This review is based on the 1965 book.

You may also want to read: Man With a Blue Scarf, the English art critic Martin Gayford’s 2010 account of sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud. A Giacometti Portrait is perhaps more revealing because Lord and Giacometti were closer than Gayford and Freud are, but the books are of similarly high quality.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 25, 2010

‘Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud’ — Art Critic Martin Gayford Sees Himself on Canvas

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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A British critic’s diary having his portrait painted

Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. By Martin Gayford. With 64 illustrations. Thames & Hudson, 256 pp., $40.

By Janice Harayda

Edgar Degas once lamented the injustice of having his paintings judged by art critics who had never earned their living with a brush and palette. “What a fate!” he said. “To be handed over to writers!”

Fewer painters might complain if they had interpreters as intelligent and forbearing as the British art critic Martin Gayford. Between November 2003 and April 2005, Gayford spent about 250 hours posing for an oil painting and an etching by Lucian Freud, whose ego appears to rival the late Norman Mailer’s. The experience fell “somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s,” at least if your barber knew Garbo and Picasso and after trimming your sideburns, wanted to have champagne and caviar with you at a high-toned London bistro.

Gayford appears to have relished the sittings even as they became an endurance test. Freud sat him in front of a black screen for the Man With a Blue Scarf and made him keep posing after the head was finished and only the space around it remained to be filled it.  He told Gayford: “The picture is absolutely about what your head is doing to that screen.” Freud drove himself as he did his sitter. In his early 80s, he was still painting standing up, working 10 hours a day, on five or six portraits at a time.

As the months wore on, Gayford kept the tedium at bay in part by drawing Freud into conversations on painting and other subjects. Should a picture resemble the sitter? “Likeness in a way isn’t the point, because whether or not a painting is a good likeness has nothing to do with its quality as a picture,” Freud replied. “For example, Rembrandt’s people all look alike in that they all have spiritual grandeur. You feel he did not steer very close to the actual appearance of the sitters.” If strict verisimilitude doesn’t matter, what does? Gayford quotes a comment Freud made decades earlier: “the picture, in order to move us, must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire life, a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life.”

Man With a Blue Scarf takes the form of a graceful diary that says as much about being painted as about the painter. Gayford knew that a sense of mortality pervades Freud’s work: “Even images of the young and healthy are full of a sense of the soft vulnerability of flesh, its potential to sag and wither.” And his sittings might have turned in to a Dorian Gray tale, the story of a man horrified to see his sins emerge in his portrait. He needn’t have worried. Gayford liked the painting and sees in it the intensity of his interest in the process: “It’s me looking at him looking at me.”

Gayford shows a Boswellian refusal to troll for flaws in his subject’s work or character, and his book tends to reinforce Robert Hughes’s argument that Freud is the greatest living realist painter. But Man With a Blue Scarf, if flattering, isn’t hagiography. Gayford holds his fire elegantly, and his ability to do so appears heroic, not sycophantic, given that if he had not, we would clearly not have the first book-length account of sitting for a major artist since James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait in 1965. Art history would be richer if every great painter did a portrait of a critic who wrote about the experience.

Many questions linger about the making of this memoir. To what degree is the book authorized? Did Freud see the manuscript and request changes? How did Gayford reconstruct conversations that took place when he couldn’t have been holding a notebook? Whether or not the answers ever emerge, Man With a Blue Scarf is a fascinating study in the “remorselessly intimate” process of being painted. During the sittings, Gayford spent more time with Freud than with anyone except his wife and children. “I’m not sure whether it is filling a hole in my life,” he admits, “but it is enthralling.” For all the cabin fever that the sittings must have involved, Gayford makes you see why the process was thrilling.

Best line: No. 1: “It is an aspect of good pictures that it is impossible to memorize them. No matter how well you know them, they always seem different when you see them again …” No. 2: “The paradox of portraiture, especially this marathon variety, is that the target is always a moving one. Physiologically, and psychologically, a living being is always in a state of flux. Moods shift, energy levels go up and down, the body itself slowly ages.”

Worst line: Freud says Picasso was “no more than 5’ or 5’ 1’” and that much of his attitude toward life was affected by his being small. But Picasso’s height is often given as 5’4”, and Gayford doesn’t explain why he quotes a different figure. You don’t know whether he agrees with Freud or doesn’t want to correct him.

Caveat lector: The review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: October 2010

About the author: Gayford, the art critic for Bloomberg News in Europe, was the art critic for the Spectator and Sunday Telegraph. He talks about posing for Freud in an Acoustiguide recording used with a Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Man With a Blue Scarf and the etching made soon afterward, Portrait Head.

Furthermore: Lucian Freud is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. Robert Hughes wrote the text for Lucian Freud: Paintings which provides useful background for Man With a Blue Scarf.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 29, 2010

The Value of Painting in an Age of Movies and Television — Quote of the Day / Robert Hughes’s ‘Lucian Freud’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:46 pm
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What value does painting have in an age of visual media that can reach many more people? Robert Hughes responds in his Lucian Freud: Paintings (Thames & Hudson, 2003), an excellent companion to Martin Gayford’s Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, which Thames & Hudson will publish in October:

“Painting is a sublime instrument of dissatisfaction, of dissent from any kind of visual orthodoxy and received idea, not excluding those of late modernist mannerism. No work of art can ever be experienced at first hand by as many people as a network news broadcast or the commercials that grout it. That does not matter. It never has. What does count is the energy and persistence with which painting can embrace not ‘empty value’ but lived experience of the world; give that experience stable form, measure and structure; and so release it, transformed, into one mind at a time, viewer by viewer, so that it can work as (among other things) a critique of the more ‘ideological’ and generalized claims of the mass media. There is no great work of art, abstract or figurative (and especially none figurative) without an empirical core, a sense that the mind is working on raw material that exists in the world at large, in some degree beyond mere invention. Painting is, one might say, exactly what mass visual media are not: a way of specific engagement, not general seduction.”

May 21, 2010

An Art Critic Poses for a Portrait by Lucian Freud / Quote of the Day From ‘Man With a Blue Scarf’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:03 am
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Next week booksellers will converge on New York for the trade show BookExpo America, where publishers roll out their summer and fall titles. One of the most noteworthy of the forthcoming books about art is Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud(Thames & Hudson, October 2010). Beginning in late 2003, the art critic Martin Gayford spent seven months posing for Lucian Freud, whom some regard as the greatest living realist. Gayford sat for two portraits and describes the experience in Man With a Blue Scarf. Here is an excerpt:

“The experience of posing seems somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s. There is a rather pleasant feeling of concentrating and being alert, but no other need to do anything at all except respond to certain requests. ‘Would you mind moving your head just a little?’, ‘Could you move the scarf just an inch? As it is, it looks a little bit “dressed”.’At moments sitting seems almost an embarrassingly physical affair: an enterprise that concerns the model’s skin, muscles, flesh and also, I suppose – if there is such a thing – self.”

This excerpt comes from an advance reading copy of Man with a Blue Scarf. Some material in the finished book may differ.

November 7, 2009

Pat the Picasso – The ‘Touch the Art’ Board Books for Young Children

I haven’t written about board books for a while, in part because the good ones seem to be getting rarer: More and more, these books for babies and toddlers rip-off bestsellers for older children instead of doing what they alone can do. But in today’s Wall Street Journal Megan Cox Gurdon writes about a series that suggests the unique potential of the medium: Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo’s “Touch the Art” line, which began with Brush Mona Lisa’s Hair. “Each book features well-known images adorned with appealing, touchable gimmicks,” Gurdon writes. The latest is Catch Picasso’s Rooster (Sterling, 21 pp., $12.95), which invites children to stroke things such as a red-feather comb and the cat in Henri Rousseau’s The Tabby. You can read Gurdon’s review here. The publisher’s site has more on other books in the series, including Count Monet’s Lilies.

April 29, 2009

Second Thoughts on R. A. Scotti’s ‘Vanished Smile’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:19 am
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A few weeks ago, I wrote about how much I was enjoying R. A. Scotti’s Vanished Smile, a new historical true crime book about the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa. At the end of her tale, Scotti revealed that an early scene had been based on newspaper article that might have been entirely false, so questionable was the reporter’s credibility. This technique is very different from the one normally favored by true-crime writers — withholding some facts — and undermines the book. It’s one thing to dole out clues carefully and it’s another to insert material that may be fiction. The belated revelation that this had occurred cast much of the earlier material in the book in a new light that flattered neither Scotti nor Vanished Smile.

February 28, 2009

Pat Cummings’s ‘Talking With Artists’ Series Lets Children Read About Their Favorite Picture-Book Illustrators and What They Do All Day

Any book in Pat Cummings’s three-volume Talking With Artists series would make a wonderful gift for a 6-to-9-year-old who loves to draw or paint. Each book is a colorful and often amusing collection of more than a dozen interviews (in a Q-and-A format) with well-known picture-book illustrators, typically supplemented by photos of their youthful and mature work and more. Vol. I includes Chris Van Allsburg and Leo and Diane Dillon; Vol. II, Brian Pinkney and Denise Fleming; Vol. III, Jane Dyer and Peter Sis. A winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, Cummings has a gift for getting artists to talk about their work in terms that will engage children. “I love what I do,” William Joyce says in the second book. “It’s like getting paid for recess.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 24, 2008

Why You See a Hint of Columns in the ‘Mona Lisa’ — Answers to Tuesday’s Art Quiz

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:41 pm
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How well did you do on Tuesday’s pop quiz inspired by Patrick De Rynck’s How to Read a Painting? Here are the answers from the book:

1. Why do you see a hint of columns on the far right and left in the Mona Lisa?
They create “the impression that she is sitting in an open loggia.”
2. Where in The Last Supper do you find Judas knocking over the salt?
John sits at the right hand of Christ (in the center of the picture), and Peter leans toward him, shoving Judas aside. Judas “clasps the purse containing the silver coins he received from the authorities and knocks over the salt.”
3. Why does the man stand next to the window and the woman away from it in Giovanni Arnofini and His Wife?
The wife’s position “associates her with the ‘inside world’ of the home.”

How to Read a Painting: Lessons From the Old Masters (Abrams, 2004) is an excellent collection of analyses of more than 100 great paintings, each shown on a two-page spread with callouts that highlight some of its interesting aspects. Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, shown here, hangs the National Gallery in London under the title The Arnolfini Portrait.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 22, 2008

‘How to Read a Painting’ – Why Do You See Columns in the ‘Mona Lisa’?

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:12 pm
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Quiz time, art lovers:

1. Why do you see a hint of columns on the far right and left in the Mona Lisa?
2. Where in The Last Supper do you find Judas knocking over the salt?
3. Why does the man stand next to the window and the woman away from it in Giovanni Arnofini and His Wife (sometimes called The Marriage of the Arnolfini)?

Patrick De Rynck deals with these and other questions in his How to Read a Painting: Lessons From the Old Masters (Abrams, 2004), an excellent collection of analyses of more than 100 great paintings, each shown on a two-page spread with callouts that highlight some of its interesting aspects. Many good books for children or adults take a similar approach to art, but this is the best I’ve found in more than a decade of keeping an eye on the category. I’ll have answers to the art quiz later this week and more on How to Read a Painting soon.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 14, 2007

Art Imitates Life in Jon Agee’s Witty ‘The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 am
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A French artist is hailed as a genius after his painting of a duck quacks in an acclaimed picture book for preschoolers

The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau. By Jon Agee, 32 pp., $6.95, paperback. Ages: 4-8. [See further discussion of ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

How can you beat the alpine cost of children’s picture books? A new 32-page hardcover typically costs about $16 or 50 cents per page. At that rate, your favorite 300-page adult bestseller would cost $150.

Of course, the comparison isn’t entirely fair. Picture books have more illustrations than most adult bestsellers, which drives up the cost. And children may read them over and over. On a cost-per-use basis, a lot of those $16 picture books look like a steal next to the latest novel by Mitch Albom or Danielle Steel.

The catch is that you can’t be sure which books a child will want to read more than once. And a good way to hedge your bets is to look for wonderful picture books that are old enough to have a) come out in paperback and b) shown again and again that they can delight children even if they haven’t attained the status of “classics.”

A case in point is The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, a 32-page book with more drama than some novels. The judges at a 19th-century French exhibition ridicule a humble painting of a duck by an obscure artist named Felix Clousseau until the picture quacks. Then the world proclaims Clousseau “a genius.” But fate reverses again itself when strange things happen to some of his other paintings, like his pictures of boa constrictor and a cannon. Will Clousseau have to spend his life in jail to satisfy a public as outraged as a mob at the Bastille?

Jon Agee heightens the drama of this story with a smoky color palette that befits the grimy look of even the most beautiful cities in the days before electricity and central heating. And without ever saying so directly, he reminds that paintings once had the quality that movies and television have today – that of seeming more real than life.

Best line/picture: The last illustration shows Clousseau walking away, having stepped into one of his pictures. This reverses the pattern in the rest of the book – when creatures emerge from paintings – and is a great twist ending.

Worst line/picture: None.

Recommendation? The publisher recommends this book, appropriately, for ages 3 and up. But in one scene a thief climbs into room after dark. So I’d read it only to a child who has passed the stage of being afraid of shiny-eyed monsters under the bed.

Furthermore: The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau was an American Library Association Notable Book and one of the New York Times’s Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 1988.

Published: First edition: 1988

Links: You can learn more about this book and others by Agee at www.jonagee.com. Agree has also written several terrific books of palindromes for ages 9 and up.

One-Minute Book Reviews was created by Janice Harayda, who has been a book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears on the site every Saturday. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com for information about the author’s comic novels.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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