Art books are the mastodons of the marketplace—their literal size, the large price tag discreetly printed in pencil at the inconspicuous top corner of the first glossy page, the expense of their production. A successful art book rides a teeter-totter between the art and its popular appeal: how to persuade people to lay out $50 on a book that won’t even fit comfortably on the shelf. Publishers usually gamble on an art book only when they’re feeling their oats and this season more Canadian publishers than ever took a stab at the delicate balance.
Consider, for example, Peter Mellen’s lavish Landmarks of Canadian Art (McClelland & Stewart, $50). Behind that theatrical black and gilt-lettered dust jacket is a portfolio of 116 splendid reproductions of Canadian art objects, each one chosen by “a select board of distinguished experts”—meaning, some of the country’s biggest academics and art bureaucrats. It’s as sleek and glamorous as can be, but it doesn’t add up to much. If anything, it’s a tribute to the bankrupt, middle-brow notion that a country’s artistic accomplishment consists of its masterpieces. This tediously
esthetic approach leaves out the complex dialogue of artists with influences, models and materials, and the shifting political scenes in which they have worked. All that’s holding this book together is the stitching, but that’s quickly remedied: cut out the gorgeous plates with an X-Acto knife, and put them up on fridge or cottage wall. For such destinies were books like this designed.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Terry Fenton’s and Karen Wilkin’s Modern Painting in Canada (Hurtig, $18.95), an engaging essay buried in a dowdy book, printed on the cheap. Its plates are bland and murky and reproduce too many second-rate canvases, but its point is what counts: that 20thcentury painting in Canada can best be understood in the context of “Canada’s search for her elusive identity.”
As though trying to compensate for the spinelessness of big art books like Landmarks, Fenton and Wilkin line up their artists like POWs, interrogate each, then march them off to the appropriate ideological camp, nationalist, internationalist, or other. (Troublemakers Emily Carr and David Milne are put into a camp all their own.) Surprisingly, most of the time this regimentation works; the Group of Seven and Montreal painters of the ’30s, especially, are illuminated. If the authors’ zeal wreaks occasional havoc on the evidence, their argument is compelling and always provocative. Despite its over-all homeliness, this book is an ambitious attempt to put it all together.
There’s only one reason to mention Guy Robert’s Lemieux (Gage, $45): the long, remarkable essay that runs the length of its 294 pages. Like some visionary archeologist, Robert digs through the paintings of the eminent Quebec artist to find the man and, through him, the age he inhabits. The result is biography, psychoanalysis, history and meta-history, reverie and penetrating insight—a complicated text nearer in style to contemporary French literary criticism (e.g., Roland Barthes) than to standard Canadian art writing. In order to read the essay, however, one must endure the book. The few colored plates of Lemieux’s haunted landscapes and spiritually luminous portraits are blah, and it’s been strewn with dozens of small, wretched black-and-white reproductions, most no more distinguished than ink smudges.
No such disappointment awaits the reader of Paul Duval’s homage to J. E. H. MacDonald, The Tangled Garden (Cerebrus/Prentice-Hall, $42.50). The author’s thoughtful biography is set among radiant plates of Macdonald’s
mountains and forests, each page a testimony to the artist’s creative fusion of exuberance and discipline. The book is a sensual delight, and a fine example of the designer’s art—which MacDonald, a commercial designer, would have liked.
Unlike MacDonald, Sam Borenstein spent most of his life beyond the pale of mainstream Canadian art, a situation William Kuhns and Leo Rosshandler,
authors of Sam Borenstein (McClelland & Stewart, $35), hope to rectify. Though sometimes stunningly vivacious, his paintings are often messy or sentimentally romantic, and too often display the self-taught artist’s tendency to imitate rather than invent. It’s unlikely that this one-volume crusade for rehabilitation will make many converts. The long account of the Montreal
painter’s hard knocks is affecting, but it doesn’t make his more gushy pictures look any better. And an appreciation of his best paintings—those vigorous landscapes and portraits—isn’t helped by Rosshandler’s uncautious promotion of the bad ones.
At least this is a well-meaning, nicely made book —more than can be said for the season’s biggest flop, Hubert de Santana’s Danby: Images of Sport (Amberley House, $39.95). This ugly little book—which comes with a clutch of lithos suitable for framing—opens importantly with a history of the Olympics (complete with quotes in Greek), and goes on to cheer the Renaissance rediscovery of the Body. The point being that Danby’s place in the history of art is among the portrayers of he-men, not among those fancy-pants artists interested in materials and structures.
To give Danby his due, however, it must be said his pictures of muscular, totally asexual jocks do capture the athletic mystique. There’s no self-consciousness or worrying about ordinary things in those taut bodies: they jump and row and dive as though their salvation depended on it. The plates might make a nice present for your kid brother, the budding hockey star—if they weren’t packaged with, such a grimly pretentious book. The way it snarls at Danby’s critics and promotes him as Canada’s Michelangelo is enough to give art a bad name in the locker rooms of the nation.
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