Under wraps: precious paper presents
In a year when the kids are more likely to find their Christmas stockings stuffed with Dad’s mortgage renewal notices than assorted goodies, the only reasonable way to make up for that cancelled trip to Bimini may be a luxury cruise through the archipelago of Christmas gift books.
Temporarily shelve that dog-eared copy of How to Survive During the Coming Bad Years, exchange mean spirits for a more bracing tonic and splash about in the Technicolor wonders publishers have conjured up for the season. Once a year at least the imagination needs its supply side fed too.
If ever an art book was destined to defy the usually derogatory adjective “coffee-table,” that book is George Woodcock’s magnificent Ivan Eyre (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $40.00). Not only is the thoughtful selection of Eyre’s work exquisitely reproduced, but Woodcock’s substantial text is lucid and informative. Blessed with a subject who can express his esthetics only slightly less effectively in words than in colors, Woodcock has captured one of Canada’s ’finest and most difficult painters in mid-stride.
“The inexperienced,” Eyre once said, “judge paintings by their subject matter rather than by the thought behind them. It seems impossible for them to recognize the way things are put together—in the mix rather than the medium or subject.”
The way things are put together—Eyre’s life, his thoughts and his work—is what Woodcock’s book is all about. Readers are informed of what goes into his glowing landscapes and eerie, semi-surrealistic visions; gracefully, Woodcock leaves any final assessment of Eyre’s work to the imagination of the viewer. Flawlessly designed and chock-full of color plates, Ivan Eyre is everything a “gift” book should be. But its careful research, helpful appendices and clear, unclut-
tered prose make it much, much more.
Not quite so much can be said of Toni Onley: A Silent Thunder by Roger Boulet (Prentice-Hall, $40.00). This selection of Onley’s watercolors is, alas, a book for the coffee table if ever there was one. A book that will inevitably be buried beneath a pile of books much like it, A Silent Thunder suffers from the kind of writing that keeps art lovers in galleries and out of armchairs. “It is
English watercolor,” writes Boulet of Onley’s technique, “transformed by a meeting with the Orient, a meeting which is the discovery of a new world in an Ancient Nature, ever present, ever changing.” Scarcely pausing to catch either breath or meaning, Boulet informs us that “it is not reality that changes but art and ephemeral perceptions; the shifting view cannot indefinitely dwell on the ‘Still Point.’ ”
Onley’s economic and evocative compositions do not lend themselves to much verbiage, and Onley’s own notes on the color plates are succinct and interesting. The subtlety of his colors, however, is largely lost in reproduction. Page after page of misty islands, seascapes and ethereal mountains adds up to a sameness. This book offers little more than a hint of Onley; since Onley paints in hints, readers are left with precious little.
Much more unassuming is Barker Fairley: Portraits (Methuen, $35.00), a handsome book that reveals a great deal about the artist, his models and the art of portraiture. Fairley, a renowned Goethe scholar and founder of The Canadian Forum, was in his mid-40s before he seriously put brush to canvas. Now 94, he has collaborated with his editor, Gary Michael Dault, to produce this welcome selection. In his pleasant, chatty notes, the artist has something to say about each of his sitters, such as Northrop Frye, Hugh Garner, A.Y. Jackson and Earle Birney. He is fascinated by the relationship between artist and model, and his observations are, for the most part, suitable companions to these strong,angular portraits.Of James Reaney he writes: “. . . a genius with the unique ability to write innocently about things not innocent.”
Fairley’s paintings lend themselves well to reproduction: the colors are straightforward, the compositions powerful. Dault’s introduction is no less
clear, accomplished and to the point: “In portrait after portrait, there is a running through of all the emotions we have to show; fifty portraits together is like an emotional rainbow, a morality play stretching silently throughout the fifty years in which Barker Fairley has been making pictures.”
From the spectrum of emotion to the spectrum of color. Sally Eauclaire, author of The New Color Photography (Methuen, $32.95), gets right down to business, declaring in her introduction that her aim is nothing less than “to articulate visual and conceptual standards.” Because the early history of color photography is only now coming to light, it might be premature for her to formulate a category called “new.” Still, her opinions, if not felicitously expressed, are partisan enough to be stimulating, and she offers enthusiastic readings of color work done since the late ’60s by a generation who realized that color was a medium that need not be restricted to glorious sunsets. The 160 photographs include William Eggleston’s perfectly ordinary people looking perfectly dispossessed, Joel Meyerowitz’s pink skies, as well as, to Eauclaire’s credit, work by exciting discoveries Mitch Epstein and Len Jenshel.
As Eauclaire’s book makes clear, an eye for pictures doesn’t promise a talent for prose. John Szarkowski, director of the department of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is twice blessed. The Work of Atget: Old. France (McClelland and Stewart, $53.00) is the first of four volumes appearing in conjunction with four shows at MOMA dedicated to illuminating the achievement of Eugene Atget, a French photographer who died in 1927 and is regarded by some as the greatest photographer who ever lived. Szarkowski provides a clear-sighted, compassionate apprécia-
tion of Atget’s art, its strength (“the breath and generosity of its imagination”) and weakness (occasional dullness). Some might complain because Szarkowski and his partner, Maria Morris Hambourg, have chosen a thematic presentation, but the prints (the collective subject of which is the rural foundation of France—trees, flowers, country roads) are impeccably reproduced, and Hambourg’s notes are scrupulous.
Unlike Atget, who pursued a solitary vision in obscurity, American master Edward Steichen had many careers and knew how to get ahead. He was already a living legend when in 1942 he managed to get himself put in charge of the U.S. Navy’s photographic unit, whose main mission was to record the work of aircraft carriers in the South Pacific. Christopher Phillips’ Steichen at War (Prentice-Hall, $50.00) is a distillation of thousands of images captured by Steichen and the younger photographers who followed his guidelines. Some of the pictures are artfully dramatic—a dead hand emerging from rubble, the deck of an aircraft carrier that looks like an imaginatively lit set. The rest are publicity pictures of military might, taken from a human interest angle and meant to instil the kind of trust that is hard to muster after reading Steichen’s
advice to a member of his unit: “Shoot more color—that’s the only way to get national circulation.”
From the challenge of war to the challenge of nature. What do explorers and adventurers have left now that all the deserts, mountains and remote seas have been conquered? British mountaineer Chris Bonington provides an answer in his richly illustrated anthology of postwar daredevilry Quest for Adven-
ture (Musson, $29.95). Quite simply, Bonington’s rock-hard sailors, climbers, desert trekkers and divers make things as tough as possible. If Magellan and Drake circumnavigated the globe, then why not do it again, but alone, and in a small sailboat, as Francis Chichester did? And, to out-Chichester Chichester, why not forbid all stopovers for repairs and supplies, as was stipulated by the London Sunday Times in its Golden Globe race of 1968? Thanks to sharks, boat-breaking waves and a terrible loneliness, only one of nine competitors finished; yet the most compelling tale belongs to one of the losers. Donald Crowhurst foundered badly in the initial run down the Atlantic, so he decided to fool everyone by turning back to England, pretending he had gone round the whole globe. But the strain of the pretense broke him, and he committed suicide before reaching port. Most of the 20 other stories here are as riveting—but end far more happily.
Perhaps the safest spot to view treacherous waters or mountain peaks is from 1,000 feet up, which is the vantage point of Canada from the Air (Hurtig Publishers, $29.50). Bo Curtis’ text ranges from dull to adequate, but Janis Kraulis’ photographs—at least the best of them—are spectacular. This is how the gods must see our country—
as a kaleidoscope of patterned colors. From the air, the Mackenzie River Delta is a spattering of molten silver on a black velvet ground; Saskatchewan potash tailings become the coiled, wrinkled skin of a gigantic worm; and in a British Columbia meadow, bales of hay catching the evening sun glow like tiny red planets. Indeed it is the vast, empty places that make the strongest impression, for in them detail is subordinated to the sweeping force of design and color. The more concentrated works of man—cities, factories, freight yards— seem jumbled and overly familiar by comparison. A number of other coffeetable books have persuaded us that the land is beautiful. That this one brings a freshness to that old argument is a considerable accomplishment.
For adventurers who wish to remain nearer to the ground, The Ultimate Fishing Book (Thomas Allen & Son, $46.95) should suffice. Editors Lee Eisenberg and DeCourcy Taylor have taken to heart the maxim coined by the late Arnold Gingrich, former editor of Esquire: “The best fishing is done in print.” These 10 remembrances of finny things past angle for crappies, muskies, tarpon, Atlantic salmon, steelhead, bass and mostly trout. (A more appropriate title might have been The Ultimate Trout - Fishing - in - the - Northeastern-U.S. Book.) The best catch is Geoffrey Norman’s A Fisherman's Seasons, an eloquent paean to the simple truth that “there is more to it than catching fish.” While the prose throughout is generally lean and intelligent, the illustrations veer toward hazy sentiment and often clutter the book like a clutch of suckers fouling a stream of wily brown trout.
To finny things, add the furry and fanged. In recent years publishers have realized that man’s fascination with his fellow beasts can be profitable, but simple nature guides no longer suffice: witness The Doomsday Book of Animals (Wiley & Sons, $49.95). David Day, author of The Tolkien Bestiary, has produced an honor roll, hauntingly illustrated, of the more than 300 vertebrate species extinct since 1680 (death date of the dodo). His purpose, too successfully achieved, is to show “the reality of extinction,” both pictorially and statistically. Before man, for example, passenger pigeons made up 40 per cent of North America’s bird population; by 1914 they were extinct. No murderous act quite matches the snuffing of an incredibly complex and unique genetic code evolved over millenia which can never be reproduced. Day’s message is clear : stop. At the same time, having shelled out for this bittersweet medi-
cine, the reader may wonder why the book gives no indication whether its author and publisher intend to donate part of the profit to the cause.
From extinct beasts to dwindling cultures. When the People’s Republic of China “annexed” Tibet in 1951, the country suddenly became as hard to locate as Shangri-La, and a good deal less friendly. Anything uniquely Tibetan was systematically destroyed. The Dalai Lama, exiled in India, was almost the only proof that the place had ever existed. Tibet (Hurtig Publishers,
$50.00) is a gift book with an unusual purpose, a gesture of atonement made by a newly revisionist Chinese government.
Some customs as recorded here take us through the cultural looking glass. In Tibet, only those who die criminals or victims of infectious diseases are buried, their souls locked underground where they cannot escape to pollute the cycle of reincarnation. The godly are given celestial burial, their bodies taken to high rocks where they are dismembered, bones burned or crushed and the flesh fed to sacred vultures. Other remnants of pre-communist Tibet are not
worth mourning, such as the notion that “women must obey, like tools that have the power of speech.”
Yet even if the news is not all good, how much better it is to be once again privy to the keys of this tattered kingdom that sits so close to the sky. And how easy from these new pictures to understand the sentiments of this Tibetan poet: This center of heaven,/This core of the earth,/This heart of the world/Fenced round with snow.
New China, in keeping with its revolutionary appetite, also ate its own history for breakfast, in 1949, and has managed to preserve much of it unregurgitated. It takes an archeologist’s imagination to breathe life into the careful pages of Out of China's Earth (Prentice-Hall, $63.00), a chronology of China’s most important archeological discoveries since the revolution. But when the resuscitation is complete, lifesize terra-cotta warriors march upward out of the tomb in a triumphant public reunion with the past.
This is a record of tomb builders, rulers of the people, characters like the lady Fu Hao, wife of a Shang dynasty king. While fond enough of the domestic arts to be buried with a well-used cookstove, Fu Hao was also a woman warrior who won many campaigns for her husband. Carved jade figurines and daggers were her gravefellows; jade was always the aristocrat’s worldly measuring stick. By 206 BC, members of the imperial court were being buried in
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grave suits of jade wafers, laid out for the big sleep like ghostly green robots.
The life of the Chinese people is revealed by inference, the growing intricacy of their artifacts proof of blossoming skill. The other record is a grisly one: the tombs show that it became slightly less popular over the centuries to bury slaves alive with their dead masters. But sometimes the tombs have been a direct time tunnel linking the past to the real life of now. In 1969, Chinese villagers stumbled on a major collection of artifacts from the Eastern Han dynasty, including beautiful bronze horses. Innocently they destroyed much of the history of the site, intent on one thing: that
these slave - cast horses might bring them enough money to buy a horse-drawn cart.
The six tribes living around Lake Turkana in Kenya are living their own prehistory, isolated from much of the 20th century. The elMolo, a group of about 400, has even travelled backward in time from the pastoral life attained by the other tribes to a simple hunter-gatherer state. Cradle of Mankind (Clarke, Irwin, $35.95) is an attempt on the part of African photographer Mohamed Amin to record these lives before they reach the vanishing point in that by now familiar rush to beat extinction. These tribes will now leave photographs as well as bones behind as puzzle pieces for future archeologists.
Richard Leakey and many paleontologists believe that
Lake Turkana is literally the*-
cradle of mankind. An account of Leakey’s work and large color plates featuring the skulls of our oldest-known ancestors set a graveyard tone for the book early on. Each of the six narrative segments rings a death knell. Amin has caught perhaps the Samburu’s “last” mass circumcision ceremony; the Merille are not going to be allowed, in either increasingly regulated Kenya or Ethiopia, to leap into the full feather of manhood wearing the genitals of a slain enemy around their necks. This is perhaps not to be regretted. But it seems inevitable that the cradle will soon be empty of all but paleontologists.
For the serious minded, the slogan for this Christmas could be “Give the gift of a way of life now gone forever.” A good choice is a Canadian variation on the theme, The Inuit: Life as It Was (Hurtig Publishers, $14.95). The “was” of the title is not so long ago. Richard Harrington made his trips to photograph Inuit bands in the Arctic between 1947 and 1953; the children of his pictures are adults now, everything changed even more brutally for them than it has for the rest of us.
Harrington’s narration is a little thin, and many of the 150 black-andwhite photos are left frustratingly uncaptioned. But he has the true adven-
turer’s wry talent for understatement; he describes one trek undertaken in such cold weather that he and the dogs and his travelling companion were all spitting blood from simply breathing the air: “We decided to make it a short day. . . .” Most of his subjects are caught posed in well-prepared sessions of hunting or igloo-building. The climate is not conducive to catching candid shots. But fostered nostalgia for the lost arts of Arctic survival suffers a quick death in the last pages of the book. Here Harrington records the slow starvation of a Padleimiut band caught with little food for the winter. Harrington managed to make it back to a warmer world and publicize their plight. The government did arrange a food drop, but sent dried peas and beans, which the Inuit did not have enough fuel to cook. Says Harrington: “I never knew how many of the band died of hunger.”
And finally, from the heavy to the light. This is, after all, the season of the “heavy” light book, when the chimerical is given heft and the whimsical solemnly indexed. One of this year’s top candidates is Witches (Prentice-Hall, $25.00), Erica Jong’s pleasantly feminist essay on the mode and meaning of witches, who, in her opinion, “are used as the lightning rod for society’s fury.” Jong is very much prowitch, in light of their historical association with women, persecution, pagan religion, peasant healing and sexuality—a litany of scary and/or illegal themes which are treated here as a sort of mythic residue of recent patriarchal history.
Unfortunately, Jong’s musings are diluted by too much ho-hum witch verse, and the art is more suggestive of Halloween than pantheism. The artist, Joseph A. Smith, seized upon the historical fact that witches like to dance and work naked, or “skyclad,” to render pert-breasted creatures looking like centrefolds on brooms. Well, if you can’t burn ’em, paint ’em.
Reviewed by John Bemrose, Anne Collins, Mark Czarnecki, Marni Jackson, David Livingstone, David Macfarlane and Ian Pearson.