This was the year of the atomic book, when scores of doomsayers prophesied a dark fate for the Earth. Optimists insist, however, that, among threatened flora and fauna, trees will be obliterated not by the mushroom cloud of nuclear holocaust but by the giftbook industry. And, sifting through this season’s massive fallout of coffee-table paperweights, lovers of the big and beautiful will agree that this is a much nicer way to go.
A bygone era of ease and refinement opens up in the lavishly illustrated pages of John Singer Sargent (Methuen Press, $120.00). The most sought-after portrait painter of his day, Sargent immortalized a generation of frothy debutantes and such eminent Victorians as Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. “Civilized to his fingertips,” as James described him, Sargent painted in the tradition of the Old Masters, borrowing from glowing palettes and dramatic compositions of the Impressionists. As Carter Ratcliff observes in the elegant, engrossing essay: “He updated the past with flair but he never challenged it.” At his best, as in Lady Agnew, technical virtuosity combines with psychological insight to produce masterpieces of portraiture. This rich volume does full justice to the sumptuous style and grand manner of the last great academic painter.
The Indian portraits of Nicholas de Grandmaison have spawned so many lurid imitations that it takes a second look actually to see the nobility of the Russian emigré’s work. History in Their Blood (Douglas & McIntyre, $39.95) is a collection of 64 of his characteristic pastels executed between 1930 and 1960. The book offers a chance to see an artist of occasionally surprising strengths outside the unfortunate context of highway trading posts; at its loosest and most imaginative, his masterly draftsmanship recalls ToulouseLautrec in its ability to capture personality. The text, competently written by Hugh A. Dempsey, follows de Grandmaison’s search throughout Western Canada for Indians who had “lived enough or suffered enough to have interesting faces.” Hard-pressed by the 20th century, the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Bloods and the Peigans became de Grandmaison’s proud and sorrowful subjects. Here, without a doubt, were interesting faces, and the resulting portraits, if overly literal in their
composition, are nonetheless worth re-examination.
Far from neglected, the work of Lawren Harris is in danger of overexposure. The Beginning of Vision (Douglas & McIntyre, $60.00) is a selection of his preparatory sketches which were never meant to be shown in public, as Robert Fulford and Joan Murray point out in a readable introduction. Although Harris was one of the Group of Seven’s finest painters, these heavy-handed renderings show that he was not an accomplished draftsman. Occasionally, the drawings of mountains show Harris’ talent for simplifying complex forms and orchestrating them into a composition of grandeur. But even these delights are marred by the unrelieved ugliness of the book’s design. Title pages are mounted on patterned paper which could have been lifted from a powder-room wall. It would have been better had the drawings remained obscure rather than dished up in such a package.
The way photography sections in bookstores suddenly fill up each December can make the art itself seem gauche and opportunistic. However, Urban Romantic: The Photographs of George Tice (Beaverbooks, $70.00) banishes such doubt, replacing it with rare delight. Distinguished by impeccable reproduction and design, this retrospective survey covers three decades during which Tice, acknowledged by critics as a master but not widely known, has reflected on U.S. culture. The mean head of an eagle on the Chrysler Building, the beautiful faces of Amish boys, a spookily lit telephone booth, all form part of a vision that is, at once, unsentimental and lovely.
Because chemicals and machines fig-
ure so prominently in photography, its status as art has sometimes been denied. Jean-Luc Daval’s Photography: History of an Art (Methuen, $85.00) argues that from the time of its invention it was a creative medium, tracing its evolution from a means of reproducing outward reality to a mode of expressing convoluted ideas and feelings. Daval sometimes indulges in academic abstractions, but his point of view is impressively informed, and his thoughts are conveniently ordered. Moreover, the book is so stunningly and richly illustrated that it remains absorbing even when the text is not.
Though not intellectually ambitious, Brassaï’s The Artists of My Life (Penguin, $62.50) is a pleasure. Mixing photographs and memoirs, he renders sensitive, gossipy and vivid portraits of old friends, who also happen to have been among this century’s most important
creators. Whether talking about Salvador Dali’s sex life or Pierre Bonnard’s distress at growing old, Brassai' displays the same tolerant interest in the human condition that characterized his The Secret Paris of the ’30s. Likewise, the pictures—a dignified, contemplative Matisse in his studio, a worldly, chic Picasso at the Café de Flore—are intimate, revealing and from the heart.
Heart hardly figures at all in Vanity Fair: Photographs of An Age, 191U-1936 (General, $46.00), a parade of personalities prominent in politics, show business and the arts as captured by the likes of Man Ray, Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton. These portraits rely on lighting and poses: a glossy-mouthed Tallulah Bankhead stares into a shiny ball; Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits with family arranged around him. As they appeared years ago on the pages of a sophisticated magazine, these images of the celebrated must have been fresh and beautiful. Respectfully gathered together in 1982, they speak gloomily of days that are past and dead.
German-born photographer Ulli Steltzer spent most of 1980 and 1981 in the Canadian Arctic, and the result is Inuit: The North in Transition (Douglas & McIntyre, $29.95). Her black-andwhite photography and her subjects’ own descriptions of their lives keep the
focus of the book on the Inuit themselves, and not necessarily on the scenes and personalities that would normally appeal to a photographer’s eye. The results are mixed. Honest, forthright and dramatic, Inuit is a realistic and instructive documentary about the effects of one culture on another. Steltzer is as fascinated with two children arguing about Scope and Listermint as she is with two women doing the katajak, the traditional Inuit throat-singing. The book itself, however, suffers from prosaic design, and the photographs—albeit taken under difficult conditionsare more explanatory than beautiful.
As spritely as Inuit is serious, Lake Louise: A Diamond in the Wilderness (Altitude, $19.95) is a delightful, loving look at one of Canada’s most touristtrodden scenic wonders. Lake Louise is entirely without solemnity and pretension: in part a history of the adventurers, alpinists and holidayers who came from far and wide; in part a portfolio of photographs, souvenirs and paintings that artfully avoids becoming part of the visual cliché it celebrates. Instead of lengthy passages on the splendor of mountain peaks, the reader will find Louis Mountbatten slipping Lake Louise ice into Winston Churchill’s bath. Both the text, written and compiled by Jon Whyte, and the photo-
graphs, selected by Carole Harmon, have a charming, good-humored affection for their subject. Lake Louise is a unique remembrance of a place that is “very silly and very sweet, a pretty girl whom we cannot prevent from captivating us.”
Passion is not an emotion Canadians are used to feeling about their history. Even the great explorers were not overcome with joy at the New World: “In fine I am inclined to believe that this is the land God gave to Cain,” wrote Jacques Cartier in 1541. It comes as a surprise, then, to open From Sea Unto Sea: Art and Discovery Maps of Canada (Fleet/Lester & Orpen Dennys, $39.95) and stumble upon the enthusiasm, erudition and intellectual excitement of map collector and author Joe C.W. Armstrong. By arranging 38 maps in a rough chronology spanning 250 years of exploration, Armstrong lets his readers experience the thrill of rediscovery. Looking at the maps is like playing a giant game of fill in the blanks, from Gastaldi’s La Nuova Francia (1556), in which the “Parte Incognita” is most of the continent, to A Map of America . . . Exhibiting Mackenzie's Track (1801), which finally assembled Canada from coast to coast. The drama of Armstrong’s book is not just the discovery of a particular place but the mapping of an
intellectual movement that broke through century-old shrouds of superstition and stagnation in pursuit of knowledge about the world.
In Small Churches of Canada (Lester & Orpen Dennys,
$35.00), artist Kim Ondaatje set out on a modern-day journey to record a vital, historical element of Canadian architecture and spiritual life before it is all boarded-up and abandoned.
Small churches were usually the first churches, built out of the materials at hand and the settlers’ reminiscences of the lives that they had left behind. Onion domes sprouted on clapboard Greek Orthodox churches in the Prairies, and little white triangles of wood were tacked above the windows of a log church to add a Gothic cathedral touch. Ondaatje’s book is a record of pioneer settlement and invention. But it is also a record of how a country like Canada obliterates its past. In the five years that she travelled, Ondaatje discovered that the community outstrips the church. It is left as a charming remnant, and no one living near it can remember who built it or who once worshipped there.
For those who worship at the altar of Perpetual Renovation, for whom heaven is the perfect skylight, French Style (General, $50.00) is an object of sheer heresy. Here is a luscious tribute to apartments, ateliers, châteaus and country homes in which the past is em-
braced and nothing is ever thrown out. Kitchens are a clutter of antique copper pots and high-tech machinery, cool marble bistro tables and heirloom lace. With 450 full-color photographs, the book is rich in Gallic hues: the deep rose of Souleiado Provençal prints, the daffodil yellow and lilac blue of the china that Monet used at Giverny. Most of all, it is a testimony to sure-footed individuality. Who but a Frenchman would have the gall to fill his living room with a bed in the shape of a bird, canopied by a gilded beak, supported by claws? And where else would a bunch of dried grass be all that was necessary to “complete” the guest bedroom? There is a heady message in this madness.
The festive season is many things to many people but it is hardly ever funny. The same could be said of humor books. With the cautionary note that one person’s thigh-slapper is somebody else’s lead balloon, the nice thing about buying someone a funny book is that no matter how rarely they smile, it will still be funnier than giving them a plastic lettuce drier.
The humor in The Nuclear War Fun
Book (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $7.95) is so black that it flakes off the pages of this mock rainy-day “radioactivity” book on what to do in the boring aftermath of nuclear war. This is, of course, a clever little education in postwar realities, disguised as grisly games (“Mark the Mutant”) and Doomsday Diets (“baked Alaska”); utterly tasteless, but since when was war without its rude aspects? Just the thing to polarize a Christmas morning and alienate proReagan relatives.
Until Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse came along, the only comic-strip clue to real family life was that Blondie kept inexplicably breaking down and going “boohoo.” Now the secret life of the housewife is revealed in the 16-way personality of Elly Patterson, mother of two, infallible feminist, dentist’s wife, and the one who lets the dog out on cold mornings. In Is This “One of Those Days,” Daddy? (Macmillan, $8.95), the Patterson household is once again revealed as a familiar landscape of jam stains and slumped-over bulk bags of dry dog food. Horseplay keeps breaking into the frame just like kids, and Johnston displays a nice ear for family ambient noise: the sound of toilets being plunged (ka-floompa-qush), and small boys wearing rubber flippers (klack whap slappity flap). There is always the danger that cartoon books as gifts have the shelf life of an éclair, but Lynn Johnston’s humor is based on character, not jokes: reading her collected cartoons is a repeatable delight.
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