BOOKS

Delighting mind and eye

December 17 1984
BOOKS

Delighting mind and eye

December 17 1984

Delighting mind and eye

Gift books—the heavy, expensive tomes that weigh in at the holiday season—are an art form in themselves. Once they were vanity affairs: beautiful pictures, lushly presented, displayed on coffee tables to showcase the owner’s taste and sensitivity. But they offered little to read—and were seldom read at all. Now, the reading content has increased and, with it, the range and depth of subject. This season’s volumes temper the usual hymns to art and nature with thoughtful analysis; there is even a gift book on space, written by an astronaut. All of them are meant for the eye to relish—and the mind to savor.

Matisse (Methuen, $130), with 930 brilliant drawings, radiant cutouts and vivid paintings—more Matisses in one place than anywhere before—is a publishing triumph. Some of the book’s majestic images, superbly reproduced, are new to the public eye: French critic Pierre Schneider roamed far off the beaten museum path to clandestine private holdings, finding Matisses that few scholars suspected ever existed. Schneider devoted 14 years to writing the dense 752-page text, which is brilliant, quotable and authoritative.

Matisse is also frustrating, because it seems genuinely indifferent to the artist

behind the paintings—or to any art gossip if it lacks an esthetic point. But Schneider may be seeking to do more than humanize and popularize his painter’s works, attempting to establish Henri Matisse as the 20th century’s preeminent spiritual artist. Vincent van Gogh said that “the future belongs to a colorist such as has never been seen before.” For Schneider, Matisse fulfilled van Gogh’s prophecy, and “color regained the ground it had lost in painting since the Renaissance.” Many readers of his monumental study may go back through the 930 illustrations and reach their own conclusion: that Matisse is the greatest modern master of them all.

James Wilson Morrice (1865-1924), a contemporary and personal friend of Matisse’s, is one of Canada’s most under-appreciated artists. Celebrated in his lifetime for his exquisite, harmonious scenes of turn-of-the-century Paris and Venice, wintry Quebec and the sundrenched West Indies, Morrice lost some of his prominence to the shadow of the bolder, more nationalistic Group of Seven. Toronto art dealer G. Blair Laing’s Morrice: a Great Canadian Artist Rediscovered (McClelland & Stewart, $50), with many of its 90 sumptuously reproduced paintings published for the

first time, is an overdue tribute to the neglected master.

The son of a wealthy Montreal textile manufacturer, Morrice completed a law degree before persuading his parents to send him, at 25, to Paris to study art. He swiftly distinguished himself as a follower of the impressionist school. Matisse praised him as “the artist with the delicate eye... and a touching tenderness in the rendering of landscapes.” His soft-hued, sensuous works tend to evoke melancholy for the loveliness of Paris and Venice street scenes, and his later journeys to North Africa and the West Indies produced brighter colors and more decorative compositions.

A brief, affectionate sketch of the artist appears in Somerset Maugham’s 1908 novel The Magician. He is “Warren,” a charming, drunken patron of Parisian cafés. As another Maugham character describes his work, “When you’ve seen his sketches—and he’d done hundreds, of unimaginable grace and feeling and distinction—you can never see Paris in the same way again.” Laing’s volume proves that Morrice has lost none of his power to enchant.

Like Morrice, Jack Bush is one of the few Canadian painters who has made a significant impression outside his own country. His late blossoming in the 1960s and 1970s as a highly successful New York-style abstract painter stirred controversy among critics, who regarded him as either a genius or a commercial sellout. The large, lavishly illustrated Jack Bush (McClelland & Stewart, $65) contains essays by an international roster of art historians. Their disagreements reveal that seven years after his death the debate over Bush’s importance continues unabated.

Kenworth Moffett, curator of 20thcentury art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, argues that although Bush did not exploit his ideas fully enough, he contributed a vital, playful voice to the abstract movement. New York critic Clement Greenberg, Bush’s mentor, praises him as a supreme colorist but concludes enigmatically that he preferred Bush the man to Bush the painter. The artist himself emerges as a kindly, unpretentious individual who would have considered the solemn, academic commentary in Jack Bush irrelevant to an appreciation of the childlike joy in his paintings.

When Canadian realist painter Ken Danby also began to achieve his immense popularity in the late 1960s, he was frequently defensive about his decision to paint in a traditional rather than an avant-garde style. Paul Duval’s Ken Danby—The New Decade (Stoddart, $50) suggests that fame and fortune have failed to remove the chip from the artist’s shoulder. In Duval’s look at the work of the past 10 years, he constantly

links Danby to such Old Masters as Rubens and Vermeer and defends him from the “disingenuous dirges” of unappreciative critics. Although there is nothing in the current edition as dazzling as Danby’s past achievements, the work has a simple, straightforward charm.

The French art critic Octave Mirbeau once described the impressionist Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) as “the only great painter who has never painted a sad picture.” But art historian Barbara Ehrlich White, in the massive, richly illustrated biography Renoir: His Life, Art and Letters (Prentice-Hall, $85), argues that his painful personal history is indeed revealed in his work. In 1878, stung by public criticism and nearly destitute, he adopted a naturalistic style that he hoped would appeal to patrons. In midlife he suffered from depressions that were reflected in his paintings’ increasingly heavy, lethargic tones. But toward the end of his life, when crippling arthritis made it increasingly difficult for him to hold a brush, he adopted a softer, less strenuous style. He painted until his death, at 78, in 1919. As White’s detailed study indicates, Renoir had managed by discipline and hard work to transform personal suffering into an art of timeless joy.

Another testament to artistic discipline is the meticulous work of Canadian wildlife artist Glen Loates. In his fifth book of collected works, Glen Loates: A Brush With Life (PrenticeHall, $50), he again displays his versatility, from the hint of lavender in the subtle grey shadings of the winter coat of a Canada lynx to the delicacy of a wild rose. Ranked among the top three Canadian nature artists—with Robert Bateman and J. Fenwick Lansdowne —Loates still treks to mountains and fields to capture his subjects in their natural settings. The latest compilation, with its 157 illustrations, 86 of which are in full color, offers no surprises, merely further proof of Loates’s continuing love affair with nature.

It is a short step from the almost photographically realistic paintings of Loates to the lush artistry of photographer Roloff Beny. Of the five books Beny left unfinished when he died last March, Rajasthan: Land of Kings (McClelland & Stewart, $39.95) is the first to appear. Beny’s first book on the subject came out in 1969. But, as the author writes in his preface, “One state alone, Rajasthan, obsessed me and drew me back.” Indeed, the arid northwest corner of India, shaped by the colorful history of the Rajputs (sons of kings) warrior caste, is ideal Beny country.

Unlike the pompous and overblown books that Beny produced during his tenure as self-described “court jester” for the late shah of Iran, Rajasthan

benefits from Beny’s old-fashioned, romantic approach. Whether depicting the medieval sandstone ramparts of Jaisalmer rising from the bleak plain of the Thar desert or a flower stall at dusk in the “pink city” of Jaipur, Beny captures the essential spirit of the land. Sylvia Matheson’s text is earnest, detailed and

dry as New Delhi in May. But it provides a welcome, grey relief to the lushness of the landscape it inhabits.

Sometimes a Great Nation (Altitude Publishing, $49.95), Edward Cavell’s “visual journal” of Canada, combines photography and history in a completely striking and original way—a consid-

erable feat at a time of year when coffee tables groan under slabs of lookalike Canadiana. Curator of photography at the Whyte Foundation in Banff, Alta., and author of several books on pioneer photography, Cavell went across the country searching out striking photographs from the past. What distinguishes his collection of 192 photographs is the haunting, voyeuristic sense of going back in time and peering into someone’s private photo album.

Accompanied by a graceful essay on early photography (1850 to 1925), the images offer glimpses of Canada as a young and frequently absurd nation—a great, shambling bear of a country with the dainty leash of Victorian civilization slipped around its neck. One photograph shows a young woman on her way to a costume ball dressed as “The Forests of Canada,” with a stuffed squirrel on her shoulder. And there is something reassuring about the picture of a poultry class in Olds, Alta., where a semicircle of women smartly demonstrates the art of chicken-plucking. By staring long enough at one of those unguarded views of Canada’s past, a reader can discern the outline of that elusive spirit, the Canadian character.

Another of the season’s photography books is Jacques Cousteau’s Amazon Journey (Prentice-Hall, $46), an evocative account of an extraordinary 1982 expedition by the underwater wizard who has turned the world into his goldfish bowl. Although many of the book’s pictures are stunning, they lack the dramatic appeal of Cousteau’s film coverage of the same voyage, which was organized for television rather than for still photography. But the text, by Cousteau with editor Mose Richards, offers a wealth of detail that television’s terse format could not possibly convey. And in the teeming Amazon — whose 6,400 km course contains more species of fish than the Atlantic Ocean—detail is everything. The river is home to more than 500 kinds of catfish alone. The deluge of facts and figures is as overwhelming as the river itself, which discharges water into the sea at a rate that would fill Lake Ontario in about three hours. Spending more time out of the water than in it, the explorers stalk poachers, scale the Andes, even investigate the cocaine trade. As usual, Cousteau’s team has multiple scientific and ecological motives to justify the venture, but the impression they bring back from the Amazon is amazement.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s son, has also written the preface for a more modest-scale picture book dedicated to preserving Canada’s own miniature rain forests, the lush Queen Charlotte Islands off the mainland coast of British Columbia. The ubiquitous oceanographer adds his voice

to the rising chorus of environmentalists who would like to save them from the forest industry. Islands at the Edge (Douglas & McIntyre, $29.95), prepared by the Islands Protection Society, provides a compelling argument that the Charlottes are a unique natural habitat-home to a vast array of mosses and the world’s largest black bears, as well as the world’s densest breeding ground

for peregrine falcons. But the book also portrays the islands as a microcosm of a larger crisis.

Logging companies are now felling trees throughout the world at the rate of 50 acres per minute. The battle to keep loggers out of the Charlottes’ most precious area, the South Moresby region of 138 islands, is now a decade old, and a decision from the B.C. government is imminent. Islands on the Edge is coffeetable advocacy at its most persuasive.

Entering Space (Stoddart, $35), Joseph P. Allen’s “astronaut’s odyssey,” explores the farthest frontier. Inevitably, Allen’s encyclopedic approach to a space shuttle flight—from astronaut training to blast-off at Cape Canaveral and return—is as much concerned with the process of how those technological accomplishments are achieved as with the dazzling photographic products. Allen, a crew member on the November, 1982, flight of the space shuttle Columbia, transforms the documentary aspects of his story into unexpected virtues. His text is enthusiastic without being cloying and it is sprinkled with offbeat anecdotes which the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration never puts into press releases, including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s successful objections to astronauts drinking wine in space with their meals. The 200 full-color photographs provide stunning testimonials to NASA’s state-of-the-art equipment. Rather than limit the photo selection to shots of Earth visible from the shuttle, Allen has wisely added photographs of other planets taken by space probes.

Entering Space is a timely reminder that however dazzling the views of this planet presented in the season’s other gift books, Earth is, in the end, just one small corner of the universe. —John Barber, Mark Czamecki, Angela Ferrante, Mami Jackson, Brian D. Johnson, Gillian MacKay and Gerald Peary.