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Books: The Costs and Colors of Christmas

17 minute read


HENRI MATISSE by Louis Aragon. 2 vols., 721 pages. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $75. The publication of this eccentric, often brilliant, book was one of the major events in the French art world. Aragon, whose talent as a poet-novelist has long been buried under his notoriety as a Marxian apologist, met Matisse in 1941, and until the painter died in 1954 spent hours in his studio at Cimiez talking about the creative process. It took Aragon 27 years to put together his notes on those conversations and Matisse’s comments. Aragon can be the most digressive of writers. Luckily, Matisse was more direct. Perhaps the most remarkable sequence concerns the role of the model (or subject) in Matisse’s painting. “The model for other people is a source of information,” Matisse wrote. “For me it is something that arrests me. The source of my energy.”

THE BOOK THROUGH FIVE THOUSAND YEARS Edited by H.D.L. Vervliet. 496 pages. Phaidon. $60. This scholarly volume contains a sentence that should be carved inside the skull of anyone who approaches a gift-book counter in the next few weeks: “A good book badly printed is infinitely more valuable than a bad book beautifully printed.” Fortunately the maxim is not mocked here. The text, by several authorities, is for the general reader who wants to learn. Title notwithstanding, less space is devoted to the bound book than to its precursor the manuscript, whose history is far longer and richer. From Mesopotamia to William Morris, from the lacquered bindings of Persia to the bejeweled Gospels of the Dark Ages, the book manages to convey the serenity of a library and an unostentatious reverence for writing.

REGINALD MARSH by Lloyd Goodrich. 307 pages. Abrams. $42.50. Eclipsed for the past couple of decades, Reginald Marsh is making a comeback. U.S. audiences are now in a better position to enjoy the abundant hedonism of his work: the firm round girls in their blowing dresses at Coney Island, the orgiastically crowded figure compositions, the sometimes surprisingly tough drawing. Marsh had a weakness for caricature and sentiment, but his best paintings preserve the raucous, burlesque New York of the ’30s and ’40s in exuberant amber.

TREASURY OF AMERICAN DESIGN hy Clarence P. Hornung. Introduction by Holger Cahill. 2 vols., 846 pages. Abrams. $42.50. In the autumn of 1935, the U.S. Government launched another of its many projects to relieve Depression unemployment. This time the target of its aid was the commercial artist, 300 of whom were put to work rendering some of the finest examples of native American decorative art. Over 17,000 drawings were made, and in 1950 The Index of American Design was published, using a scant 3% of these illustrations. Now the Index has been expanded into two handsome volumes that touch on almost every aspect of American craftsmanship and design, from the rocking chair to the weathervane.

RAPHAEL SOYER by Lloyd Goodrich. 349 pages. Abrams. $42.50. This is the first full-scale book about New York’s painter laureate of the lonely crowd, Raphael Soyer (twin brother of Moses Soyer, another figurative artist). Raphael was an honest and compassionate observer of human gesture. But the reproductions of his paintings here are often given the kind of gala centerfold treatment that might embarrass Michelangelo. Moreover, Lloyd Goodrich’s prose commentary unfurls like a bolt of wet wool.

$27 TO $35

THE VISCONTI HOURS Edited by Millard Meiss and Edith Kirsch. 262 pages. Braziller. $35. This facsimile reproduction of the Visconti Book of Hours was originally commissioned sometime before 1385 by the puissant Count, later Duke of Milan, Giangaleazzo Visconti. The first part ended with Giangaleazzo’s death in 1402. Some ten years later the book was resumed when his son became duke. For one reason or another, the two volumes were not united until 1969, when the second part was donated to Italy’s National Library in Florence. In beauty and inventiveness The Visconti Hours fully matches the more famed Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours at Chantilly. Its gold embellishments gleam under a unique reddish glaze, its borders are endlessly inventive in incorporating the Duke’s emblems with animals, flowers and armorials. If the whole does not seem as devotional an object as its possessors liked to profess, it is certainly something from the artifice of eternity that, in Yeats’ phrase, might keep a drowsy emperor awake—in Byzantium or elsewhere.

ARCHITECTURE OF THE RENAISSANCE by Peter Murray. 401 pages. Abrams. $35. This may well be the best general introduction to Renaissance building now in print. Peter Murray, a distinguished art historian at the University of London, has written an urbane, balanced and minutely informative text that gives a consistent level of insight into a very complex though much discussed subject. Particularly rewarding is his treatment of 15th century Italian architecture in terms not simply of aesthetics and detail but of function.

THE DOLL Text by Carl Fox. Photographs by H. Landshoff. 343 pages. Abrams. $30. Once past the pretentious text, which suggests that doll making is some sort of high art, the reader is confronted by pages of handsomely photographed blank stares from a vast assortment of practice babies and surrogate siblings for the young, as well as those slightly sinister dolls for adults—voodoo effigies for black magic.

THE SPANISH RIDING SCHOOL by Hans Handler. Photographs by Erich Lessing. 272 pages. McGraw-Hill. $29.95. In 1580 the Habsburgs began importing strong, intelligent and graceful horses from the Iberian Peninsula to the town of Lippiza. Hans Handler traces the history of the Spanish Riding School, where the Lippizaner horses have always been trained, down through the centuries to its present site in Vienna. Erich Lessing’s photographs are no substitute for watching the massed horses moving to the strains of Mozart, but this book is a monument to the disciplined beauty that classical horsemanship can achieve.

SHELLS Photographs by Andreas Feininger. Text by William K. Emerson. 295 pages. Viking. $27.50. This fine fat volume is neither a collector’s guide nor a malacological text but, as Photographer Feininger puts it, “a shell-appreciation book.” Emerson, curator of mollusks at the Museum of Natural History, provides the basic conchology, including a cautionary account of a species of cone-shell snails whose “dartlike radular delivery apparatus” can cause a fatal wound. There is also profit in shell collecting. At a recent auction, something called a Golden Cowrie, often found in the Fijis, went for more than $400.

$20 TO $25

A KING’S BOOK OF KINGS Text by Stuart Gary Welch. 168 pages. Metropolitan Museum of Art. $25. In 1522 an Iranian Sultan commissioned an illustrated version of the national epic Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings), and a vast workshop of artists labored on it for decades. Much of that book has now been reproduced in facsimile with explanatory text. The epic tells of ancient kings of Persia, real and mythical, beset by devils and dynastic rivalries. The pictures are Persian miniatures, with details so fine that they had to be painted with brushes made from kitten fur and the tails of squirrels. A delight, an education and one of the year’s best buys.

THE AMERICAN IMPRESSIONISTS by Donelson F. Hoopes. 159 pages. Watson-Guptill. $25. The U.S. is currently revaluing upward much of its own past painting. In this book a young art historian discovers that Impressionism itself was not just a Parisian invention but was struggling to be born in America at the same time as in France. Hoopes tends to claim as an impressionist anybody—from Inness to Glackens—who did not paint in a strictly academic manner, but the book will introduce the fine but neglected works of such painters as John Henry Twachtman and Abbott Thayer.

PORTRAITS FROM NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN LIFE by Edward S. Curtis. Introduction by A.D. Coleman and T.C. McLuhan. 176 pages. Outerbridge & Lazard. $25. When the first two volumes of Edward Sheriff Curtis’ The North American Indian were published in 1907-8, the New York Herald called it “the most gigantic undertaking in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible.” Before he was through Curtis had completed 20 volumes of text bound with 1,500 small photographs and 20 unbound portfolios. The price was $3,000. At $25, this selection of about 10% of the Curtis portfolios is quite a bargain—even if you feel Indians have been overexposed lately.

TALLULAH by Brendan Gill. 287 pages. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. $25. This is the second in an informal series of lavish productions about great names in show business. It suffers badly in comparison with Cole, its predecessor, which among other things re-created the all-out sheer pizazz of the ’30s. Porter was a genius, Bankhead a personality. Cole’s lyrics enriched the previous book incalculably; in this volume Critic Brendan Gill, who treats her life with proper studied indulgence, confesses that most of Tallulah’s talk worth repeating is unprintable.

THE HISTORY OF HORSE RACING by Roger Longrigg. 320 pages. Stein & Day. $22.50. The author briskly covers the circuit from the chariot contests of ancient Greece to modern-day trotting, flat racing and steeplechase events. Intensive history is interlaced with odd bits of equestrian esoterica, like the tale of the dancing horses of Sybaris who betrayed the Sybarites in battle in 510 B.C. by throwing their riders at the sound of the enemy’s flutes. Here one can trace bloodlines, learn how jockeys developed their “monkey-on-a-stick” riding style, or simply be amused by the 30,000 deaths following one race, and other bits of charming skullduggery. Copiously illustrated with the art of masters, the book reveals everything but tomorrow’s winners.

BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA by Eliot Porter. Dutton. $21.95. Before the lens of noted Nature Photographer Porter, the common chipping sparrow looks as powerful and dramatic as the Owl-Magician in Swan Lake. The common flicker is seized for eternity as the extraordinarily marked bird that he is—though most country strollers only see him taking off ahead of them with a flash of white rump. In an engagingly informal text, Porter is most fascinating describing the lengths to which a bird photographer will go to get results. Once, to reach a kinglet’s nest, he simply sawed off a tree at its base, keeping it upright, and lowered it 40 feet. The kinglet did not seem to mind.

$15 TO $20

THE CUNARD WHITE STAR QUADRUPLE-SCREW LINER QUEEN MARY 340 pages. New York Graphic Society. $19.95. A facsimile reprint of The Shipbuilder and Marine Engine-Builder souvenir edition, which was first published in 1936 to commemorate the maiden run of Britain’s most beloved seagoing queen. Staggering in its detail: deck plans, photographs and descriptions of machinery, interiors of accommodations. A brief, highly literate biography carries the great liner through World War II service as a troop transport (it accidentally rammed and sank a British cruiser in 1942), and into its sad second life as a tourist attraction in Long Beach, Calif. Ideal gift for those nostalgia collectors who have recently been buying artifacts from the Mary and her big sister Elizabeth at Texas prices.

THE MOST OF JOHN HELD JR. 144 pages. Stephen Greene. $19.95. Half a century has not diminished the charm of John Held Jr.’s prototypical leggy flappers or dulled the gaiety of their cork-nosed, raccoon-coated boy friends. This well-produced selection also includes his little-known, deft watercolors and woodcut cartoons that gently mock the 1890s (“Horse whipping the masher and good for him”). Shallow stuff, but as Held would say, ah, those dear dim days.

THE TREE WHERE MAN WAS BORN by Peter Matthiessen with THE AFRICAN EXPERIENCE. Photographs by Eliot Porter. 247 pages. Dutton. $17.50. To some people’s childhood, Christmas used to bring Noah’s ark. Matthiessen and Porter have carved this year’s Noah’s ark for grownups. The animals of West Africa are here, two by two and in their still-countless thousands, and the people, blacks and a few remaining whites who have gallantly begun trying to save all that can be saved. Because this is a book for grownups, it brims with a feeling Noah must have had, desperate and elegiac and full of the urge to save still more from the coming catastrophe.

LARRY BURROWS: COMPASSIONATE PHOTOGRAPHER by the editors of LIFE. Unpaged. Time-Life Books. $17.95. A selection, in color and black and white, from the work of LIFE Photographer Larry Burrows, who was killed while covering the Viet Nam War. Burrows was an Englishman who hated violence. His pictures and the accompanying biographical recollections by friends and colleagues reveal him as a man of courage, kindness and a very clear eye. But Burrows’ images, which run back over the news events of the past 20 years in places like India, the Belgian Congo and Viet Nam, bear the saddest sort of witness to the way men use each other and their world.

THE AMERICAN HERITAGE HISTORY OF AMERICAN BUSINESS & INDUSTRY by Alex Groner and editors of American Heritage and Business Week. 384 pages. American Heritage. $17.95. Capitalism, usually dated from the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), conveniently has the same birth year as the American Republic, and the two have grown up too close together to have entirely separate histories. This volume skillfully examines the story of American expansion in all its derring-do, spectacular accomplishment and folly, from the chartered firms that settled the first colonies to Henry Ford’s revolution on wheels. A very unblinking assessment in the earlier stages—there is a grim account of a slave voyage told through its expense files—the book offers only a fairly cleaned-up version of more recent entrepreneurial villainy. Recommended especially to readers interested in keeping up with the Dow Joneses.

RENÉ MAGRITTE by René Passeron. 93 pages. J. Philip O’Hara. $15. “Only the marvelous is beautiful,” Poet André Breton once wrote, and René Magritte’s paintings make that point. Since most of the excellent reproductions in this book cover entire pages without frames of white space, the reader is thrust into the Belgian surrealist’s enigmatic world. An immense rock floats in the sky, a bottle becomes a carrot, a coffin sits on a wall. Mercifully, the text is minimal, for Magritte’s content is captivating beyond words.

ALPHONSE MUCHA by Jiri Mucha, Marina Henderson & Aaron Scharf. 136 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $15.

An Art Nouveau artist named Mucha*

Made decorous posters to suitcha.

He drew all his girls

Amid sensuous swirls

Before Fem Lib said frills will pollutecha.


A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF ENGLISH ARCHITECTURE by John Betjeman. 112 pages. Macmillan. $12.95. British Poet Laureate Betjeman has long been an amateur of architecture. Here he transcends the book’s rather tired format to produce an essay that is sublimely confident of its delights and prejudices. Betjeman loves tiny Saxon churches whose masons “captured holy air and encased it in stone.” Noting that some of his illustrations of modern buildings are “cautionary examples,” he ends with a plea for the survival of the profession of architecture. “We should wish him well,” Betjeman writes of the architect, “for he should be the only bar between us and the human anthill to which we may be reduced.” (That sentence is also a plea for the survival of the subjunctive.)

THE POLICE GAZETTE Edited by Gene Smith and Jayne Barry Smith. 208 pages. Simon & Schuster. $12.50. A collection of articles and illustrations from the granddaddy of all schlock journalism. The Gazette, which began publication in 1846, was unequaled for its sensationalism (“The foolish son of Colonel Sumpter, a wealthy politician of Hot Springs, Ark., marries a member of the St. Louis, Mo., demi-monde”) and bigotry (“Sheeny Abortionist Beast Trapped by Brave Beauty”). Yet it nevertheless recorded the rapacity, brutalityand savage energy of the Gilded Age.

AMPHIGOREY by Edward Gorey. Unpaged. Putnam. $12.95. Corey’s grueling tales dwell lightly on melancholia and misfortune; the illustrations are precise, deadpan and tenebrific. Together they create a quaint, surreal world where horror and humor blandly lurk on every page. Fifteen of Gorey’s works are collected here, including “The Curious Sofa” (which may be the ultimate sexual instrument). Only for those who think they would like to smile at an unfurling nightmare.

A SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE BICYCLE by Robert A. Smith. 269 pages. American Heritage. $9.95. Unlike those other bicycle books published last year, this tells you nothing about how to fix a Dérailleur gear. It has more important things to report. For example, did you know that bicycle manufacturers invented assembly lines? That pressure from bicycle lobbies caused some of America’s “scarcely jackassable” roads to be paved for the first time? In short, if anybody thinks bicycles are having a boom now, Robert Smith, professor of history at California State College, is prepared to prove that it’s mild indeed compared to the mania which swept the country between 1892 and 1898. In those days the army made pedalers out of cavalrymen, police speed traps caught “scorchers,” and Diamond Jim Brady paid $10,000 for Lillian Russell’s wheel. It has mother-of-pearl handlebars, spokes encrusted with jewels and—scandalous!—a custom-fitted seat.

TAO TE CHING by Lao Tsu. Translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English. Unpaged. Knopf. $7.95. The Tao Te Ching is a Chinese collection of short verses supposedly written by an almost certainly mythical sage named Lao Han or Lao Tsu about 2,500 years ago. This title means “The Classic of the Power of the Way.” According to the jacket of this edition, an overfancy one gussied up with photographs (fog, snow, twigs, grass) and Chinese calligraphy, the Tao Te Ching has been translated more frequently than any book except the Bible. One reason is its poetic strength and simplicity, its way of knitting aphorisms into a form that sounds profound in any language. Just now though, the appeal is mainly philosophic, for the Tao Te Ching is a transcendent argument in favor of passivity. Its morality is the morality of “non-activity” (wu-wei)—”If nothing is done, then all will be well.”

THE WORLD OF MINERALS by Vincenzo de Michele. 128 pages. World. $5.95. As a maker of beautiful objects, Ms. Nature is a strong competitor of Louis C. Tiffany and even Benvenuto Cellini. From her upper crust come such delights of found art as miniature Matterhorns of icy blue molybdenite, spiky flowers of dendritic copper, peaceful crystal groupings of aquamarine beryl and fleshy green clumps of concretionary malachite. These and scores of other fine mineral specimens are exceptionally well photographed and described in this book, one of the best in the publisher’s sensibly priced World of Nature series.

THE DO’s AND DON’Ts OF YESTERDAY by Eric Sloane. Two vols. Walker. $4.95. A square peg in a round hole is entirely appropriate if one wishes a wood joint to hold, folksy Eric (A Reverence for Wood) Sloane notes in Vol. 1 (Do’s), “a little book of early American know-how.” Do’s contains a number of pastoral hints for the urban dropout, including 18th century dessert recipes for such forgotten goodies as pippin tarts. Vol. 2 (Don’ts) Sloane describes as “a little book of early American gentility.” It warns against gaffes like wearing black broadcloth in the morning, and urges that “men who eject great streams of tobacco-juice on the sidewalk or on the floors of public vehicles ought to be driven from civilized society.”

THE PULSE OF THE PLANET edited by James Cornell and John Surowieki. 129 pages. Harmony Books. $2.95. Great balls of fire over Veracruz, Mexico. Mount Merapi volcano blows its top in Indonesia. Oil pollution off Florida. Leaf-cutting ants march on Lares, Peru. Read all about the natural and man-made disasters of 1968-71 in this brisk compilation of reports put out by the world’s first and only scientific clearinghouse for such data, the Smithsonian Institution Center for Short-Lived Phenomena. The effect of the eruptions, irruptions and catastrophes is to underline what a little-understood place the ever-changing planet really is.

* Whose name, alas, rhymes really with hoo-ha

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