For the past few years, I have been exploring the world of art both through galleries and through plenty of reading. As it is with everything, there are good art books, mediocre ones, downright bad and then there are ones that I have found truly brilliant. When I say brilliant, I look at both the information I can learn from it and the way they are given to you as a reader.
Here I offer you 10 art books that I have found truly fascinating and would recommend them. What is important to remember though is that this is just my perspective and I only used books I actually own and read, so it’s not truly a guide to all the art books on the market you can get but I hope it will still serve as an inspiration for you.
10. ERWIN PANOFSKY – MEANING IN THE VISUAL ARTS
Typically, one book to point you towards when reading about the history of visual arts is “The Story of Art” by E.H. Gombrich but I wanted to skip that one for now (but I highly recommend it) as it can be difficult to pick up for its length for casual readers. What can be a very good alternative choice (although perhaps bit to studious style) is the Meaning in the Visual Arts by german art historian Erwin Panofsky.
The book reads very comfortably and although I read it in Czech translation, I believe that will be the case for English one as well. Throughout the book, Panofsky explains history and views on medieval and Renaissance art, taken from his famous studies and compiled together after which you can look at “old” art more confidentially.
Where sphere of practical things ends and sphere of “art” begins is solely up to the intentions of it’s makers.”Erwin Panofksy, Meaning in the Visual Arts, page 23, chapter: Introduction
Length 446 pages
Recommended for: students, people with a keen interest in art
Casual reader: No – while it reads easily the book is shaped as a study tool and may not entertain novice readers (of art books)
9. PHILIP HOOK – BREAKFAST AT SOTHEBY’S
The world’s most famous auction house, Sotheby’s, is one that found its way to connect through the modern age and media. Having worked on projects with a number of celebrities and influential people with genuine love for art, from Korean rapper Choi Seung-Hyun to their recent collaboration with actor Robert Pattinson, they constantly try to keep people connected to the world of art that is unreachable to most, the capitalistic side of it. Even though you cannot buy the pieces (or most of us can’t) you can still find something incredively appealing by connecting to it on this level.
Philip Hook goes a little further. In his book “Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World” this art specialist explains to the readers the behind the curtain of not looking at art as a viewer but as a buyer. Throughout the book Hook (who himself joined Sotheby’s in 1994 in the department of Impressionism) looks at different types of art from the point of view preferred by the art field in its commercial side – the favourites (such as Dalí, Bacon, Degas or Cézzane to what buyers look at – for example if the painting was finished, its authenticity or whether it affects viewers emotionally.
The book reads beautifully and guides readers through short explanations of many art “departments” but also the aspects with which buyers look at art pieces and changes in art markets demands and wants.
The way in which the painting is framed heavily affects how we look at it and what will it’s selling price be. Unsauitable frame can dractically lower paintings price.Philip Hook, Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World, Page 257, Chapter: Framing
Length: 368 pages
Recommended for: anyone interested in art
Casual reader: Yes – What is perfect about the book is Hooks’s guide through many aspects of the art field, from its different styles to aspects of art pieces
7. MARIELLA GUZZONI – VINCENT’S BOOKS
Perhaps you are like me and enjoy looking at what people who inspire you are reading in their free time. That’s probably what Mariella Guzzoni thought of when she began writing “Vincent’s Books” book which loosely follows the life of Vincent van Gogh (mind you it’s not a full biography book) and combines it with what Vincent was reading.
Looking at his many letters to his beloved brother and his pieces themselves, Vincent shared his love for books and reading in many ways and Mariella Guzzoni explores them all. While you read about Vincent himself, the book also dives into the background and narrative of the books that inspired him and how they connect not just to Vincent, but also to his art pieces, his life journey and the time in which he lived and painted. While it sounds like a lot, it’s written so beautifully you can read with an easy heart and enjoy the new information and putting things into perspective.
For years he (Vincent) had been reading almost exclusively in French and his cultural knowledge had been greatly broadened and enriched. In Nuenen he had read voraciously, following the literary current he had begun in The Hague, still under the spell of Zola’s novels.Mariella Guzzoni, Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him; Page 91, Chapter: The City of Light
Length: 224 pages
Recommended for: anyone who loves art, anyone who loves classical literature
Casual reader: Yes – The book follows Vincent’s paintings and his love for reading, anyone can find something interesting in this book that reads easily
6. THE CLEAVELAND MUSEUM OF ART – THE LURE OF PAINTED POETRY (SEUNGHYE SUN)
I run into this book by accident while browsing an online bookstore and was immediately captivated by the topic. While I never visited Cleaveland Museum being from Central Europe, it made me add it to my list of galleries to see and I can’t wait to explore more of their titles. The poetry in visual arts is something we can trace to China but this book explores “kanshi” (Japanese poems) and “hanshi” (Korean poems) and their use in art and important in both nations histories.
What is beautiful about “The Lure of Painted Poetry” is the constant side-by-side explanation of the differences (including examples). Historically, these are one of the oldest regions in the world, with history so diverse, and unique but also painful and beautiful. Something, that humanity often expressed in art. The book looks at historical differences, styles and compositions between Korean and Japanese artists throughout the mainly Edo period in Japan (14th – 19th century) and the Joseon period in Korea (14th – 19th century). The book will slowly teach you how to see differences, who were the artists behind them but also their history and place in society.
Korean and Japanese elites comissioned paintings of their elegant gatherings and added their own poems or companions’ inscriptions.The Lure of Painted Poetry, page 17, Chapter: Elegant Gathering: Portrait of the Poet
Length: 109 pages
Recommended for: art lovers, poetry fans
Casual reader: Yes – The book is very short and explains in many examples how to see the differences between Japanese and Korean art as well as shortly teaches about the history behind the two important nations
5. RICHARD J. POWELL – BLACK ART
Thames & Hudson offers some of the best selection of art books in their catalogue. The one I want to point out though is their book called “Black Art”, written and composed by Richard J. Powell. Looking back at the history of art you rarely get the opportunity to learn about art from black artists from all over the globe, with the exception of a few artists that reached global success. Most people probably think of Jean-Michel Basquiat or William Johnson but how many of you can think for a moment and remember the beautiful art of artists of colour? Probably not that many, which reflects how art history is taught but also how few chances artists from different minorities had.
“Black Art” by Richard J. Powell starts right from what needs to be said, the oppression black artists faced throughout history. While Powell, who is a professor of art, looks at the overall view of it, you will mainly learn about the modern century, 19th – 21st century. Through the book, you will not only meet amazing artists from many places on the planet, but you will also learn the cultural and heritage importance as well as the deeply unsettling history behind it all that many find too easy to ignore.
The philosophy of Existentialism – with its emphasis on the predicament of being, and the crises of social action and personal responsibility – resonated strongly with black artists during these post-war years.Richard J. Powell, Black Art: A Cultural History; Page 119, Chapter: Pride, Assimilation and Dreams
Length: 274 pages
Recommended for: art lovers, history fans, everyone
Casual reader: I would recommend this to everyone for it’s importance. But at the same time, it’s packed with A LOT of information which may be overwhelming for a casual reader.
4. MARY ANN CAWS – THE MODERN ART COOKBOOK
How to combine cooking, love for food and art? Mary Ann Caws combines all of that in her cookbook “The Modern Art Cookbook”. What is amazing about this book is not just connecting recipes to specific paintings but also finding out the preferences of artists in their recipes, preparing them and enjoying them. The amount of research that went into this book, which you can always come back to and try some of the genuine recipes it contains, must have been enormous.
The book is divided as you would expect from any cookbook out there – you start with Appetizers (where you can learn Scramble in Sea Urchin Shells following Pablo Picasso), continues with Soups (book offers for example Vincent van Gogh’s Monkfish and Mussel Stew) but then moves onto Eggs (how about Paul Cźanne’s Mushroom Omelette), in Meat chapter you can try Salvator Dalí’s Mescalagne Landais “Mère Irma”. The chapters and the recipes are many. Eventually, you will reach the Beverages and can see their connection to many famous paintings throughout the years, for example, Coffee in Juan Gris painting from 1916.
One of Cézanne’s favourite dishes was the duck that Madame Brémond would prepare for him with olives and carrots, and either large, sweet onions or small, newer ones she called ‘affectionate’.Mary Ann Caws: The Modern Art Cookbook, Page 88, Chapter: Meat
Length: 300 pages
Recommended for: art lovers, foodies, anyone
Casual reader: Absolutely, you can go slowly through the book and read comfortably. The author offers short insights into artists’ recipes but also looks at the the history of food depicted in visual arts.
3. HILM AF KLIMT – VISIONARY
Rarely in our time can we experience such a rift in the history of relatively modern art. But it happened nonetheless in the early 2010s when one name became to be spelt much more than in the past – Hilma af Klimt (although first discovered in the 80s). New studies and materials show us now that this Swedish painter was a truly pivotal figure of abstract art in its baby steps and only now we are discovering how deep her mark was and is not only on the history of abstract art but also on the uniqueness and movement of it all – or rather only now she is getting truly appreciated and talked about.
Hilma af Klimt explored many things in her life and her art, spiritualism and theosophy were at the centre of her later work. All of this, her impact, and the amount and importance of her work have been discovered through over 1200 pieces which shows originality that would define the field of art at its time, had Hilma been a man. The book offers a look back at an exhibition done by Guggenheim Museum in New York, its seminars and an overview of Hilma af Klimt as an artist and as a woman.
Rather than present a domain of static mathematical truths or platonic forms, af Klimt seems to enact a realm of vibrant life, of spiritual evolution and immanence. Her version of abstraction is compatible with the processes of teeming nature rather than precision of heavenly geometries.Hilma af Klimt – Visionary, Page 17, Chapter: Introduction
Length: 128 pages
Recommended for: art lovers, fans of spirituality and naturalism
Casual reader: Yes, the book is beautifully edited by Kurt Almqvist and Louise Belfrage and is ideal for casual readers who want to learn a bit more about this exceptional artist. The book has a big format and can nicely add ambient to your shelf if that’s what you are after.
2. JOAN KEE – CONTEMPORARY KOREAN ART
Korean art, especially contemporary, is fascinating to me. Coming from a nation that has been oppressed, invaded and silenced I love seeing the redemption story, the win of the people so to say in the other places in the world and Korea, through its many trials and difficult situations managed to stay true to its culture and develop it further, keeping its unique national identity. Which is something you can learn by reading the book “Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method”.
Joan Kee takes you through not only different periods of Korean art but also different methods that became popular in Korea throughout the 20th century and also their historical importance. But what this book really shows you is an art that is daring, and controversial but also very important to maintaining the Korean identity and marking its place in the westernised global art market. This book I picked based on a recommendation by songwriter, producer and rapper Kim Namjoon and it’s one of the best art books you can pick up that not only teaches you different forms of contemporary art but also introduces you to the vibrant 20th-century in Southeast Asian region and the slow and difficult building of diplomatic relations.
When Kwon Young-woo and Yun Hyongkeun took up abstraction, they did so against a background in which the idea of abstraction not only was about Western versus Oriental painting but also was grounded in the way Korean artists understood the “international art world” as a function of dueling rates of change.Joan Kee – Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method, Page 95, Chapter: Rates of Exchange in Ha Chonghyun’s Conjunction
Length: 384 pages
Recommended for: art lovers, people interested in history, Korean and Contemporary art, artists
Casual reader: Not quite – the book is very specific and unless you are interested in the topic, you might find the book difficult to read. As an art lover though, it’s a must and it doesn’t matter how deep your knowledge is or isn’t, the book takes you through it.
1. ALICE PROCTER – THE WHOLE PICTURE
What I am going to put as the best art book from my collection so far is this important piece of literature everyone should read. Alice Procter, an art historian, looks at colonial history in art itself and narrates it in a way that reads both easily (for the way she wrote the book itself) and difficultly (especially for the western reader) for the shared historical guilt that comes with it.
What is amazing about “The Whole Picture” is that it reads like a novel but with the content of both an art book and a history book from the point of view of British colonialism and especially the shady dealings and narrative painted by East India Company and how it still reflects on art and galleries in the Western world now. The book is an important one for many reasons:
a) it unapologetically looks to both past and present of the colonialism and it’s effects on art world and nations from which it took;
b) it takes you on a journey through both history and beauty of art and;
c) Alice Procter takes personal and open take on the topic not just as an art historian but also as someone who looks at emotional response both to addressing the difficult topic but also to the art pieces it surrounds.
Without doubt, there are some unmistakably brilliant people in this field, and there are some exceptional critics and artists shaping the conversation from outside the museum. But I am starting to think the museum actually is a graveyard, a place where change goes to die.Alice Procter – The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums… and why we need to talk about it, Page 271, Chapter: Coda
Length: 288 pages
Recommended for: art lovers, people interested in history, everyone really
Casual reader: Yes – the beauty of this book is that it is narrated like a novel, asking you to create a picture with you imagination as Alie Procter walks you through it, while not only asking you to think but also teaching you both history and it’s impact on art
That’s my Top 10 as of now. I hope you found something interesting to read or something to think about. If you did enjoy the article, you can support me by buying coffee, it helps me tons! Thank you for reading ^^