If one of the purposes of art is to help us see the world around us, then Sebastião Salgado’s photographs in Amazonia (Taschen, £ 100) does it in the most spectacular way. Not only are they lovely in themselves; they show us views that very few have ever seen.
To take these shots, Salgado traveled the depths of the rainforest, sailed rivers, visited isolated tribes, and flew over the vast terrain in Brazilian Air Force helicopters. During these flights he saw immense panoramas of trees, puffy clouds and meandering rivers covering an area larger than the EU. The resulting images, all the more powerful because they are in black and white, are quite astonishing – a combination of those of Arthur Conan Doyle. the Lost worldand the outlook at the top of Bruegel mountain, with a visionary atmosphere. It is, one might say, the ecological sublime.
Henrietta McBurney’s Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby (Yale, £ 40) is dedicated to an 18th-century explorer of distant American places. Catesby (1683-1749), the son of a Suffolk gentleman, spent years traveling what were then the American colonies, sometimes living with Native Americans and dining on alligators. After that he spent more years on the illustrations for his masterpiece, The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.
These, along with the watercolors he made from live models, are wonderful and loving portraits of plants, fish, mammals and birds, often touched with charming naivety. They bear witness to Catesby’s “passionate desire” to see both animals and vegetation in their “native homes” which, with a “love of truth,” he writes, motivated his travels and his art.
If the British cult of nature had a patron saint, it would surely be Catesby’s young contemporary, Gilbert White (1720-1793), a clergyman and author of The natural history and antiquities of Selborne. White has spent his life scrutinizing and captivating his immediate surroundings. Therefore, it is not surprising that he and his writings in turn have fascinated generations of artists, since the art – or a variety of it, at least – is also based on similar contemplative observation.
This is the starting point of Attracted by nature: Gilbert White and the artists (Yale, £ 25), a delightful essay by Simon Martin on the various painters and printmakers who have illustrated White’s book over the past century. Among them are John Piper, Gertrude Hermes, Clare Leighton and John Nash. Best of all in my opinion was Eric Ravilious, who in 1935 quoted a phrase: “There are bustards on the wide shallows near Brighthelmstone,” adding, “Isn’t that a nice statement? It’s a nice little volume.
In his very eccentric way, Vincent van Gogh was an artist in the mold of white. His greatest work, too, often came from a careful examination of his surroundings. So it should come as no surprise to discover that his last photo, taken the day he took his picture, was of gnarled tree roots growing in an embankment. The painting and a recently discovered postcard from the very place it depicts are reproduced in Martin Bailey’s work. Van Gogh’s final: Auvers and the artist’s rise to glory (Frances Lincoln, £ 25). With this volume, Bailey concludes his trilogy on the last years of the great painter in France. He demolishes the theory that the painter was accidentally killed by a couple of schoolchildren – and, like an art historian Hercule Poirot, examined the real gun that fired the fatal shot.
Surprisingly perhaps, the foundations of Bridget Riley’s vibrant abstractions rest on years of drawing from life. Many of his early portraits, landscapes and nude studies are included in Bridget Riley: Working Drawings (Bridget Riley Art Foundation / Thames & Hudson, £ 45). “Drawing,” she writes, “is an exercise in gazing” – and a profound exercise, since she also notes that the first thing she discovers when she begins to draw is that “I don’t know. “. Both his figurative works on paper and the preparatory studies for his abstract paintings show the same thoroughness and delicacy. It’s a nice addition to the literature on Riley.
Sean Scully once, apparently, announced his arrival in a gallery with the words, “Sean Scully is my name, painting stripes is my game.” A stripe is a stripe is a stripe, you might think, but stripes from Riley are quite different from Scully’s. He has been producing variations on this motif for over half a century, with ever increasing power and gravity. Online: Conversations with Sean Scully by Kelly Grovier (Thames & Hudson, £ 25) is full of her pungent opinions and tales of her wandering life.
Many might find the subjects of Leon Kossoff’s images less appealing than those of Van Gogh’s Auvers – Willesden Junction, for example, or the dark surroundings of King’s Cross. But of course it’s not the beauty of the sight that matters but the passion, talent and intellectual energy of the beholder, and Kossoff (1926-2019) had enormous amounts of all three. Léon Kossoff: Catalog Raisonné of Oil Paintings by Andrea Rose (Modern Art Press, £ 175) beautifully illustrates each work with plenty of commentary and introductory essays. It is a beautiful tribute to a great painter who, I believe, has not yet had his due.
Georg Baselitz (born in 1938) is Kossoff’s youngest by around ten. He is part of a group of German painters who, in the 1960s, had the audacity to produce figurative images, thus going against a powerful current of fashion. Since then he has grown into one of the most prominent living artists, renowned for his habit of presenting his subjects upside down, as well as his raw expressionist sculpture which appears to have been carved with a chainsaw (as, indeed it is often has been). Richard Calvocoressi monograph Georg baselitz (Thames & Hudson, £ 85) takes the reader well beyond these gadgets to describe a smart and prolific artist. Elegantly written and beautifully illustrated, this is by far Baselitz’s best study in English.
A few years ago, Baselitz designed costumes and sets for a production of Parsifal. Of course, he is far from the only great painter to have done so, and there is an intimate connection between the visual arts and the theater. “These spectacles”, wrote Inigo Jones in 1632 of the sensational masks he designed for the Stuart court, “are” nothing but images with light and movement. “
In Fun Renaissance: The machines behind the scenes(UCL Press, £ 50), Philip Steadman studies the devices by which the truly spectacular effects of the Renaissance and Baroque scene – including shipwrecks, storms and divine descents from the sky – were achieved. It also reveals the secrets of the statues and moving organs of the 16th century gardens and exhibits of moving images projected in a black room. It is a pioneering, scholarly study on a hitherto neglected subject, and also (as the title suggests) full of entertaining information.