PArtists are skilled mess makers, and their private lives are often as messy as their studios. In The Extraordinary Life and Memorable Moments of JMW Turner (Viking £ 25), Franny Moyle studies a prize specimen. His bio focuses on Turner’s antisocial quirks, questionable business relationships, and sexual irregularities. He was a shrewd self-promoter, negotiating harshly with aristocratic patrons and unabashedly campaigning for election to the Royal Academy; his seascapes made him an apologist for British imperial power and a slave trade investor who supported him. Still, he bonded with servants and, posing as an old tar named Puggy Booth, lodged with a widow in what was then known as ‘Sleazy Chelsea’.
The impalpability of his later work, which painted the “particles of light” we see when we think about looking at people and places, has led to accusations of insanity. As described by Moyle, his technique had a punk irreverence. The day of the opening at the Royal Academy, he scandalizes his colleagues by coating his paintings with a cloudy brown powder, then raises the reflections with spit goblets. Ignore the inflated title of the book: it’s a beautiful tale of the cranky, strife-ridden man behind those bright skies.
In Crazy enchantment: Claude Monet and the painting of Water Lilies (Bloomsbury £ 20), Ross King explores with words the personal paradise that Monet has built in Giverny. Like Turner, Monet lived through “highlights”, and cultivated his garden as “a haven of peaceful meditation” in which he could take refuge from war and social upheaval. Turner’s canvases were ridiculed as “pictures of nothing,” and Monet also challenged the old routine of pictorial representation. The lilies quivering in the hidden depths of his ponds were “impossible things”, and in the attempt to paint them he pursued a vision “to self-annihilation.”
King’s title, like Moyle’s, seems over-excited, but he justifies it. Monet’s mad obsession with these floating flowers produced an almost hypnotic enchantment: his atmospheric paintings, now exhibited in a pavilion in the Tuileries, turn the world upside down and give us the impression of floating or pleasantly drowning in this dark vegetation. clogged pools.
Timothy hyman’s The new world made: figurative painting in the twentieth century (Thames & Hudson £ 32) begins in a Nietzschean void, which is then triumphantly repopulated. At the end of the 19th century, says Hyman, “the world of objects” seemed “spectral, weightless, dissolved,” as if it was unraveling in Monet’s flooded garden. The book then shows how a succession of painters scorns abstraction and rehabilitates the human figure, recreating what Balthus calls the “drama of the flesh”.
Some modernists torment their subjects, turn them neurotically or crucify them as Bacon does. Pierre Bonnard, however, is hired to “redeem” the besieged body in his bathroom scenes, and Hyman finds scenes of intimacy, convivial or erotic, behind the “airy drops and splodges” that cover Howard Hodgkin’s canvases. . Beautifully illustrated, this is art history at its peak and also – thanks to philosophical forays in which Hyman explores identity and the friction between self and society – its most captivating.
Disorder is the subject of Elizabeth Fullerton’s riot Arrage! : The story of the BRITART Revolution (Thames & Hudson £ 24.95), which documents the antics of upstart provocateurs who were aimed, as the Chapman brothers have said, to disrupt civilization and to poke fun at the idea that art has a moral purpose. Junk and rot abound here: With pachyderm poo Chris Ofili smeared all over the Madonna, we’ve got Damien Hirst maggots sprinkled on a rotting cow’s head, plus a ton of rotten oranges strewn around a dockyard warehouse by Anya Gallacio. A smelly bed documents what Fullerton categorically calls Tracey Emin’s “debauchery”: I would say it was proof of Emin’s disorder, not his depravity.
With the connivance of Charles Saatchi and the Royal Academy, the young radicals grew in respectability and wealth. Hirst, who pocketed £ 111million after a 2008 Sotheby’s auction, is now the richest artist in the world, and Emin’s work adorns the walls of 10 Downing Street. The dirty wasteland of London where they staged exhibitions that doubled as illegal raves have in the meantime become prime real estate. Fullerton concludes that the Young British Artists’ search for thrill established “the country’s place in the international pantheon”; now that Britain is imploding, it may be time for another upsurge of outrage.
Prado masterpieces (Thames & Hudson £ 75) is a guided tour of this awe-inspiring museum – which, by the way, is the place where Laura Cumming’s touching and thrilling quest for a lost Velázquez begins. The man who fainted (Chatto & Windus £ 18.99) – and at the same time, because these treasures are the spoils of monarchy and empire, a flashback to Europe’s unstable and bellicose past. The director of the Prado calls the collection he oversees the “fertile alluvial deposit” of history: is it that or a wreck recovered on the battlefield?