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A celebration of natural wonders: the best of the year’s art books

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

If one of the purposes of art is to help us see the world around us, then Sebastião Salgado’s photographs in Amazônia (Taschen, £100) does so in the most spectacular way imaginable. Not only are they ravishing in themselves; they show us sights that very few have ever seen.

To take these shots, Salgado trekked deep into the rainforest, sailed the rivers, visited remote tribes and flew over the vast terrain in the helicopters of the Brazilian air force. During those flights he saw immense vistas over trees, billowing cloudscapes and snaking rivers covering an area larger than the EU. The resulting pictures, all the more powerful for being in black and white, are quite amazing — a combination of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost Worldand Bruegel’s mountain-top prospects, with a visionary vibe. This is, you 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 travelling in what were then the American colonies, sometimes living with native Americans and dining on alligator. After that, he spent years more on the illustrations of his masterpiece, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.

These, and the watercolours he made from living models, are marvellous and loving portraits of plants, fish, mammals and birds, often touched with a charming naivety. They testify to Catesby’s ‘passionate desire’ to see both animals and vegetation in their ‘native abodes’ which, together with a ‘love of truth’, he wrote, had motivated his travels and his art.

If the British cult of nature had a patron saint, it would surely be Catesby’s younger contemporary Gilbert White (1720-93), the clergyman and author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. White spent his life in close and captivated scrutiny of his immediate surroundings. Consequently, it is not surprising that he and his writings have in turn fascinated generations of artists, since art — or one variety of it, at least — is also based on similar contemplative observation.

This is the point of departure for Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists (Yale, £25), a delightful essay by Simon Martin on the various painters and print-makers who have illustrated White’s book over the past century or so. Among these are John Piper, Gertrude Hermes, Clare Leighton and John Nash. Best of all to my mind was Eric Ravilious, who in 1935 quoted a line: ‘There are bustards on the wide downs near Brighthelmstone’, adding: ‘Isn’t that a beautiful statement?’ This is a beautiful little volume.

In his highly eccentric way, Vincent van Gogh was an artist in the mould of White. His greatest work, too, often came from close examination of his surroundings. So it should come as no surprise to discover that his last picture, done on the day he shot himself, was of gnarled tree roots growing in a bank. Both the painting and a recently discovered postcard of the very spot it depicted are reproduced in Martin Bailey’s Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers and the Artist’s Rise to Fame (Frances Lincoln, £25). With this volume Bailey brings his trilogy about the great painter’s final years in France to a conclusion. He demolishes the theory that the painter was accidentally killed by a couple of schoolboys — and, like an art historical Hercule Poirot, has examined the actual gun that fired the fatal shot.

Perhaps surprisingly, the foundations of Bridget Riley’s vibrant abstractions lay in years of dedicated drawing from life. Many of her 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 looking’ — and a profound one, since she also notes that the first thing she discovers when she starts to draw is that ‘I do not know’. Both her figurative works on paper and the preparatory studies for her abstract paintings show the same meticulous precision and delicacy. This is a handsome addition to the literature on Riley.

Once, apparently, Sean Scully announced his arrival at a gallery with the words: ‘Sean Scully’s my name, painting stripes is my game.’ A stripe is a stripe is a stripe, you might think, but Riley’s stripes are quite a different matter to Scully’s. He has been producing variations on this motif for more than half a century, with ever-increasing power and gravitas. On the Line: Conversations with Sean Scully by Kelly Grovier (Thames & Hudson, £25) is packed with his pungent opinions and tales of his wandering life.

Many might find the subjects of Leon Kossoff’s pictures less appealing than Van Gogh’s Auvers — Willesden Junction, for example, or the bleak environs of King’s Cross. But of course it’s not the prettiness of the view that counts but the passion, talent and intellectual energy of the observer, and Kossoff (1926-2019) had huge quantities of all three. Leon Kossoff: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings by Andrea Rose (Modern Art Press, £175) splendidly illustrates every work with abundant commentary and introductory essays. It’s a fitting tribute to a great painter who has not, I believe, yet had his due.

Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) is a decade or so Kossoff’s junior. He is one of a group of German painters who, in the 1960s, had the audacity to produce figurative pictures —thus going against a powerful tide of fashion. Since then he has become one of the most prominent of living artists, renowned for his habit of presenting his subjects upside down, and also for raw, expressionist sculpture looking as if it might have been carved with a chainsaw (as, indeed, it often was). Richard Calvocoressi’s monograph Georg Baselitz (Thames & Hudson, £85) takes the reader far beyond these gimmicks to describe an intelligent and prolific artist. Elegantly written and splendidly illustrated, this is by far the best study of Baselitz in English.

A few years ago, Baselitz designed costumes and sets for a production of Parsifal. Of course he is far from being the only major painter to have done so, and there is an intimate connection between the visual arts and the theatre. ‘These shows,’ Inigo Jones wrote in 1632 of the sensational masques he designed for the Stuart court, are ‘nothing else but pictures with light and motion’.

In Renaissance Fun: The Machines Behind the Scenes(UCL Press, £50), Philip Steadman investigates the devices whereby the truly spectacular effects of the Renaissance and Baroque stage — including shipwrecks, storms and divine descents from heaven — were achieved. He also reveals the secrets of the moving statues and water organs of 16th-century gardens and displays of moving images projected in a camera obscura. This is a learned and pioneering study of a hitherto neglected subject, and also (as its title suggests) full of entertaining information.

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