Holiday giftbooks that deserve to be opened

"Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection," edited by Ann Percy with Cara Zimmerman
"Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection," edited by Ann Percy with Cara Zimmerman
Posted: December 02, 2013

Paris before it became the City of Light; the watercolors of an artist best known for portraits; creatures conjured from the medieval imagination - these are just a few of the fruits in this year's crop of books to be put out in the open, not hidden away on shelves.

If you think books may be passé, check out the gorgeous buildings that house so many of them. Prices are list, but discounts abound.

John Singer Sargent: Watercolors (MFA Publications/Brooklyn Museum, $60). Sargent wasn't eager to show or sell his watercolors. But he did consent to show some of them in 1909 at New York's Knoedler Gallery. And he consented that they be sold - but only, he wrote to a friend, if a museum or private collector wanted "to buy the whole lot en bloc." His reasoning was that his watercolors "only amount to anything when taken . . . together."

The Brooklyn Museum eventually did buy the works at the Knoedler. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts wanted them, too, but was late with its bid. The MFA didn't miss its second chance, though, three years later, when Sargent put together another watercolor show at the same gallery. For the first time since then, nearly 100 of those works have been reunited in a grand exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year and now at the MFA. It has to be the art show of the year, and this catalog is altogether worthy of it. Find a way of standing the book up so you can move back and forth from the paintings, and you will get an idea of what Evan Charteris, Sargent's friend and biographer, said of these watercolors, that to live with them is "to live with sunshine captured and held."

Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris (National Gallery of Art/University of Chicago, $60). Charles-François Bossu must have thought he was doing himself a favor when he took Marville as his professional name, and it may have been a good idea at the time ( Bossu means "hunchback" and had proved an embarrassment at school.) But the name change, combined with a fire that destroyed the Paris city hall in 1871, has meant that the creator of the first serial photographic documentation of a city has been one of the least-studied figures of his time.

This catalog of an exhibition at the National Gallery in honor of Bossu/Marville's bicentennial should help correct that. The Paris on display often is unfamiliar: Many of the pictures were taken before Baron Haussmann gave the city its face-lift for the ages.

Sylvia Plath: Drawings(Harper, $25.99). "Yesterday I drew a good umbrella and chianti bottle, better chestnuts, bad shoes and beaujolais bottle. Soon I will go about fanatically doing exact and painstaking landscapes of grass-blades . . . ." So wrote Sylvia Plath to her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, in 1956, the year most of these drawings were done. Their daughter, the poet Frieda Hughes, notes in her introduction that, in his poem "Drawing," her father had described "how the very act calmed my mother, and how she became focused and still." The umbrella, chestnuts, shoes, and wine bottles are all here, but the eerie standout is her portrait in profile of Ted Hughes. The passion is palpable.

The Great War (Knopf, $100). Nothing picturesque in these pages - mostly shots of the appalling death and devastation wrought by World War I - and probably not the sort of thing one would put on the living room coffee table. But this unsparing chronicle of human heroism and folly deserves to be looked at, especially by those in a position to initiate such horrors.

Great and Mighty Things(Philadelphia Museum of Art/Yale University Press, $60). The art on display in this catalog of an exhibition of works in the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection is hard to designate. In her introduction, Ann Percy dismisses the term outsider art as "ill-fitting" and says that self-taught artist is "too loose . . . to be meaningful."

Whatever you want to call this art, it offers plenty to delight and intrigue. Martín Ramírez may have spent most of his life in mental institutions, but his world of trains, tunnels, and Madonnas is at once charming and grand. Then there are Elijah Pierce's paintings on carved wood, strongly like icons. Some great stuff here.

Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection (Smithsonian Books, $40). When it comes to death and devastation, the Civil War easily holds its place among the worst of wars. And while war may mean armies and battles, victories and defeats, this volume demonstrates that the poignancy of war is perhaps best seen in ordinary objects, such as a battered pair of the brogans issued to Union soldiers. Items include Winslow Homer's battlefield sketches, a photo of Gen. Philip Sheridan's well-preserved horse Winchester, and a copy of Grant's terms of surrender. These make a conflict that began more than 150 years seem unsettlingly recent.

The Library: A World History (University of Chicago Press, $75). Legend has it that the most famous library of all, at Alexandria, was burned down by one or another careless or uncultured potentate. But according to James W.B. Campbell's text for this splendid volume, the greatest shame is "that what was left of it simply rotted away." Too bad. If it was anything on the order of the book repositories on display in these pages, it would have been among the most beautiful of human constructions. Page after page of polished wood and perfect light make one wish one could just jump in and be there. Even newer libraries, such as Beijing's National Library of China, are austerely enticing.

National Geographic: 125 Years (National Geographic Society, $50).  There's plenty from National Geographic magazines and TV specials here, but this anniversary book is also a reminder of the part the National Geographic Society has played in the exploration of our planet. Case in point: Admiral Richard E. Byrd's pioneering flight to the South Pole on Nov. 28, 1929. Pages and hours of exotic flora and fauna, landscapes and seascapes.

Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (British Library, $35). You may think you know what a sea monster is, but back when the creatures were flourishing on parchment hundreds of years ago, people weren't so sure. Many authors at the time thought they were in some way "against nature," but no less a figure than St. Augustine saw them as an integral part of God's plan. The scientific consensus at the time seems to have assumed that any creature on land had its counterpart in the sea, which is why so many of the monsters were hybrids - sea dogs, sea lions, sea pigs. They're all here in this charming little book, including some that were and are real, like the walrus, which took a long time to be accurately depicted.

Should none of the above whet your appetite, you may want to consider Skyscrapers: A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings, by Judith Dupré (Black Dog & Leventhal, $29.95); The Civil War and American Art, by Eleanor Jones Harvey (Smithsonian Museum/Yale University Press, $42.63); or A Steam Odyssey: The Railroad Photographs of Victor Hand (Norton, $75).

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