Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In which I gush over Phaidon art books

The heavy white volumes Phaidon publishes in their Art and Ideas series are, physically, among my favorite books. The pages are stiff, thick, and unusually white, as if they were enamelled. The font (Bitstream Amerigo) is solid and plump, and the standard type is a sort of half boldface, while quotations are in regular type. Pagination and chapter titles are along the right and left edges of the page, not on top. The images are numbered and clearly labeled; captions always include date, dimensions, and location. Margins and line spacing are generous. A very appealing design.

The images - they are the real attraction. I would add "obviously," but art monographs are usually stingier than I want. Not this series - the Phaidon Chagall has 228 images in 330 pages, mostly the artist's paintings, but with some photographs and works by other artists mixed in:

I clipped off the right edge when I scanned the page, but you get the idea. The photo is of Marc Chagall with the legendary Yiddish actor Shlomo Mikhoels, who is also in the painting, doing the splits while playing his fiddle for the appreciative green cow. He was such a great threat to the Soviet state that Stalin, in 1948, personally ordered his murder. I've wandered from my point.

Looking at the catalog page, I see that I have now read 12 of the 32 volumes published so far. I'll rank them, most interesting to least.

Early Christian and Byzantine Art, John Lowden, page after page of marvels
Neoclassicism, David Irwin
David, Simon Lee
Rembrandt, Mariët Westerman

Jacques-Louis David is actually one of my least favorite painters, but this account of his work and life, tangled up with the French Revolution, is close to thrilling. His paintings, technical facility aside, are all context, so this is the way to see them. Rembrandt's life, by contrast, is almost event-free; the book is rather a gentle investigation of a supremely creative mind.

Romanticism, David Blayney Brown
Goya, Sarah Symmons
Egyptian Art, Jaromir Malek
Friedrich, William Vaughan
Turner, Barry Venning
Chagall, Monica Bohm-Duchen
Islamic Art, Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair
Hogarth, Mark Hallett

The problems with the last two are essentially conceptual. Islamic Art is strained by its need for coverage, while Hogarth treats Hogarth's work more as sociological and historical evidence than as art. In both cases, the approach is understandable, but these books aren't as much fun as some of the others. You would be justified in not believing how much fun Neoclassicism or Early Christian and Byzanine Art is, I understand, but I insist, they're great stuff.

As collections of images, though, they're all amazing. One sample from Islamic Art:

Note the attractive use of white space around the 8th century ewer.
There may well be better-written or better-argued books on every one of these subjects, but I've never found such an impressive combination of images and text. And then there are the pages, and the font, and so on. They don't make such good public transit books - a bit too heavy.

This was plenty gushy. Phaidon should send me some free books. Just post them to the address at the bottom of the site. Hmm, it doesn't seem to be there. Off to the right somewhere? No? I seem to have misplaced my address. Well, if it were the case that Wuthering Expectations had an address, Phaidon should send books to it.


  1. I am a huge fan of the A&I series as well. The Northern Renaissance one was excellent, as is the one on Greek Art.

    Do you know if they are publishing more in the series? On the inside cover there are quite a few really interesting ones. But I haven't notice any new one for a while.

  2. I've had my eye on The Northern Renaissance. I wish I knew more about Phaidon's commitment to the series. But given that the authors are real academic experts, and quite good writers, I can guess that the schedule moves at the leisurely pace of scholarship.

    Meaning, a book is done when it's done.

  3. Nice blog. Im looking for "Pre-Columbian Art of Latin America" from that series. It seems to be out of print. Anybody have any ideas where I could buy a copy? Thanks!

  4. That book is not out of print. It doesn't exist. The titles listed on the inside front cover flap are, how to put it, aspirational. Maybe someday. Maybe someone is writing it now.

  5. I was wondering, does anyone know why "The Northern Renaissance" book doesn't appear on the official Phaidon.com website, yet you can find it on stock online (for example Amazon.com)?

    Personally I'm starting reading this series with "Art Nouveau" by Stephen Escritt and so far it has been nothing but a wonderful experience. Love the text by Mr. Escritt, while the images are pure delight!!! I love how you can find furniture, architecture, painting & other decorative arts in one book :) Now I am eagerly waiting for the release of "Art Deco"

  6. Phaidon just redesigned their site. Some things seem to have been lost in the shuffle.

    I haven't read the Art Nouveau volume yet - it might be next, that or The Gothic Revival. Since you liked that one, the Neoclassicism book is a must.

  7. @Amateur Reader: Read The Gothic Revival first, followed by Art Nouveau. The former & Neoclassicism are definitely on my purchase list!

  8. It looks like Phaidon is finally publishing new titles in this series...


    Baroque & Rococo - Gauvin Bailey
    Pop Art - Bradford Collins

    Would love to get the Boroque & Rococo!

  9. What nice news - maybe my library will buy the Baroque & Rococo book for me.