rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
I really like this trend lately where people put out Very Nice editions of manga. PictureBox has done an amazing job on this; the full-color cover painting beneath the dust jacket is spectacular.

Garden-- huh. It's more of a conceptual art project than a narrative. Yokoyama is using narrative only as a device to teach you how to visually parse some of his more complex images, and I get the impression he is annoyed about needing it for that reason.

The images he would like you to decode are Surrealist (capital letter intentional) meditations on architecture. The book begins with a group of people who want to look at a garden being told that the garden is closed. Finding a break in the wall around it, they climb in anyway. The rest of the book is their walk through the garden. None of them look human-- they have scales, or odd coloration, or protruding cones instead of eyes, or are metallic, or made of umbrellas, in a very flat abstracted style that makes them appear friendly but depersonalized. There are probably several hundred in the group, but they have no difficulty hiding when garden staff are patrolling.

The garden is full of geographic features that start as relatively normal, physically possible things and become stranger and stranger. Nothing is what it initially looks like. The properties of the objects and landscape formations are described and probed by the group of people in mildly curious, emotionally flat language ('There are curtains of falling water.' 'They are thin curtains' is a typical dialogue exchange). Each section of the garden, for a while, seems to be a riff on a kind of object: here is a mountain made of glass, here is a two-tone mountain, here a three-tone, here one made of rubber, here one made of hair, one made of trees, one made of houses, one made of beach balls, this one is bolted down...

The types of object the garden contains refract endlessly. Just as we will have a mountain made of houses, so we will have a house made of mountains. Several portions of the garden seem to me to be possible nods to Borges; there is a segment that is an infinite library, where the books contain portraits of all the other things in the garden, including the people reading them, and also a segment where airplanes drop photographs which when pieced together would become a map of the garden the size of the garden itself (a sea of photographs, which become briefly the medium through which everyone walks, photos of mountains piled into mountains made of photos, pictures of one person's face plastered onto another person's face by the wind).

Eventually the images of the people become part of the complexifying forms. There is an area where automated cameras take their pictures and project them onto nearby surfaces such as mountains and waterfalls. The water bubbles and shapes itself into different contortions, keeping the projections, distorting and changing them. There is an area where 3-D holographic projections of the entire rest of the garden can be summoned, projections which contain the area with the water bubbling under the projected faces, so that you get watching faces seen through projections of water-distorted projected faces--

this is about the point at which you realize that what you are looking at is functionally an abstract, that the only reason you can make anything representational out of these incredibly convoluted yet stark black-and-white lines is the careful and deliberate narrative buildup, and even then the pages flicker in and out of meaning in a way I cannot really describe, an optical illusion of meaning, now you see it and now you don't, but the whole thing has been an optical illusion of meaning from page one because these have always been black lines on white paper--

if you're looking for narrative, that is the story you are going to get. I think it's worth it. It ends when it cannot go one iota farther (well, it fractures, actually, and ends in several different nearly-impossible directions), and it never ceases to be beautiful.

It's also so far removed from anything else I have ever seen attempted in comics that I have to applaud it just for that. It's like comics as approached from an alternate universe. It is a peculiar combination of boring, breathlessly entertaining, exhausting, incomprehensible, and joyous. It feels like a place, as the title tells us, rather than like a book, and like a place made of the edges of human visual perception. It will make you ponder limits that you did not know you had. It is amazement.
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Today's review. One hundred days left!

B. recently spent a few weeks in Dubai and brought back this photo book. It is really very interesting. It shows Spots Of Note For Tourists in Dubai, in that classic tourist-photograph style in which there aren't any people present except the ones who are wearing Picturesque Local Clothing. There is even an attempt to try to make a camel look photogenic. All of the photos are bright, glossy, and captioned in a way that says what is in the photo without actually describing it-- a caption will say that this is Bab Al Shams, and not say whether that is a building, a district, a restaurant, a place of worship, or a street name. There is no other context given. No map. No discussion of neighborhoods. No discussion of how the places in the picture physically relate to one another. No pictures that include both the city and any of the countryside around and outside it; nothing that gives placement in the landscape.

And the cumulative effect is of a total distancing of the city depicted from reality. It looks like a crazy CGI fantasy, focussed on the impersonalities of glass, chrome, the lights of a freeway at night, the neon rims of skyscrapers. It is a portrait of a city with the human removed from it, even though one knows that the photographer has only gone into the mall before it opened, only shooed the people out of the angle of the lens in the mosque. Landmarks one might have seen before, such as the Burj al Arab (the famous hotel shaped like a boat) and the Burj Kalifa, the tallest building in the world, are even more odd as spots of familiarity in a sea of riotous architecture.

I ventured to B. that the city must look different with people in it, and he said drily that the book does not depict the eighty percent of the population who are Pakistani migrant workers. Or, indeed, any office workers, cab drivers, secretaries, etc., etc., etc. of any ethnicity. Or indeed anyone who does not work in a Heritage Village.

As an advertisement for Dubai, this book is a vaunting of a specific kind of modernity: strength through architecture. As a reading experience, more than half the book would make an absolutely lovely cover for a new edition of Neuromancer.

You can probably get photobooks of this general sort for most of the major cities in the world at this point, I should think. I wonder if they are all this surrealist?
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The disadvantage to writing a book review every day is that it means that I do not get much processing time. If I schedule things carefully, and read my book early, I can get a few hours to think about it, but often life intervenes (it's amazing how people want one to do things during daylight). I cannot always predict in advance what is going to need a particular sort of time and thought and care, when a book will require some turning over in my brain before I can even start to get my thoughts in order and make sentences. Some books one can review by starting to type, and some not.

It is five-thirty in the morning. I have been reading Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes since half-past midnight. I would love to go away and think about this book for a week. Then I might begin to be able to tell you how good this is, and why.

On the other hand, I suppose the resultant review might lose something in immediacy. I do not think that is sufficient, but I guess it is something.

So: my apologies. I cannot live up to this book. It is too good for me to know how to write about right now. I will try. It will not be right. I'm sorry.

Edmund de Waal is a potter by profession, and, I have heard, a good one, with work in museums. He has inherited, from his great-uncle by way of his great-uncle's husband, a collection of two hundred and sixty-four Japanese netsuke pieces that has been in his family since the 1870s. This book is a history, a story of the collection in his family, or his family around the collection, and the world around that.

I can tell you in his own words what he is trying not to do, and what sort of book he is trying to make:

... I really don't want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss...

It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Époque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.

And I'm not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago. And I am not interested in thin. I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers-- hard and tricky and Japanese-- and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and what they thought about it-- if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.

Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return.


And that is exactly what he does, he builds that exactitude and he succeeds in every way. Because in order to make those rooms come alive, and to make the people come alive who lived in them, so that he can guess at the relationship those people had to these objects, he goes and does the kind of exacting, thorough, loving research that most historians wish they could live up to, and then he gives you his insanely wealthy, intelligent, Jewish, multi-lingual generations-back family and they walk off the page. This is the only work of its kind I can think of that is equally good on every time period and place it covers, which is two continents and more than a century.

And because of who his family were, and where they were, and the amount of money they had, this is also a very particular kind of history, one of the world of people one has heard of, the world of high society and the artists and thinkers around the edges of that. They knew the wealthy and the great: they were the wealthy and the great, and interested in the arts, and they knew everybody.

They were also, as I mentioned, Jewish. This is a book that engages fully with the anti-Semitism that was going on, in all its time periods, as it must.

It also, and this is rare and wondrous, engages with the orientalism, the various crazes for Japanese art, the ways that the sculptures and the sculptors and the country of Japan have been represented and misrepresented over the years. Because that needs to be thought about, too, when you're holding one of these objects.

It is a joyous book, a joy to read, and it made me cry for two separate reasons within the same paragraph, because it also has in it all the pain that was, of course, there. This is a book that can make you rage against history as you already know it to have happened, against what you already know is inevitable.

I need to stop writing about this. I am not doing well enough at it. This is one of those reviews that makes me so frustrated with myself, because this is not right, I am not saying this well enough, I am not making it sound like the incomparable, the specific and exact and weighted book it is, the real place it takes up in my brain, the way it widens out the world. This review should be giving you this precise book, because the author of it demanded no less of himself. I am not doing that, and I do not know how to do that. I should be silent where I cannot say the right thing. Read the book. It is a masterpiece. It is the best thing I have read this year.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A book on Botticelli produced in conjunction with an exhibition, but still of general interest and relevance.

Botticelli is probably currently the most famous painter from Renaissance Florence-- I mean the most famous who did not also do other things, such as sculpting or goldsmithing-- but it's amazing how little is generally known about him. He lived between 1445 and 1510, and painted several things which are ridiculously famous such as the Birth of Venus, the Primavera, etc., and several things which aren't (I had not known he illustrated an edition of Dante).

The essays included provide a very good biographical overview of Botticelli: what we do know (that he apprenticed with Fra Lippo Lippi, that his father was a tanner), what we don't know (why he is called Botticelli, a nickname which means 'little pot' and which was apparently originally his brother's nickname and spread or something else confusing like that), and what has been debunked (Vasari's biography, which as most contemporary was taken as gospel for generations, is apparently factually inaccurate about the last years of Botticelli's life).

It also gives a good overview of Florentine politics of the time, the reign of Lorenzo de Medici and his attempts to make Florence into the next Athens or Rome fading into the brief reign of the monk Savonarola, who held the famous Bonfire of the Vanities and wished to make Florence the New Jerusalem. Many famous artists and scholars, including Botticelli, followed Savonarola, which has confused later academics; this book argues convincingly that there is not that much difference, in some ways, between one scheme to reform humanity along utopian ideals and another. It also argues convincingly that many of Botticelli's later-period works, due to the changes in his style because of his association with Savonarola, have been inaccurately seen as lesser, and that it's quite possible many of them have not even been properly attributed to him yet.

The plates give a good overview of early Botticelli, with his master Lippi's influence clearly visible; mid-period, the ones everyone has memorized; the few that are known to be late-period, which certainly do look different and are clearly full of even more obscure academic and theological symbolism than the previous (if you think the Primavera is confusing, try the Mystical Crucifixion, yeesh); and the drawings from Dante, which fascinate me by conforming almost perfectly to the not-yet-evolved narrative conventions of the comic strip.

In short, ignore that this is exhibit-related, and find it if you can, if you need a good resource about this painter, his milieu, and how they related to each other, because there is a lot of very useful data packed into a very brief space here, including even rankings of the relative usefulness and accuracy of other books on the subject. This is one of the periods in history I know something about, both from natural inclination and from research for setting fiction in it, and there were things here I had not heard, which was not something I really expected.
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Apparently it is World Book Day. There's been a meme going round in honor of that; here it is.

The book I am currently reading: today's will be below.
The books I am currently writing: this currently untitled collection of book reviews; the book on shoujo and josei anime and manga with Thrud and the household, tentatively titled Shoujo Revolution; Altarwise by Owl-Light, the three-quarters-done novel which is kind of what you get if you put some Dylan Thomas poems and Machiavelli's play Mandragora in a blender with bits of Final Fantasy VII, except not.
The book I love most: there is no most. There are too many. And anyway it would only change.
The last book I received as a gift: the pocket edition of Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia.
The last book I gave as a gift: Joanna Russ's To Write Like A Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction.
The nearest book on my desk: I have no desk. The hearthrow-shelf books are tied as to what's closest to me-- I think the principal contenders are The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, John Banville's The Infinities, C.J. Cherryh's Rimrunners, and John Bellairs' The Curse of the Blue Figurine.

Nightwatching is one of Peter Greenaway's films; this is the published script. Unusually for a film script, it has no images except that of the painting it's centered around, a painting probably Rembrandt's most famous and certainly one of his most confusing.

Greenaway in recent years has developed something of an obsession with artists, history, and conspiracy. One of the books I read very early for this project was his Rosa, which is one of ten opera libretti he wrote in the nineties about the deaths of composers. The composers were fictional, but he seems to have moved on to real paintings and painters, as for the last few years he's been doing a video installation series called Nine Classical Paintings Revisited, of which this is the first.

The best way I can describe this is that it's a film that attempts to make a context by which one can read the painting as a murder mystery. It's a depiction of the time in Rembrandt's life surrounding the act of painting the picture, a turbulent and grief-ridden time including the death of his wife, and it builds a portrait of the members of the Amsterdam militia as a set of profiteers and swindlers who set up a killing for money and then can't make Rembrandt stop painting about it (because, by that point, what does he care). Greenaway says in the preface that he's stuck to verifiable facts wherever possible but that the shaping of them is his own, that this is meant to be a conspiracy theory as with those about the Kennedy assassination and at the same time a plausible overturning of an artwork, as with the anti-monarchical theories around Velasquez's Las Meninas.

Being a film script intended as an actual shooting guide, it doesn't have much in the way of character interpretation: one sees these people from the outside. But it's got a lot of set-dressing and a lot of color, physical description, and this serves well, especially because all the paintings that are meant to be referenced in the film shots are tagged for you, which would not happen watching the actual cinema. I want to see it. I don't believe a word of it, but it's a good movie to read, and it catches something about seventeenth-century Holland, a time which could contrast an incredible roistering bawdiness with the gentle delicacy of Vermeer's light.

And it's a clever story, a well-balanced story, with a man at the heart of it who's sympathetic despite himself because of a believably clutching grief. I'd like to see this film. Unlike Rosa, which was intended to be in the medium it presents itself in, this is the translation of one art into another art (into a third, if you take the painting as the original), and therefore, while moving, probably better seen than read. See it, I'd say, and then use the script to footnote. I suspect I've got it the wrong way around, though I don't think it should hurt the movie, when I get there.
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Michèle Sacquin is the curator at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. She also likes cats.

This is a set of drawings, engravings, and illustrations depicting cats, from the library's collections. There's also text, which talks about the role of the cat in culture and literature and its importance to painters and writers and its association with children sometimes and women sometimes and sex sometimes, but honestly we have all seen that sort of thing before repeatedly; what makes this book, the reason I sat down with it after flipping through it, is the images.

Victor Hugo's doodles of cats down the side of the manuscript of Les Misérables. A portrait of Huysmans, staring at you round-eyed, black cat around his neck like a scarf as it bats at the white marble statue of the Virgin on the mantel. An ukiyo-e print of a sleeping courtesan whose kimono has been disarranged by a stretching cat, which had evidently been curled up in an area that suggests the Japanese have some of the same puns English does (and indeed the text confirms that). An inexpressibly lovely Berthe Morisot drypoint sketch of her daughter, Julie Manet, with kitten, which Renoir would later paint but not as well. A page from the manuscript sketches for a twelfth-century physiology book, tangles of the human body in several positions, studies of various insects and plants in neat clear outline, and at the bottom one carefully limned cat in one of those improbable washing-oneself knotworks. A Mughal lady trailing the end of her scarf for a cat that looks more like a lion to pounce on.

There's just about every sort of art on paper here but paintings. Sacquin doesn't think people paint cats very well.

She does reasonably with the historical notes, too. I was fascinated by the brief account of the siege of Arras (the one of which Cyrano de Bergerac was a veteran)-- the Spanish put on the city gate 'When the Spanish surrender the town of Arras, rats will defeat and capture cats', and after the French took the city, they changed it slightly, so that it read 'When the Spanish defend the town of Arras...'. And sure enough there is a finely wrought copperplate engraving, made by a Frenchman, showing the dashingly dressed and well-combed rats relieving a rather effete-looking army of Spaniard cats of their swords. It is definitely the first time I have seen patriotic propaganda in which a country depicted themselves as an army of rats. I really can't imagine that that's happened very often.

The book is not terribly well-organized (honestly it is not perceptibly organized at all), I would have liked even more detail about the provenance of some of the drawings than was provided, and the attempts at analysis of the cat in literature do not go beyond the 'people like to write about cats sometimes for some reason' level. But if you want a really adorable and unusual art book full of pictures one can't find on the internet (I've been trying to find some to link to, and no), this will give you a fascinating half-hour.
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Back in high school, I made a stained glass mosaic for a Junior Classical League competition. It is a three foot by three foot copy of an angel design I liked from the ceiling of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, and it took my entire junior year to duplicate in quarter-inch-square hand-cut glass tile. The reaction of everyone in my life at that time, including the high school art teacher, was total bemusement, so I taught myself to cut glass, figured out how to lay out the mosaic on a plexiglass sheet over the cartoon, experimented till I found the right sort of glue, and went through the agony of teaching myself to grout (and it was agony, because it could have blown a year's work if I'd messed it up). It came in fifth in the state, which I was and am very proud of, especially as the winner had duplicated a piece from Pompeii that used one-eighth-inch marble triangles to produce photorealistic flowers. I don't even know how a person manages to get marble-cutting equipment as a high school student.

Nowadays when I look at my angel I can mostly see the things wrong with it, but it came out very well considering I had no idea what I was doing.

This book would have been quite helpful in figuring out what I was doing, as it turns out I did most of it incorrectly. The book has two goals: it is an instruction manual, with suggested projects, on mosaic; and it is a brief history of art emphasizing mosaic and discussing possible directions to take mosaic based on the art movements of the twentieth century. As an instruction manual, it's not that bad, though it does suffer a bit from the issue that some experts have in explaining things, where they don't know how much they have to simplify something and so wind up not actually starting at first principles. Also, there are some diagrams which show tools that the book doesn't discuss, and some tools the book does discuss don't turn up in the diagrams. But mostly this is pretty solid, and makes me feel as though I have a real grasp of how one ought to grout (not how I did it). It also gave me an idea of an entire method of mosaic creation I hadn't even known existed, namely the reverse method, where you glue the tiles fronts-down to a piece of paper and then put their backing on top of them; this gives you a lot more leeway to correct your mistakes.

As an art history, it's sadly and necessarily condensed, but really interesting. Mosaic was very popular from antiquity through the Renaissance, fell out of fashion sometime during the Enlightenment, and came back sporadically via the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Deco, and other arts movements that have valued handwork and things which cannot be easily mass-produced. Gaudi turns out to have been the first person to do architectural three-dimensional mosaic decoration, which I had not known. There's some fascinating theoretical work here on the ways that abstraction and color theory of various sorts can play into mosaic design and the ways in which mosaic is and is not painting and can and cannot do the same things; I would love to see more fine-art mosaic along these principles. There is, for example, no reason not to apply the ideas of the Futurists to mosaic-- it's just that they mostly didn't. The book also name-checks several famous and important mosaic artists, most of which I had never heard of. I was particularly struck by the work of Niki de Saint Phalle-- I'm not sure I like it, but it is very much a totally different thing to be doing with mosaic. And the book points out that the most innovative thing ongoing in mosaic is not physical at all, and can't be: the photomosaics producible only by software, which have finally unified technology with one of the few arts that obstinately resists mass-production. I don't know what, if anything, that means, but it's interesting.

I would have preferred this to be split into two different books, honestly, the manual and the history, with more time and space and detail given to each. But this book is not a bad start at all. Makes me want to do more glasswork, as I have been threatening to do for years now.
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Leon Battista Alberti's little treatise On Painting (De Pictura), 1435, is one of the books that made modernity, and almost too short to be as significant as it is. It was to Alberti's knowledge the first book on painting; Alberti was a friend of Brunelleschi, who did the dome of the Cathedral of Florence, and the two of them together have a fair claim on having invented perspective. It is a book which resolutely avoids the philosophical questions about what is the basis of seeing, the scientific questions about the shape of the eye, in order to concentrate on the visual representation of forms: a book published in Italy in 1435 which never once mentions God. It came out in a dual edition, both in Latin and in Tuscan, and Alberti stated specifically that the reason for the vernacular edition was accessibility, for he wanted every painting student to be able to read it without a churchman's education. And read it they did. Michelangelo, da Vinci would not look remotely similar without Alberti, neither in their paintings nor, necessarily, in their lives, for Alberti implicitly defines the role of the painter in society in a way that began the long process of separation of humanist art from religious art. I've heard about On Painting for years, it's one of those books people assume you've read if you read Renaissance studies at all and also still a book people recommend to artists.

What has it got for a reader now? )

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