Recommended Books, Art Films & Reviews

For those of you embarking on an education in art, Sandy offers many wonderful ideas for you to start or continue your studies on art and art history. Below are recommended books, DVDs, and her own reviews published at Amazon.com:

Books

Art Films

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

Impressionism (and Post-Impressionism) is, without a doubt, the most popular movement in art… for a very good reason. Even those who know very little about art can often spot a Renoir [‘Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Painter’] a van Gogh or a Monet. Today Vincent van Gogh draws crowds the way the Beatles did in the ’60s. [‘Van Gogh’s Van Goghs’] One Gauguin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC I attended was packed for weeks, maybe months. [‘The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections’] Visiting a Monet exhibit a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, I had to stand in line for hours! One of the finest shows I’ve seen on the Impressionists was ‘Impressionist Still Life’ at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston… incredibly moving! [See: ‘Pissarro’‘The Impressionists – The Other French Revolution’‘Manet’]

In the former studio of the photographer Nadar at 35 boulevard des Capucines, Paris, April 15, 1874, a group of artists, rejected by the juries of the Salon, offered their work for public view. Although some critics appreciated the “new painting,” most subjected the artists to ridicule. The work of the “Impressionists” eventually led to what is now recognized as Modern Art… and the great movements of the Fauves, Matisse, Picasso, Basquiat… and so on. The father of modern art, Paul Cezanne, inspired most of the greatest artists of the 20th century. [‘Cezanne Biography’] And we never seem to be able to get enough of their gorgeous colours, their intensity and luminosity, and want to be moved by them over and over.

The twilight of the fin-de-sicle era [‘Explosive Acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Felix Feneon, and the Art & Anarchy of the Fin de Siecle’] – Paris at the turn of the century – was a magical time for painters such as Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘Suzanne Valadon: The Mistress of Montmartre’, Degas and the others who were pioneers of an exciting new style… as wonderfully depicted in the original movie, ‘Moulin Rouge,’ and the recent ‘Moulin Rouge.’ Monet was the great master of Impressionism… and Mary Cassatt was bold, smart, driven… a woman ahead of her time who paved the way for so many artists. [See: ‘Mary Cassatt: A Life : A Life’‘Mary Cassatt: A Brush With Independence’] … ‘Berthe Morisot’ managed to have it all – home, family and a career! Paul Gauguin became the mystic savage painter of Tahitian visions… he was a colourist extraordinaire. [‘Paul Gauguin: A complete life’] …and his wonderful diary remains a testament to his motives – [‘Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin’]. The greatest biography on Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin De Siecle.

Vincent van Gogh, supported by his devoted brother, Theo, was the mystic and visionary painter of golden azure… [‘Van Gogh: His Life And His Art’] You’ll thoroughly enjoy ‘Lust for Life’ – one of the most wonderful films about van Gogh… and ‘Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams’. And the definitive biography ‘Vincent and Theo Van Gogh: A Dual Biography’ by Jan Hulsker is a true masterpiece in itself!

The fascinating story of the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists is a never-ending journey, which never ceases to inspire new artists to reach for new heights. And, to think… it all really began with Manet’s “Olympia” – [‘Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat’]. One of the most amazing exhibits was in 2006 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC – Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde – truly a great education about dealer extraordinaire, Ambroise Vollard, and how he was always in the right place at the right time.  He was instrumental in the careers of all the major players of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, on into the era of the Fauves and modern art.

Modern Art

Modern Art brought forth new, creative self-expression.  The Fauves (wild beasts) were named for their use of colour.  The original Fauve was Henri Matisse.  There is a marvelous biography called ‘The Unknown Matisse’ by Hilary Spurling, a brilliant scholar, which tells of the beginnings of Fauvism.  Also, look for the second volume: ‘Matisse the Master : A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour: 1909-1954′. And here’s an excellent site about Matisse/Picasso.

‘The Mystery of Picasso’, a ’50s documentary, is almost literally a day in the life of Picasso – the camera watching him paint, draw and create through a transparent screen that makes the viewer feel as if he or she is participating in the actual creation of his works. John Richardson’s series of biographies on Picasso are the best: ‘Life of Picasso – Vol. I’, ‘Life of Picasso – Vol. II’, ‘Life of Picasso – Vol. III,’ and the documentary: ‘Magic, Sex, Death.’  A wonderful feature film (though the Picasso estate refused to allow any of Picasso’s paintings to appear in the movie) is ‘Surviving Picasso’ starring Anthony Hopkins, loosely based on Francois Gilot’s ‘Life With Picasso.’  You’ll enjoy reading Gertrude Stein’s writings about Picasso, and her enigmatic, ‘Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,’ which opens up the world of art in early 20th century Paris.

Frida Kahlo‘s life with Diego Rivera was depicted beautifully by Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina in the film, ‘Frida’.  A documentary: ‘Frida Kahlo’… and every artist should read The Diary of Frida Kahlo.

‘Jean-Michel Basquiat’, Sandy Frazier’s contemporary, was a graffiti artist, a/k/a SAMO, who died all too young in the ’80s.  The movie, ‘Basquiat’, by Julian Schnabel, tells the story of the turbulent period from the late 1970s to 1988, as his life was catapulted into fame and notoriety.

…And the infamous Andy Warhol Diaries, which is a real page-turner, even at over 800 pages…  You’ll get to know Warhol personally and intimately in this document of his life from 1977 to his death where every day he dictated his expenses and activities from the day before to Pat Hackett.  Warhol was the consummate artist – constantly observing life around him, all the people, moods, movies, fashion, events… creating works of art out of every minute of his life… and loving every minute of it… so much more than 15 minutes.  And read Bob’s definitive biography about Andy Warhol, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up.

Chester Dale (1883-1962) is best known for the magnificent paintings he bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art, which he acquired with the expert guidance of his first wife, Maud (1876-1953). They assembled one of the finest collections in America of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century paintings: The Chester Dale Collection.

Book Reviews

Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke

Tragic Triumphant Truman

After seeing the two movies about Truman Capote’s writing of “In Cold Blood” (Capote and Infamous), I wanted to first read the letters he’d written during this period which helped me to understand what really went on sans the Hollywood-izing of the story.  But the letters were even better – juicier and more colourful than any Hollywood version; and I was compelled to read most of the rest of them from other periods in his life.

Then I read some of his short stories (starting with the haunting “Miriam”) and his first novel.  But nothing could have prepared me for the story Gerald Clarke told of his friend, Truman.  It’s an American success story and yet one of the worst tragedies I’ve ever read.  What a colourful man!  I was amazed at every word, every thought he recorded.  I wished I could conjure his spirit to teach me to be a better writer.  To my delight, the letters led me to his instruction of a young writer and I began to do as Truman said as though he were teaching me from the great beyond:

“One cannot be taught to write.  One can only learn to write by writing – and reading.  Reading good books written by real artists – until you understand why they are good.”

“One only really learns from what one enjoys.

“Good writing isn’t (necessarily) fancy writing.”

He always said to write what you know and called his character depictions ‘portraits.’  “A writer ought to have all his colors, all his abilities available on the same palette for mingling…”

Reading Clarke’s biography together with Truman’s letters gave me a renewed passion for literature and transported me back to my teens when I began to write poetry and prose and was forced to read Faulkner and Malamud.  It all came back to me; those lessons had lain dormant in me all these years and Capote brought them forth.

Truman always turned the drab fantastic:

“In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city.”

And I realized he was one of the ultimate mystic artists:

They said of Truman: “A mediumistic voice speaks through him in the most impeccable of accents.”

“In times of terror or immense distress, there are moments when the mind waits, as though for a revelation, while a skein of calm is woven over thought; it is like a sleep, or a supernatural trance; and during this lull one is aware of a force of quiet reasoning…”

Every writer needs to read Capote, who always unabashedly revealed every aspect of himself to the world – his struggles, his pain, his triumphs and tragedies.  It was obvious how difficult writing was for him; it took all the energy he could muster to stay focused on a project.

“It is as though one were a secretary transcribing the words of a voice from a cloud.  The difficulty is maintaining contact with this spectral dictator.”

All this from a self-taught, self-made southern boy who came from worse than a broken home.  He got his first job at 17 at the New Yorker where he made his mark and wrote for periodicals and women’s magazines at a time when they published fiction; and he attended the writers’ colony – Yaddo in Syracuse, NY – and learned from the older men in his life who became his lovers.

Truman was a world traveler, moving in two distinct circles of people: the rich and famous with whom he hobnobbed and sailed the seas; and a small group of a few of his close friends, who were more honest with him and allowed him to just be himself.  He made friends of enemies and enemies of friends – through his writing and his paradoxical ways; and his tortured love life and terrible struggles with addictions are detailed quite vividly here.

The biography was obviously a very difficult undertaking for Gerald Clarke and, like Truman’s writing of “In Cold Blood,” stretched on for many years more than he’d planned.  The story of Truman’s life up to “In Cold Blood” was exciting, amazing and a marvelous success story.  The chapters of his life after completing his masterpiece and up to his death were the rest of the story of a slow, agonizing downward spiral on the road to a terrible end.  But Truman led an astonishing life full of interesting events, travels, and people of extraordinary renown and it’s best to try to remember the man’s art – though most believe he squandered away a good part of his life and talent – for there would have been a huge void in the world without him.

Listen to an interview with Gerald Clarke about Truman Capote HERE.

Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour: 1909-1954 and The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908 by Hilary Spurling

Art is the Air That I Breathe

“Artists are like plants whose growth in the thickets of the jungle depends on the air they breathe, and the mud or stones among which they grow by chance and without choice.”  Matisse’s words coupled with his life as proof of what van Gogh said about the love of art making one lose real love make the reader feel the pain, the joy and the rich colours of his life all that much more.  He made us understand.

Hilary Spurling’s masterpiece (savoured by me for endless months, days and hours) has been an extraordinary experience I never wanted to end – both volumes.  And now her biography is all locked in my mind – hopefully, to be recalled again and again in painting after painting and life experience after love experience – thanks to all the years of her hard work and research.

I am now filled with the colours of the Master – just as he’d installed ‘The Tree of Life’ in “a change of key that brought an extraordinary clarity, serenity and stillness to the music of the chapel.”  If the student of art, the student of life might only read pp. 455-456, he/she would be amazed at one whose talents were mocked (“any child could paint better than Matisse.” … “…his inventions seemed not simply monstrous but blasphemous as well.”) and would ache to have had the chance to be a simple fly on the wall in those last years of his life when the many energies swirled about his taxi beds and many wond’rous studios ever-changing, metamorphosing, revealing and displaying, nurturing, teaching… revolutionary!

Let us not forget his bedrocks – the women who made all his successes possible are miraculous and astonishing: Lydia, Matisse’s remarkable genius manager (we should all be so lucky to know such a dynamo); Amelie, his extraordinary wife and her ‘nine lives’; of course, Marguerite, his daughter, whose amazing vitality and strength of character resounds on almost every page of his life story; she was one (by her great courage) who humbled him more than anyone else could; and the countless models and interns.

As a side note…  I remember in January 2006 when Hilary Spurling “scooped one of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards,” Whitbread Book of the Year prize, just as the big scandal exploded about Oprah’s book club “author” protégé/scam artist James Frey was exposed.  I thought to myself, “There is still a god!”  What kind of mindless person would turn to Oprah for advice on what to read in the first place?!  What does she know about literature?

I am humbled at Hilary Spurling’s great accomplishment and would love to meet her one day so I could sing her the song I wrote about Matisse and the story of his blue butterfly: “The blue of that butterfly and Cezanne made you more of a spiritual man.”

Vincent and Theo Van Gogh: A Dual Biography by Jan Hulsker, Johann Van Gogh

Walking With Vincent & Theo

I must say, I found this book totally by accident at the Strand in NYC and it was so big, I had to have it shipped home. I am so grateful to the gods who led me to this masterpiece of a book. I had read other biographies on Vincent van Gogh, but Jan Hulsker is where every person interested in Vincent’s art, life and his brother should begin. I felt like I was walking with Vincent and Theo through every day of their lives, understanding all the joys and pain, the disappointments and elation. Dr. Hulsker is THE authority on all things van Gogh and for every question you’ve ever had or happening you’ve wondered about, he has the answer… here in this thorough and easy-to-read book. He corrects us on every myth and misconception and breaks us of old habits we’ve all probably developed when thinking of van Gogh. Most important of all: Dr. Hulsker understood that Vincent and Theo were one person – without Theo there was no Vincent and without Vincent there was no Theo. I’d recommend following this book with the letters of Theo and Jo van Gogh-Bonger.

Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo Van Gogh and Jo Bonger by Theo Van Gogh, et al

Not Just for the Student of Art…

What a wonderful book! Not just for the student of art… reading this correspondence could inspire us all. It is fresh, vivid and frank. And it is a reminder that before e-mail, we once wrote letters… before telephones, we once poured our hearts out on paper… before television, we exercised our brains and spent time building relationships.

It’s ironic how often Jo and Theo mention how inadequate they are at expressing themselves on paper, when actually the opposite is true. In these letters that we are so privileged to be able to read, they are so considerate and thoughtful of each other’s feelings and actually get inside each other’s minds by reading and expressing thoughts on paper. In this way, their time apart is spent getting to know each other, almost as much as if they were in the same room. [more…]

Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin by Paul Gauguin, et al

Understanding Gauguin

This is a lovely book… and, brief though it is, helped me to understand more about Gauguin’s reasons behind his actions. I read it at a perfect time – when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY was holding one of their most important exhibits on Gauguin and featured his woodcuts. It’s a colourful, passionate and painful journey.

 Lost Earth: A Life of Cezanne by Philip Callow

Good Writing, Difficult Reading

The writing was magnificent in its prose, but very difficult reading. I found it hard to get absorbed in the actual life of Cezanne – and maybe it’s because his was a relatively uneventful life, so it had to be elaborated upon – and sometimes felt as though I was actually reading a biography of Zola. The style of inserting massive passages of quotes just threw me off a bit because just when it felt like I was flowing with it, there came another big, long passage from the sources. I can understand that there was a lot going on all AROUND Cezanne during his life, but I would have preferred to get more into his mind instead of trying to explain things through others’ experiences at that time.

 Berthe Morisot by Anne Higonnet

Get to Know this Complex Woman

Berthe was obviously an anomaly in her day and age… and, being self-deprecating and reticent, might’ve actually wished to be forgotten. She WAS literally forgotten for many years after her death. I am grateful to Ms. Higonnet for writing the book, but I felt throughout the reading that, although it was obvious Ms. H. admired Berthe, she didn’t truly understand her. It bothered me that most of the book was about OTHER people, although her life DID seem to be about OTHER people. Berthe was generous and hidden, yet daring and “out there.” It was probably very difficult to find the true Berthe. She was obviously very much beloved by the other Impressionists and her contributions as the catalyst of the group were immeasurable. But I wanted to know more. I didn’t like it that each time she had an accomplishment, it seemed to be overshadowed, in the biography, by moving on to the accomplishments of one of the other more luminous figures in her world. Berthe was beautiful, dedicated, a wonderful mother and wife… after years of pressure by society and her own parents whose biggest fear was that she was to stay a “spinster” (who the HECK invented that word???)… I really felt for Berthe. But was she bulimic? Was she anorexic? What WAS the true nature of her mental challenges? I’d like to have seen some more of that area explored – as it has been so deeply investigated in the case of Vincent van Gogh. Whatever her maladies, we’ve got to admire the fact that she, unlike Mary Cassatt, DID have it all – career, family, home life, social recognition… and balanced it all so beautifully. But I wished Ms. Higonnet had given us just a bit more to grasp onto.

 Van Gogh: His Life And His Art by David Sweetman

A Rare Glimpse into Vincent’s Mind

I read this book several years ago and it taught me so much about art, life, love and passion that Sweetman’s biography resonates in me still. Vincent is the most famous artist on the planet today and so much has been written about him. But David Sweetman really took the time to update so much information – just as he did in Gauguin’s biography – that you learn so much more by reading this book. I recommend it to everyone who wants to understand about mental illness and all the stigma that goes with it. Vincent was very brave to rise above his pain and blessed the world with so much beauty and colour. This text refers to the hardcover book.

Mary Cassatt: A Life by Nancy Mowll Mathews

Getting to Know Mary in All Her Intricacies

Nancy Mathews gets to the point… her book is wonderfully researched and weaves through the intricately woven fabric of Cassatt’s life; yet she doesn’t bog you down with too many details. I enjoyed every page of this book and felt like I got an honest portrayal of the woman, her art and the reasons behind the decisions she made. I especially thank Nancy for her sympathetic yet analytical overview of the many misunderstandings that have been perpetuated year after year about Cassatt and other women artists in the late 19th/early 20th century. I’m glad to know the truth.

This biography left me in awe of Mary Cassatt who was obviously a focused, smart and privileged person at a time when many male artists were barely making ends meet. She was unafraid of the establishment, outspoken and determined, not to mention a smart businesswoman. The only thing I disagree with is when the author states that at 51 Mary Cassatt “was faced with an unusually hard burden of loneliness.” Mary Cassatt was blessed with many friends, family and admirers and moved in a great many social circles all her life. She rarely veered from her chosen path. But the greatest lesson we can learn from Ms. Cassatt is to stay focused on our life purpose and to honour our own lives with the best we can give of ourselves.

 Le tresor des humbles (The Treasure of the Humble) by Maurice Maeterlinck

Maeterlinck to the World

Treasure of the Humble was one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read. Maeterlinck had a way of writing that was so unique; he was able to communicate his thoughts in a universal language, which transcended oceans of time. Experience him and you won’t soon forget… his haunting words will remain forever imprinted upon your soul. A Treasure to All Who Are Lucky Enough to Encounter…

Paul Gauguin: A Life by David Sweetman

Brilliant biographer David Sweetman has created a masterpiece with his biography of Gauguin. I don’t know how he did it; but I was in awe throughout the reading of this well-thought-out and researched book. Gauguin was a complicated man; and through his exhaustive research, Sweetman gives us the rare opportunity to journey with one of the most colourful and oft-misunderstood artists in history. There are so many new facts uncovered in this book… I could feel the spirit of Gauguin rise up and rebel..

 John Lennon: One Day at a Time: A Personal Biography of the Seventies by Anthony Fawcett

John Lennon 101

Musicians, writers, artists and fans alike should read this candid biopic into the lives of John & Yoko during the prime of their lives and popularity. They were involved. They were controversial. They were naive. They were important and outspoken… and most of all, vulnerable. Anthony Fawcett was more than sympathetic… he was privileged to find himself involved at a time when the magic of John Lennon transcended who he even thought he was. Forever dispels the silly myth that Yoko, Linda or anything other than John’s decision broke up the Beatles.

Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas

You Want to Know Dylan?

Every artist, musician and writer needs to read this book. It is truly amazing and has influenced me for many years – from the first time I read it back in the early 80′s. It is a teacher, a guide, a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Dylan inspired a great many of the most acclaimed musicians, we know that… but what is not widely known is his influence on painters and other artists. He is a treasure and his letters, thank God, are here for us to learn from. I felt as though I was there with him each day throughout all his struggles and the rare triumphs that followed…

 The Blue Bird and the Betrothal by Maurice Maeterlinck

Maeterlinck Lives!

This book has inspired much of my own art, music and writings and is an endless source of wonder. I first learned about it while reading a book about rare silent films. To my knowledge, the original silent film is so rare, there is only one copy in a vault somewhere… but the beauty of Maeterlinck’s writings stay with you forever… and on into eternity as he had intended. One of the most imaginative writers of this century.

The Andy Warhol Diaries edited by Pat Hackett

I’ve Been “Glued” for Weeks!

“Went home lonely and despondent because nobody loves me and it’s Easter, and I cried.” [4-17-81] When I reached that line in the diaries, I think I truly fell in love with Andy. He was a total observer of life and pierced a depth of feeling in his aloneness. He seemed to be a walking nerve and picked up every nuance of life and all the personalities surrounding him.

His observations about people were uncanny – and he was like a prophet in many ways, even at one point predicting his own death! He knew things about people that they probably didn’t know about themselves.

For instance his glib comment after the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, “They’re saying that the article Caroline Kennedy did on the Elvis funeral for Rolling Stone made fun of the local people, but I can understand that–Caroline’s really intelligent and the people down there really were dumb. Elvis never knew there were more interesting people” [8-30-77] – honing in on exactly what killed Elvis!

Or when he mentioned Michael Jackson’s penchant for young boys – and that was 1984!

His diaries are so revealing and so easy to read and he really makes us understand all the modes of the counterculture that revolved around his life – the music, the artists, the movie stars… and how self-absorbed they all were. And how caught up in drugs and drink some of them became.

Although Andy was obviously anorexic and somewhat alcoholic (he hated to drink yet it seemed he drank almost every day) he was constantly trying to improve himself and he wrestled with his physical self and all his insecurities every day of his life. Yet he was of strong mind and his beliefs were never swayed. And he wasn’t afraid to make his feelings and opinions known. Yet his life was always overshadowed by his fear of death and disease. And he was insecure about his looks, yet managed to start a modeling career in his early ’50s!

He was such a ‘cat’! “There was a party at the Statue of Liberty, but I’d already read publicity of me going to it so I felt it was done already.” [7-5-83] He invented his own language and way of communicating, which was very colourful and made every moment interesting. His diaries are a sensual feast; he lived life to its fullest and was able to describe all the flavors of the food and drink, the odors and scents of people and places, in such a way that the reader feels as though he/she is reliving it all.

What impressed me most about Andy was his great discipline and ability to admit to his own shortcomings. He got up every day and went to work like it was a nine-to-five job, went to church every Sunday, and stayed in tune with all that was going on in the world around him. If Andy were alive today, he’d love the Internet, e-mail and cell phones. For he was a man about the world, truly in love with life and all that it has to offer.

I just wished the diaries included an index.