As one of the most interesting art books of the season, The Chinese Art Book (Phaidon, $59.95) provides a window into the art of the “world’s oldest continuous culture.” Representing all materials and disciplines, the book, introduced by Colin MacKenzie, senior curator at the Nelson-Akins Museum of Art, serves as a compendium of Chinese art dating back to Neolithic cultures and on to works produced today. Effective in its clean presentation and digestible essays by Keith Pratt, Jeffrey Moser, and Katie Hill, the book contextualizes China’s artistic, cultural, and political history through three hundred singular creations. By presenting ancient funerary masks next to digital video stills, the book’s unconventional approach and aesthetic is compelling and informative for both aficionados of and newcomers to the subject.
In his wide-ranging, erudite Cézanne: A Life (Pantheon, $40), the essayist and Braque biographer Alex Danchev tells the story of this modernist genius in two intertwining narratives. There’s the chronicle of the artist’s roots in Aix, his long friendships with Zola and Pissarro, halfhearted attempt at law school, and disdain for careerists. Then there’s the life of his work. In effect, Danchev breaks up the picture plane of a chronological account, overlaying the usual biographical trajectory with evidence of the reach and power of Cézanne’s paintings. To Danchev, Cézanne is “a life changer,” and a short list of those who experienced the “Cézanne epiphany” includes Matisse and Picasso, Beckett and Stein, Ginsberg and Heidegger. Yet what exactly is it about the art that’s so stunning? Danchev offers fascinating insight into Cézanne’s uncanny way of gauging weight, his application of highlights first rather than last, his radical approach to line and color. Ultimately, however, the undeniable power of his work is more than a matter of technique. Hemingway may have come closest when he summed it up as “a secret.”
Competition was key to the astonishing creativity of the Italian Renaissance. Nowhere was this truer than in Florence, where, in 1504, officials commissioned paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo for the Republic’s Great Council Hall. These murals are The Lost Battles (Knopf, $35) at the center of this rich account by The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones. Commissioned both to celebrate Florence and to determine who was the greater artist, the dual depictions looked to the past martial glory of Florence for their subject, but in approach and style pointed ahead to the art of the High Renaissance. As Jones defines the different strengths of the two competitors—Leonardo was “an artist who worked with ideas,” while Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor and dealt in risk and daring—he shows how these distinctions heralded new criteria for judging art. The emphasis was no longer on technical expertise, but on individual style and originality. And the winner? Neither artist completed the assignment, and the preliminary drawings were likely destroyed when the Medicis regained power in 1513.