Artful Volumes

In the sensual Costume Institute catalogue CHINA THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS: FASHION, FILM, ART (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, $45), Met curator Andrew Bolton proposes, with a nervous nod to Edward Said, a “rethinking” of Orientalism as “an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East.” Bolton’s depoliticized take on the exchange between East and West in his introduction sets the tone for a volume that is an exuberant triumph of style over substance, complete with a red, silklike cloth cover stamped with gold foil. Inside, elaborate Western couture, art, and films spanning several centuries conjure a fantastic vision of China. The photographer Platon shot the show’s garments and accessories in a dreamy style, combining multiple images—each with varying points of focus and depth of field—to generate soft contours and smoky shadows in illustrations that look contemporary and also evoke Orientalist artworks and movies. To underscore the exhibition’s blending of cultures, designer Natasha Jen has larded Platon’s plates with collateral images, such as drawings, photos, and film stills, on translucent vellum pages. Through them, the adjacent costume shots, printed on paper with a fore-edge fold (in the traditional Chinese manner), appear as soft, sometimes colorful phantoms.

The genius of Charlie Chaplin was quickly recognized, but the evidence of his achievements prior to World War I was already fading from view as World War II approached. In about 1940, the Chaplin authority H. D. Waley created an extraordinary photo album that recovered the silent-film star’s early on-screen history. Oversize and slipcased, CHARLIE CHAPLIN: THE KEYSTONE ALBUM: THE INVENTION OF THE TRAMP (Éditions Xavier Barral/ARTBOOK DAP, $180) is a near facsimile of Waley’s never-published album, featuring a post binding—rivets securing the spine—and pages with the fore-edge fold that albums of the time also typically had. The original’s seventy-two pages, with handwritten captions, include nearly eight hundred frame enlargements, illustrating twenty-nine of the three dozen short movies Chaplin appeared in for the Keystone Film Company in 1914—the year he devised his signature comic persona, the Tramp. In spreads that unfold like storyboards, the album walks us through each of these comedies, which varied in length from half a reel to two reels (about thirty minutes) to the six-reel, feature-length film Tillie’s Punctured Romance. In them, Chaplin relentlessly seeks love, is thwarted by rivals, and is pursued by (who else?) Keystone cops; but their range and sophistication go beyond such clichés of the era. For example, where silent-film actors in women’s clothes typically emphasize a farcical discrepancy between costume and anatomy, The Masquerader features Chaplin looking quite glamorous in drag—nearly seventy years before Tootsie.

A survey of how time may be both preserved and represented by photographs, THE MEMORY OF TIME: CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHS AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART (National Gallery of Art/Thames & Hudson, $50) is an elegiac collection devoted to acquisitions by the National Gallery since 2011 paid for by the museum’s Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund. Such catalogues are often, practically by definition, forgettable. This one upends that expectation: Curator Sarah Greenough and her colleagues have made a survey of contemporary photographers’ engagement with time and memory in which the images cohere to create an illuminating ensemble. Antique processes and materials evoke the past but also put it to work: Sally Mann produces raw-looking close-up ambrotypes of her face; Myra Greene employs the same process in self-portraits that recall nineteenth-century ethnographic photography used to classify “racial types.” Most provocative are the photographs with historical resonance: Binh Danh rephotographs portraits made by the Khmer Rouge to bring us face-to-face with victims of the Cambodian genocide. We also see how images can mutate over time, as in Susan Meiselas’s 1979 photo of a Sandinista rebel hurling a Molotov cocktail, which reappears on posters, billboards, in print, and even as a statue in the hometown of the aging revolutionary.

GUSTAVE CAILLEBOTTE: THE PAINTER’S EYE (National Gallery of Art/University of Chicago Press, $60), designed by Margaret Bauer in a style appropriate to its haut bourgeois subject, is a well-upholstered fauteuil of a book that readers can settle into. For nearly a century after Caillebotte painted his now-best-known works, he was often thought of as a derivative artist whose support for the Impressionists and outstanding collection of their paintings (bequeathed to the French state) were more significant than his own art. Impressionism seemed to have no place for this quirky realist, who exploited points of view and optical distortions suggested by photography. Caillebotte is fascinating precisely because his style seemed, to his contemporaries, to be no style at all. It was “photographic”—not a term of praise in the 1870s, but a fundamental one for art a century on.

SKIES OF PARCHMENT, SEAS OF INK: JEWISH ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS (Princeton University Press, $60) conveys a possibly contentious distinction in its subtitle: Why “Jewish” and not “Hebrew”? Usually, ancient manuscripts are categorized by their language, but the book’s editor, Marc Michael Epstein, wants to re-“christen” (his term) them here. Of course, the content of Hebrew manuscripts (the accepted term in the British Library and New York Public Library catalogues, for example) is overwhelmingly Jewish, but recasting them as “Jewish manuscripts” has an uncomfortably exclusive implication. Happily, the book is an accessible and richly informative introduction to these works, suggesting that although no actual medieval Jewish library survives, we may yet imagine one.

Bookending the brief photographic career of Florence Henri are two distinct periods of self-portraiture, 1928-29 and 1937-38. Seen in FLORENCE HENRI: MIRROR OF THE AVANT-GARDE, 1927-40 (Jeu de Paume/Aperture, $65), the first comprehensive survey of this enigmatic artist’s photos, the earlier self-portraits show a self-conscious experimenter shooting herself and friends using mirrors and props. The second series reveals a melancholy, ruminative artist who one wishes had continued to develop as a portraitist instead of returning to her first love, painting, during and after the war. In the period between these sets of images, Henri consorted with the cream of the European avant-garde, including the Bauhaus and Cercle et Carré groups, making experimental compositions but also taking a series of outstanding portraits—often tightly cropped close-ups—of notables including Fernand Léger, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, and Jean Arp. But it is to her portraits of herself and other women, which have an erotic charge and an energy lacking in her other work, that one keeps returning.

Graphics of every sort were primary sources for the 1960s Chicago artists the Hairy Who (Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum). THE COLLECTED HAIRY WHO PUBLICATIONS, 1966-1969 (Matthew Marks Gallery/ARTBOOK DAP, $50) presents the four artists’ books they initially created for their legendary Hyde Park Art Center shows, along with documents, drawings, and ephemera, letting us glimpse the wellsprings of their art in its rawest form. As onetime students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, they banded together to create a place for themselves in their indifferent, not to say hostile, artistic environment. In doing so, they carved out a space for other image-obsessed artists, including Ed Paschke and Roger Brown. The “dirty secret” of the Hairy Who, as revealed in the book’s fine essay by Dan Nadel (following the lead of Chicago Imagist champion, critic, and collector Dennis Adrian), is that they are fundamentally formalists: employing visual sources ranging from tattoos and lingerie ads to medieval, outsider, and tribal art, they construct painted-image worlds, rendered with technical finesse, in which the formal possibilities of outré imagery trump original content.

A subdued black padded cover conveys the seriousness and depth of INTERNATIONAL POP (Walker Art Center/ARTBOOK DAP, $85), a copiously illustrated and long-overdue worldwide survey of Pop art from the mid-’50s until the early ’70s, but it doesn’t reflect the sheer fun and outrageousness of the art, much of which will be unfamiliar to readers. Pop has long been understood as a phenomenon of British origin that flourished in America, a view that doesn’t necessarily exclude other parts of the world, but does privilege the US. This book calls that idea into question, allowing us to see Pop as a kind of circulatory system, in sync with the economic development of the postwar era—burgeoning international trade, global merchandising (think Coca-Cola), the Cold War, and ubiquitous advertising—that contributed to Pop’s style. The book opens with a “visual chronology,” orienting the reader and introducing the large cast of characters. Following lead author Darsie Alexander’s useful effort to redefine the movement in international terms, other contributors examine in depth six centers of Pop’s worldwide development—Argentina, Britain, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, and Japan. With all this, however, there remains a curatorial conservatism—a tendency to stick with art that looks like the Pop we are used to seeing. The “personal Pop” of the Chicago gang discussed above is ignored, while an artist like Peter Saul, who gave Pop a ferocious twist, is not illustrated here, and only mentioned in passing.

Christopher Lyon is an art-book publisher and writer based in Brooklyn.