2021 Outstanding Academic Titles 2021: Fine Arts

Enjoy these five selections from the Choice Reviews 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list. This week we highlight titles pertaining to fine arts.

1. Designing a new tradition: Lois Mailou Jones and the aesthetics of Blackness
VanDiver, Rebecca. Pennsylvania State, 2020

This reviewer has long admired Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–98) and is grateful for this substantive and critically engaged new scholarship on her. VanDiver (African American art, Vanderbilt) situates Jones in the “middle ground” of four artistic traditions: European, American, African/Afrodiasporic, and African American. The long-lived Jones possessed a versatile talent that encompassed many genres of painting, and the expansiveness of her career allows VanDiver to make a solid case for Jones as “a central figure through which to explore facets of African American artistic identity in the twentieth century” (p. 6). The book’s four chapters are rich with dynamic movement and flow (“Jones’s many Atlantic crossings are central to her artistic formation,” p. 12), and at the same time insistently center on Jones’s art and voice. View on Amazon

2. Piero della Francesca and the invention of the artist
Israëls, Machtelt. Reaktion Books, 2020

Delightfully detailed but never bogging down the reader, this well-researched, well-produced overview is meant for student and expert alike. As an example of the book’s content, Israëls (Univ. of Amersterdam) describes Sigismondo Malatesta’s portrait in relation to the ruler’s infamy, his wardrobe in burial, the history of purple, how and with exactly which pigments Piero worked, and the history of the panel after its making. Israëls accomplishes this all in a few deft sentences, a real tour de force for the benefit of what might have seemed a routine painting. The account is packed with precise information (including, for example, that the Madonna del Parto frescoe was originally above a side altar, and an analysis of Piero’s writing and building) and the occasional worthwhile hypothesis (e.g., about Flagellation of Christ), and much technical expertise is on display. Supplementing the text with a variety of visual evidence, the author sets the paintings in rich context that furthers understanding of what has come down about Piero’s work over the centuries—including the condition of panels and their original framing and placement—and of how Piero’s contemporaries saw him. View on Amazon

3. The Art of sculpture in fifteenth-century Italy
ed. by Amy R. Bloch and Daniel M. Zolli Cambridge, 2020

This luxuriously produced volume offers a multifaceted, state-of-the-field overview of sculptural production in Italy during a century of intense creativity. Topically, geographically, and methodologically wide ranging, the substantial introduction and 19 essays explore a vast range of issues, typologies, techniques, and media (stone, metal, wood, terracotta, stucco, glass) along with a diversity of contexts and reasons for sculpture. The contributors examine how viewers encountered and interpreted sculpture; the role of patrons, theoretical writing, and artistic agency; the importance of history, religion, humanism, and science, and the authority of classical antiquity; and the shaping of style, narrative, and new modes of making, including modification and even destruction. The volume is intended to complement and deepen a reader’s prior knowledge of 15th-century sculpture. This volume offers much new research and abundant riches, including 250 illustrations, many of them color plates. View on Amazon

4. Watermarks: Leonardo da Vinci and the mastery of nature
Geddes, Leslie A. Princeton, 2020

The power, potential, and beauty of water was a topic that Leonardo da Vinci investigated throughout his career, intending to compile a treatise on the subject. Geddes’s book, based on her PhD dissertation, is among the first scholarly attempts to bring this material together in a narrative that examines da Vinci’s technical and aesthetic fascination with water. The result is compelling. This subject is vast, and chapter topics could easily be the fodder for future books, but fortunately Geddes’s focus on da Vinci’s drawings is clearly organized and effectively presented in both word and image. Part 1, “Water Tamed,” traces the artist’s exploration of water as a manageable “tool” that could be controlled and utilized. In contrast, part 2, “Water Unleashed,” examines da Vinci’s visual evocations of water’s uncontrollable, mysterious power. Geddes (Tulane Univ.) also more broadly connects his ideas to the science and symbolism of water in Renaissance Italy, making her study an exciting addition to the new field of the environmental humanities.
View on Amazon

5Witnessing slavery: art and travel in the age of abolition
Thomas, Sarah. Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2019

In this beautifully produced, aptly titled book, Thomas (Birbeck, Univ. of London, UK) offers significant scholarship on the power of images of slavery from 1770 to 1840. Vision as truth telling in the artists’ travels, and the images produced as testaments, stands central to each of the volume’s six extensively illustrated and footnoted chapters. Thomas weaves image theory, probing visual analyses, 18th-century epistemology, historical accounts, literary texts, notions of sensibility, and individual artistic intentions to create a thorough, nuanced study of how images of slavery, as distinguished from texts, created irrefutable proof for the British Empire’s ideological purposes. Thomas wisely notes that despite the belief in their scientific accuracy, many images purportedly “drawn on the spot” could not be confirmed as objective since art making is a selective process. Agostino Brunias pictured the happy slave dance of the West Indies that asserted a policy of amelioration among the planters, whereas John Stedman’s unrelenting depictions of human brutality, often with himself imposed in them, argue for their authenticity as witness. View on Amazon.

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