Whether or not you are an art aficionado, the stories of artists are interesting tales and told in many different ways — which makes them perfect possibilities for a summer reading list. Ranging from the autobiographical, to the fictional, as well as more scholarly in tone, here are a few selections to consider for the beach, hammock, or porch swing near you.
In the Artists’ Words
To call Leonardo da Vinci “only” an artist is a little bit dismissive. He was an inventor, a designer, a cartographer, a man with a constantly curious mind and a prolific writer. He took copious notes and made drawings about his observations and ideas. His writings have survived for 500 years and become commonly known as Leonardo’s notebooks.
There are innumerable variations and editions, but a wonderfully accessible version is edited by H. Anna Suh under the title Leonardo’s Notebooks: Writing and Art of the Great Master. The writings are organized by chapters which are headed by the larger categories of “Beauty, Reason and Art,” “Observations and Order,” and “Practical Matters.” The translation of Leonardo’s words is handled in a conversational way. You could imagine sitting with the master as he chats about observations of anatomy or architecture, or offers advice to young artists on the practice of their craft. This particular edition is all the richer for the numerous drawing that punctuate the text. Some are meticulous studies for paintings and others are quick sketches, but all in Leonardo’s inimitable style.
Suh is also the editor of Van Gogh’s Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings, and Words, 1875-1890. Organized chronologically, over 150 letters offer a first-person account of van Gogh’s life and work. He is often philosophical as well as poignant in his deeply introspective demeanor. Images of the original letters, decorated with drawings, as well as reproductions of other works referenced in the letters, are an intimate blend of text and visuals.
If drifting into summer with stories suits your taste, Susan Vreeland takes the reader back into the art historical past in her novels Luncheon of the Boating Party and The Passion of Artemisia. Vreeland writes with a mix of fact and fiction as she builds out narratives that incorporate the lives and work of famous artists.
The Passion of Artemisia takes the Baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, as protagonist and narrator. She was a rarity of her time, born in Rome in 1593 to an artist father. She was a prodigious painter herself, and the story of her struggles as well as great successes offer a timeless quality to her story.
Vreeland delves into the late 19th century and the circle of artists, models, and bohemians of the Impressionist era. The famous painting Luncheon of the Boating Party by Auguste Renoir is both the title and inspiration for her novel. Although the author touches on real events and paintings, it is a story that imagines the voices of Renoir and his friends as characters romping through la vie moderne.
Author Ross King’s book The Judgement of Paris also takes us into the world of the Impressionists in the late 19th-century. Rather than spinning fiction, he offers a conversational and scholarly approach as he recounts the scandals, controversies, and characters who were at the vanguard of modern art. He begins in 1863 with the famed academic artist
Ernest Meissonier, a man most successful in his day. Meissonier represents the established tastes and traditions in art which were becoming directly challenged by artists like Gustave Courbet and especially Edouard Manet with his painting Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) which outraged and excited the art world. With ample illustrations and footnotes, it is an engaging work of nonfiction.
Similarily, David Sweetman’s Explosive Acts is a thoroughly researched and informative book that brings to life the social circles of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He was a successful French artist as well as a member of the aristocracy. His associates included the writer Oscar Wilde and critic Félix Fénéon, as well as many other creative luminaries who populate the text. While the excesses and dark glamour of the fin-de-siècle are part of the period, Sweetman’s focus brings us into the nightlife famously recounted in Toulouse-Lautrec’s pictures, amplified by the artist’s radical political edges.
Roy Staab: Nature in Three Parts
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum
2220 N. Terrace Ave., Milwaukee
Opening reception, June 2, 6 p.m.
Environmental and installation artist Roy Staab has been commissioned to create one of his unique sculptures made of natural materials in the Renaissance Garden at the Villa Terrace. Joining the contemporary work of Staab is an exhibition of baskets in woven mediums which range from the functional to the highly abstract and sculptural.
Bay View Gallery Night and Jazz Fest
June 3, 5 to 10 p.m.
Bay View Gallery Night has emerged as one of the highlights on the community arts calendar, and for the third year, BVGN is also embracing Bay View Jazz Fest. Altogether, there will be more than 55 local businesses hosting events and exhibitions and 18 free music concerts at 9 different venues. For the full details for an exciting evening, see bvgn.org.
The Greater Milwaukee Foundation Mary L. Nohl Fellowships for Individual Artists
Haggerty Museum of Art, 13th and Clybourn Streets
Opening reception, June 9, 5 p.m.
The Nohl Fellowship exhibition is a yearly event that offers a validation for the work of the selected artists. For the past thirteen years, grants have been awarded to artists and this exhibition is the revealing of the work done during their fellowship year. Awardees in the Established Artist category are Jon Horvath and Frankie Latina, and in the Emerging Artist category are Ben Balcom, Zach Hill, and Maggie Sasso.