Tag Archives: Art

The Art of Neil Gaiman – reviewed by Hunter Coleman

Neil Gaiman, the master of imagination, has been pleasing his readers for over two decades, and at last there is a book devoted entirely to the man himself, detailing his journey from journalist to comic artist to cult novelist.

Ms. Campbell, the daughter of Eddie Campbell, a veteran graphic novelist, has known Gaiman since childhood, and as such has wide access to Gaiman and his correspondents. (Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish was dedicated to the ten-year-old Hayley Campbell).

Although heavily illustrated throughout, The Art of Neil Gaiman is more about the art of writing than about visual arts per se. Gaiman is, after all, a writer, not an illustrator. And written he has, from some of the most beloved graphic novels (The Sandman, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader (the last Batman story)), to novels (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Coraline) to blockbuster movies (Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie), to a biography on Duran Duran (or should that be rockagraphy?).

This is not a straight biography (his wife and children get only a passing mention, and then only to show how they affect the work), and with the possible exception of the first part, Preludes, should not be read as one. The Art of Neil Gaiman is, instead, full of never-before-seen notes, cartoons, personal photographs and drawings from Neil’s own collection. Each project is examined in turn, from genesis to fruition in the book that is divided among Gaiman’s three most influential mediums: comics, novels and screenplays.

The early chapters share episodes in the life of the writer, such as his embarrassment on having to take a sandwich with him to the library (his parents did not want the young boy spending his entire day reading books without food in his stomach) where he tells how he would reluctantly carry around the sandwich while exploring the stacks in the morning before taking his lunch break outside on a bench (all while reading, of course) before happily throwing the bag away and at last being able to return to the library, sans sandwich.

Later, the book does spend many pages detailing the inception of Gaiman’s magnum opus, The Sandman, which he worked on for seven years, and which became one of the most famous graphic novels in history, and justifiably so.

Lavishly illustrated, The Art of Neil Gaiman is the fully authorized account of the life and work of one of the world’s great storytellers, and is definitely a must-have for any fan.


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“The Painted Girls” – Cathy Marie Buchanan

I was fortunate enough to attend college very close to The Clark Art Institute (and several other art museums), although I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity nearly as much as I should have – hindsight is 20/20, and I was usually too worn out from swim practice.  Still, I did visit on occasion, mostly because the Clark is home to one of my favorite works of art: one of the 28 bronze castings of Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.  When I was younger, before I could appreciate the detail and artistry of it, I loved the idea of this particular work simply because the statue had a real tutu and hair ribbon.

Degas’ model for the piece, Marie van Goethem, and her older sister Antoinette are the subject of The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, a haunting and lovely novel that manages to be both heart-wrenching and heart-warming simultaneously.  It is a detailed, exquisitely crafted depiction of Époque Paris, but one completely devoid of glamour.  For the van Goethem sisters, art, ballet and great literature are merely a means of survival, nothing more.  Their lives consist almost entirely of devastating compromise – what must we do today so we may eat tomorrow?

After the sudden death of their father, the girls must find some means of supplementing their mother’s scant income as a laundress.  Marie joins the dance  school of the Paris Opera, eventually gaining admittance to the corps de ballet there.  Along the way, she becomes one of Degas’ favorite models and poses for many of his works, including Little Dancer – earning five to six francs per four-hour sitting.  Antoinette becomes an extra in the stage adaptation of L’Assommoir by Émile Zola.  In the process, she falls in love with Émile Abadie, a dangerous young man who soon goes on trial for murder.

This event sets the two sisters on a collision course, even as their conflicting goals and aspirations drive them emotionally further and further apart.  The narrative alternates between Marie and Antoinette (interspersed with newspaper excerpts, art reviews and court transcripts), giving us a devastating view of the wedges life drive between them.  Marie is continually exhausted between the rigors of dancing and the other jobs she must take on the side; Antoinette is so blinded by her love that she can see no one and nothing else.  Both know all too well the bitter taste of despair and desperation, as they consistently face impossibly difficult choices – and rarely do they make the right decisions.  They are the daughters of the Parisian underworld, forced to grow up far too soon, snatching moments of happiness wherever they can find them.  Eventually, both women manage to survive and even thrive, but there is no fairytale ending here, no easy road to success.

In the process, Buchanan also unveils the reality of life for Marie and the other dancers who populate Degas’ paintings.  It’s a startling contrast, between the beauty of art and the hardship and squalor of the world behind it.  Not that this should be any surprise to those who know ballet – a close look at a dancer’s feet will immediately destroy all illusions about the grace and effortlessness onstage.  This makes the novel’s title strikingly apt: now we see the real girls, behind the painted ones.

In reality, we know very little about Marie from the historical record, beyond a few sparse facts concerning her career as a dancer and model; less still about Antoinette.  However, they did exist.  Émile Abadie was also a real individual, and Degas’ pastels of him and one of his cohorts was exhibited alongside the original wax version of Little Dancer.  There’s no evidence that he had any other connection to the van Goethem sisters, but Buchanan ties them together marvelously, asking that tantalizing question, “What if…?”  The result is a work of fascinating conjecture, positing one “might-have-been” from the bare bones of fact, perfectly capturing the agonizing decisions we all face in the pursuit of love and survival.


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“Leonardo and the Last Supper” – Ross King

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t actually know a lot about art – I didn’t take a single art history class in college, even though it was a popular major.  In my defense,  the introductory courses in the subject consisted mostly of lectures from slides in a darkened auditorium – a formula guaranteed to send me to sleep, no matter how interesting the subject or speaker, as many of my classmates will attest.  Still, I do love art, considering that most family vacations while I was growing up consisted of trips to museums.

Apparently, this fascination also translates into a liking for works of non-fiction that look at history through art – or at least told with the help of pretty pictures, as can be seen from several of my earlier posts.  This week is no exception, since I’m looking at Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King.  I regret nothing.

In his book, King explores every single aspect of one of the most beloved and influential works of art in history, from the social and political backdrop against which da Vinci worked to his artistic techniques to the choices of food he painted into the scene.  This enthralling narrative is incredibly detailed, providing an enormous amount of context and back story for both the artist and his masterpiece.  Along the way, we are treated to a wonderful and humanizing portrait of da Vinci as a flamboyant, complex individual, full of foibles, flaws and eccentricities, despite his reputation of towering genius.  It comes as a relief to learn that he struggled to master Latin his entire life, never fully succeeding – and had trouble with basic math!

When he began work on The Last Supper in 1495, Leonardo da Vinci was not the renowned artist that he would later become.  He had a reputation, all right, but one as a genius who never finished anything!  He was widely acknowledged to be brilliant, but completely undependable, rarely if ever completing any of his commissions, and jumping haphazardly from one project to the next.  These characteristics did not change; he would continue in this vein for the rest of his life.  Moreover, he had never done any painting on such a large scale, and had no experience working in fresco, the assigned medium.  In  his own eyes, he was an engineer, not a painter.

From this point forward, King’s account is the story of Leonardo’s transformation in public perception, of his journey from unpredictable and unreliable genius to one of the greatest artists of all time.  The Last Supper is the work that created and then cemented Leonardo’s reputation, even more so than the Mona Lisa (which did not become well-known until the nineteenth century).  In the artistic world, it was a game-changer, forever altering the standards by which painters were with Leonardo’s revolutionary attention to detail, his use of color, light and movement.  Unfortunately, the mural’s deterioration over the centuries (and near destruction during World War II, as seen in Saving Italy by Robert Edsel), means that we must rely on various copies and reproductions to fully appreciate his masterpiece.

In the process, King thoroughly explores all the urban legends and popular rumors associated with both Leonardo and his most famous work – for instance, the persistent story that the same individual modeled for the faces of both Christ and Judas, the former in childhood and the latter decades later, after a life of sin.  However, he is also quick to place those tales in the historical context, and quickly dismisses those that don’t match the facts – or common sense.  King acknowledges the limits of the historical record; he does not hesitate to state when something is unknown or unknowable.  He offers theories and possibilities, but only states as fact what can actually be proved.

As an added bonus, King also debunks every theory about The Last Supper as set forth by Dan Brown, systematically and methodically.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Da Vinci Code – as a work of fiction.  The truth behind the painting, however, is even more compelling.


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Robert Edsel – “Saving Italy”

How do you fight and win a war in an art museum?

This was the question faced by the Allied forces in World War II, as they prepared for the invasion of Europe.  When a conflict devolves into total war and everything is a potential military target, how do you avoid destroying cultural treasures in the process?  How do you strike a balance between military necessity and historic preservation?

The answer was the creation of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Division, created by President Roosevelt in 1943 and empowered by General Eisenhower: a select group of men and women in the Allied armed forces, assigned the monumental task of saving what could be saved, and preserving and restoring what was damaged or destroyed.  Of course, their efforts to protect the art were in no way helped by the fact that Nazi officials were stealing most of it!

With his 2009 book, The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel told the story of this unit on the Western Front, focusing on the period between D-Day and V-E Day in northwest Europe – and is being made into a movie starring George Clooney, due out later this year.  Now he turns backwards, looking at the early days of the Monuments Men.

In many ways, his new book, Saving Italy  is the prequel to his earlier.  Orders from General Eisenhower to protect art and monuments whenever possible were not issued until six months after the start of the Sicilian campaign, but similar orders were in the hands of all officers eleven days before the Normandy invasion.  Italy was a trial run, a proving ground for these men, setting precedent and laying foundations for their later work in the rest of Europe.

Saving Italy is not just the story of the Monuments Men, although they are the stars of the show.  There were many other groups and individuals involved in the effort to protect Italy’s cultural heritage, and each is given due credit and attention: the Vatican, the Italian government, Italian partisan fighters, and even the Nazis, at least in some cases.  The sheer number of factions (whose goals often overlapped, but rarely aligned completely) throughout is mind-boggling, yet somehow Edsel manages to weave everything into a coherent, comprehensive and heart-stopping narrative, painting brief yet vivid character sketches of those involved.   Some figures are well-known: Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Churchill, Dulles, Himmler and Hitler.  Others are less familiar, but no less crucial to the success of the effort to protect some of Western Civilization’s greatest treasures.  Eisenhower’s orders placed the responsibility for protecting Italy’s cultural treasures on everyone,  from the bottom up, but the Monuments men were really the only ones with sufficient knowledge to make the job possible.

For those (like myself) who are not experts in either art or art history, he encapsulates the beauty and history of the artistic and architectural masterpieces that lay in the path of the war.   As you read, you come to truly care about whether or not these objects survive.  When they do, you celebrate; when they tragically do not, your heart breaks.

Before now, I knew the outcome of the war, at least in the broadest of strokes, being something of a WWII nut.  What I didn’t know was the fate of the art and monuments – this was an aspect of the conflict that had never occurred to me, even in light of the havoc and destruction wrought by the.  At least from my perspective, this allowed Edsel to maintain suspense throughout his narrative, even with the foregone conclusion of Allied victory.  Of course, part of the tension came from my profound ignorance of the Italian theater.  More well-informed readers may not find themselves in my shoes, and may therefore be able to finish the book with their fingernails intact.  Still, while the destruction of the war is well-known, the work of those who sought to preserve irreplaceable monuments and art is not.  It is a fascinating read, almost too unbelievable to be real.

As the cherry on top of an already marvelous cake, Robert Edsel will be speaking about Saving Italy at the Birmingham Museum of Art at 7:00 pm on June 6: D-Day, appropriately enough.  I can’t wait.  See you there!


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