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The Gift of Art

By Stuart Mitchner

One minute in the life of the world is going by! Paint it as it is!

—Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)

Paint it, live it, or dream it, sculpt it, or mold it, whether the world going by is Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Tudor England, the rocky landscape of Cézanne’s Provence or the grottoes of Courbet’s Franche-Comté. Put Cézanne’s hypothetical minute between covers, and there’s room for the Night Kitchen visions of Maurice Sendak, and the pottery of Old Edgefield’s enslaved artisan David Drake.

A Beautiful Survivor

Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings (Princeton University Art Museum $45), edited by John Elderfeld, is the beautiful survivor of an art event that was shut down by the pandemic less than a week after it opened. All those who missed the exhibit will experience the next best thing with this book. The email invitation from the Princeton University Art Museum offering “great art” as “a source of solace” came with the proviso to keep your social distance and the assurance that “new disinfection protocols are in place,” which sounded clinically antithetical to the enjoyment of art. The upside was that because of the virus, there were no crowds bustling between you and two galleries of work by the “wonder, wonder painter,” as Ernest Hemingway called him. Museum Director James Steward’s introduction gets at the essence of the wonder when he refers to “something alchemical” happening to Cézanne “when he depicted these forms.” The museum has put the magic between covers, the sense of Cézanne painting “it as it is.”

Two Visions of Tolkien

Two distinct sightings of the world of Middle-earth can be found in Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien (William Morrow $35), with commentary by Tolkien’s son Christopher, and John Garth’s The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth (Princeton University Press $29.95). Either book would make a stunning gift for fans of the Amazon Prime series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which has broken records, with the two-episode premiere attracting a worldwide audience of 25 million.

Pictures reveals images of the characters, places, and events in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion envisioned by Tolkien in the moment of creation. Examples range from watercolors depicting Rivendell, the Forest of Lothlorien, Smaug, and Old Man Willow to drawings and sketches of Moria Gate and Minas Tirith. Also included are many of the author’s unique designs showing patterns of flowers and trees, friezes, tapestries, and heraldic devices associated with the world of Middle-earth.

The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien benefits from the knowledge and expertise of journalist and Tolkien scholar John Garth, as well as the high standards and production values associated with Princeton University Press. Garth begins his introduction by quoting Tolkien’s comment about reviewers who “seem to assume that Middle-earth is another planet,” when in fact, as Garth points out, the planet “is our own” since Middle-earth “takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon term for the known world. It has sun and moon, oak and elm, water and stone. As we travel with Tolkien’s characters, we visit places that seem compellingly real.”

The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Hand calls The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien a “fascinating, gorgeously illustrated and thought-provoking examination of the landscapes, cities and architecture that inspired Tolkien during his lifelong creation of Middle-earth.”

The Life of the Tudors

The challenge of painting minutes of life in the Tudor world is explored in The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Distributed by Yale University Press $63.95). Edited by Elizabeth Cleland, curator in the Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and Adam Eaker, associate curator in the Department of European Paintings, The Tudors shows why the challenge attracted artists and artisans from across Europe, including Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean Clouet, and Benedetto da Rovezzano. The Tudors also nurtured local talent such as Isaac Oliver and Nicholas Hilliard, giving rise to the visual legacy of the dynasty discussed in the chapter, “Honing the Tudor Aesthetic.” The New Yorker’s “This Week” preview of the exhibit, which opened at the Met on October 10, features a photograph showing the installation of Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1532 portrait thought to depict Hermann von Wedigh III, “a London-based German merchant.”

Drake Signed His Moments

Cézanne was 19 around the time enslaved potter and poet David Drake was signing and dating his earthly moments in the form of jars made for the ages, many of which were carved with his verses at a time when literacy among enslaved people was considered a crime. You can see works like Drake’s storage jar (1858), made at the Stony Bluff Manufactory, in Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina (Metropolitan Museum of Art/distributed by Yale University Press $45). Edited by Adrienne Spinozzi, the book includes an interview with African American sculptor Simone Leigh and essays by Michael J. Bramwell, Vincent Brown, Ethan W. Lasser, and Jason R. Young on the production, collection, dispersal, and reception of stoneware by Black potters, both enslaved and free, working in and around Edgefield, South Carolina. Spinozzi is associate curator in the American Wing at The Met. Inspired by the Edgefield potters, Leigh’s first work in bronze, Brick House, the 16-foot-high bust of a Black woman, can be seen towering over a section of Manhattan’s High Line.

Sendak’s Dream City

Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents from Poland, Maurice Sendak (1928–2012) grew up in the New York he would later reimagine as the dream city of the Night Kitchen. Published in conjunction with the eponymous Sendak retrospective touring museums in the United States and Europe in 2022–24, Wild Things Are Happening: The Art of Maurice Sendak (DelMonico Books/The Columbus Museum of Art $55) focuses on the artist’s relationship to the history of art and the influence the art he collected had on his work. Featured are previously unpublished sketches, storyboards, and paintings that emphasize Sendak’s creative processes, as well as interviews and appreciations by some of his key collaborators, including Carroll Ballard, Michael Di Capua, John Dugdale, Spike Jonze, Twyla Tharp, and Arthur Yorinks.

To that list of collaborators, Sendak might add Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mozart, along with the “wild things” he sees during “a walk in the woods…. The purpose of my life was to see that animal. I can recollect it, I can notice it, I’m here to take note of it.”

Courbet’s Monumental World

In Courbet’s Landscapes: The Origins of Modern Painting (Yale University Press $50), Paul Galvez emphasizes the dimensions of Courbet’s first landscape, The Stream, which was over a meter wide when displayed at the 1855 Universal exhibition in Paris. Reviewing a 2006 Courbet exhibit in the New York Times, Roberta Smith refers to a “burly, coarse-grained” painter who believed “that artists could give justice to landscapes that they were deeply familiar with,” and whose “greatest landscapes were undoubtedly those he made in the rugged France-Comté, with its jutting buttes and rock-strewn slopes.” If at this point you’re thinking of Cézanne, “perhaps the greatest student of Courbet’s work,” you may be struck by Smith’s phrasing (“Everything works double time as topographical fact and paint”) as she describes “stony carapaces and ridges” rising against “bright blue skies, casting green valleys and hills into big angular shadows of unyielding black.”

In terms of Cézanne’s “one-minute-in-the-life-of-the-world paint-it-as-it-is” credo, there’s nothing “unyielding” in colors and forms caught in the flux of the existential minute in his Rock and Quarry paintings. At the same time, Galvez feels that Courbet achieves “something roiled and wild, like nature itself, only in molecular form.”

Hemingway’s Hungry Eye

Looking back to his twenties in Paris in A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway writes, “I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.”

The combination of art and hunger jars my memory of the great central image of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen — pajama-clad Mickey hovering in his little plane above the milk bottle skyscraper in a kitchen counter reinvention of the Manhattan skyline with its pot and canister, colander, nutcracker, egg-beater, mix-master towers, the jolly bakers way below, and the edible-looking yellow moon and stars in the deep blue sky. Sendak must have been listening to Mozart as he conceived that image, having once said, “When Mozart is playing in my room, I’m in conjunction with something I can’t explain. I don’t need to.” Cézanne might have said the “something” was art — the sound of “the life of the world going by.”