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by John Wilson


30,000 Years of Art

And other books to delight the eye.

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When I was in high school, I stumbled on a book by Andre Malraux in which he spoke of a "museum without walls," spanning millennia. The idea dazzled me—it reminded me of certain exhilarating "long views" I'd encountered in science fiction—and it has never ceased to fire my imagination, though Malraux's high–octane rhetoric doesn't appeal to me as it did to my youthful self.

This year, Phaidon published a remarkable book that is certain to cast a spell on some 16–year–olds (and maybe a few oldsters, too, if they aren't jaded and utterly settled in their mental habits) the way that Malraux fascinated me. In 30,000 Years of Art, we find work from around the world, chronologically presented in startling juxtapositions. The earliest image, "The Lion Man of Hohlenstein–Stadel," a carved figure recovered from the caves of the Altmuhl valley in Germany, dates from roughly 28,000 BC. The concluding image dates from 1995. In this massive imaginary museum, the unit of attention is the spread—page facing page. So, for instance, in the midsection of the book, the lefthand page on one spread shows an ivory pendant (believed to depict the head of a king) from the Kingdom of Benin (in present–day Nigeria), c. 1520, The righthand page is a version of the Deposition by the Italian artist Rosso Fiorentino, 1521. What a book!

Meditation on disaster can be morbid and perverse, but it can also be tonic: how vulnerable we are, how easily the seemingly solid foundations of "ordinary life" can crumble in an instant. Ashen Sky: The Letters of Pliny the Younger on the Eruption of Vesuvius, illustrated by Barry Moser (Getty), and The Complete Pompeii, by Joanne Barry (Thames & Hudson) beg to read together.

That particular disaster—the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79—was one that figured in the imagination of the first followers of Jesus. Move ahead a bit—to the period from the the 3rd century through the 5th century, and the established church—and you'll be in the territory of Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, by Jeffrey Spier et al., from Yale University Press. Here you can feel the kinship with our brothers and sisters in Christ—close to us, despite all that distinguishes their world from ours.

Speaking of different worlds, Francois Boucher: Seductive Visions is an illuminating monograph on the 18th–century French artist who embodied one aspect of the Enlightenment. A censorious critic from the early 19th century referred to Boucher thus: "This man unique in his spirit of depravity; who seems to have sharpened his crayon or ground his colours only to charm the eyes of vice." Judge for yourself. This handsomely produced volume was the catalogue for an exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London in 2004-05; published by Paul Holberton and distributed by the University of Washington Press, it became available in the United States only this year.

For a gloss on current events in Latin America, Leopoldo Mendez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print, by Deborah Caplow (Univ. of Texas Press) is not a bad place to start. Like the Yale volume on early Christian art, this book undermines the facile claim that "good art is never didactic." Mendez (1902-1969) was very good.

For the history buffs and the map–lovers on your Christmas list, especially those in the Golden State, consider Derek Hayes' Historical Atlas of California (Univ. of California Press), a successor to his splendid historical atlas of the United States. It would be interesting to move back and forth between this new book and the one on Leopoldo Mendez.

Finally, with Christmas dinner and other festive occasions of the season in mind, you might want to curl up with another book from the University of California Press, Food: The History of Taste, edited by Paul Freedman. Among its many themes is the connection between food and faith (Christian and otherwise). May you eat well and turn the pages with a thankful heart.

Thanks for reading.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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