Ten Books Every Artist Should Have—and Know Well

ten books every artist should have
Ephraim Rubenstein’s Book Pile XXXIV

Most artists can cite books that have held great meaning for them over the years. Not only have these books imparted wisdom and generated ideas, they have been companions in the long—and sometimes solitary—profession of being an artist. We carry on conversations with great books over the years, and as we change, the works change with us. Different aspects of these works—which we may have missed earlier on—reveal themselves to us on subsequent readings. There are many works that have been crucial to me over the years, but here are ten that I could not imagine being without. I certainly could not have developed my ideas on art without these works. They include artist’s letters, treatises, and landmark works in art history, theory, and criticism.

1. Of the ten books on my “artist’s bookshelf,” I would put Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet first. These letters speak to all young people, but especially intimately to artists. They whisper in the ear of anyone with a soul that yearns to be realized. They are also an invocation, a summoning of the Gods and of mystery, that works like a prayer for all of our artistic endeavors. Rilke speaks about the demands, the pleasures, and pains of the artist’s life like no other. He challenges the reader to see life as mission; to understand that the life that most people live is only the surface of life, and that it is the artist alone who penetrates to the depths of real experience. He continually raises one of the most important, yet difficult, features of the artist’s life, which is solitude. It is Rilke’s belief that without the ability to experience and utilize deep solitude, a truly creative life is impossible.

2. Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters to Theo is second. Never has a creative intelligence laid itself bare as Vincent does in these letters. We see him grappling with all the essential problems; his work, his family, his love objects, and historic and contemporary art and literature. We see him from the inside out, day-by-day, week-by-week, forging the vocabulary of modernism, painting, “not as I see things, but as I feel them.” Van Gogh appeals to us because he is the perennial lost soul, a young person trying to find his way in the world, trying to figure out the meaning of his existence, and of how he can be of use to the world. Vincent is like St. Augustine, but in reverse: he starts out attempting to be saintly, but when traditional religion fails him, he makes a religion out of painting. Perhaps most moving of all is the discovery of how close the two brothers were. Theo went mad after Vincent’s death and survived for less than a year before he himself died, leaving his wife, Johanna, to deal with their infant son, Vincent, and with her brother-in-law’s legacy.

ten books every artist should have
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3. Third is Heinrich Wölfflin’s The Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. Wölfflin, along with Bernard Berenson and Erwin Panofsky, is one of the Founding Fathers of art history. As Herbert Read said of Wölfflin: “He found art history a subjective chaos, but left it a science.” Anyone who has studied art history is used to seeing two slides on the screen at the same time. This was but one of the innovations introduced by Wölfflin, who believed that all aesthetic judgments were relative rather than absolute, so that something could only said to be “painterly,” for instance, when compared to something else. In The Principles of Art History, Wölfflin examines one of the most crucial paradigm shifts in the history of art, the change from Renaissance to Baroque. He delineates five pairs of opposing qualities that define the major characteristics of each period. He then trains the viewer to recognize each of those oppositions, so that he can then identify any newly-encountered work as being either Renaissance or Baroque. The pairs are: “linear” and “painterly”; “plane and recession”; “multiplicity” and “unity”; “clear” and “unclear” forms; and “tectonic” and “a-tectonic” construction. Wölfflin believes that the shift from Renaissance to Baroque was the greatest paradigm shift in the history of art. He believed that most subsequent stylistic changes followed the same general patterns, so that if you could understand this particular evolution, you could understand the entire history of art. Although Wölfflin is an art historian, he sees like an artist. He is sensitive to the slightest shifts in temperament, as revealed by lines, tones, forms, and construction. No one has ever written about stylistic distinctions with so much passion and acuity.

ten books every artist should have
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4. The Principles of Art History is well complemented by Bernard Berenson’s Italian Painters of the Renaissance. Painters is an “education of the eye” using the Italian Renaissance as a model. Berenson’s work as a connoisseur had much to do with how he developed his feeling for the history of art. He spent his days separating the work of artists of varying style and quality, and this made him keenly aware of personal difference. Because he was examining the work of individual artists, he came to see the history of art as being largely biographical; as being part of the “great man” theory of history. He believed that events turned upon the appearance of great thinkers, military leaders and artists, who rose to positions of power based on their unique skills, and who therefore changed the world by their presence. This is quite in opposition to Wölfflin, who, being a Hegelian, thought that history was made up of large, unseen, unstoppable forces, and that if a great man arose, it was only because the whole world’s consciousness had been prepared for it ahead of time. In addition, Berenson based his approach upon the work of the ancient historians, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch, whose histories were often largely strings of biographies. Berenson was not only interested in biographies, however, but in genealogies; who studied with whom, who was capable of making an informed innovation, etc. He understood that artists are often quite concerned with their lineage. Studying the work of closely related artists made him intimately aware of the difference between the greatest masters and those who were not as gifted. In his art history, therefore, he strayed into two fields not strictly historical; the thorny question of quality, and the psychology of aesthetic appreciation, or the psychology of enjoyment in art. He was as interested in the viewer as he was in the artist, and sought to understand why it was that we were so moved by certain artists, and the mechanisms by which that was accomplished. Berenson’s tremendous analytic powers, his training at Harvard, his friendship with William James, his role as a connoisseur, and his career as a picture dealer and authenticator, gave him interests and credentials that most art historians do not have.

5. Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form is the first—and still the most serious—study of one of the crowning achievement of Western art, the nude. Starting out by examining the difference between naked and nude, Clark explores in great detail our propensity to idealize the human body, and how this affects every decision we make about ourselves. Clark understands that without this process of idealization, the concept of the nude would be impossible. He concludes that the nude is not a subject of art, but rather a form of art, just as ballet is a form of dance and opera is a form of music. Clark sees the nude as capable of embodying the entire range of human emotions, from pathos to ecstasy, from sensuality to asceticism. He studies, as well, the concept of dipendenza, or the relationship of the nude to architecture. He emphasizes how both forms require that beauty be wed to certain strict functional necessities. Despite his pessimism as to whether or not the nude remains a viable concept for us, this is an incredibly inspiring book about a subject so close to so many of us at the Art Students League.

ten books every artist should have
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6. The nude’s relationship to architecture brings up my next book, Body, Memory, and Architecture. Written by Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore as an introduction to the study of architecture for their first year students at Yale, Body, Memory, and Architecture is an extraordinary introduction to the subject, because the authors discuss architecture from the point of view of how buildings are experienced by their inhabitants, rather than by how they are built. Bloomer and Moore believe that truly memorable places—places that move us, that we remember and to which we want to return—are based on the human body. Modernism opposed the body with the Cartesian grid, thereby giving us the soulless boxes and glass and steel canyons that oppress us on a daily basis. In the process, architects—along with their arcane concerns (beauty)—were replaced by engineers, with their modern and quantifiable concerns (efficiency). As in so many other fields, specialization took over broader-based humanistic concerns, leaving us with efficient, quantifiable environments that sound good on paper but that leave our eyes undernourished and our souls starved.

7. Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting is perhaps the finest book on art that never got finished (like so many of Leonardo’s other projects). But what we have is the literary equivalent of a sketchbook; ideas, notes, discourses, rants, observations, etc. on any subject of use to the painter. What is paramount to note is that, unlike nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, there is absolutely no mention here of the artist’s feelings or emotions. For Leonardo, as for all of his Quattrocento colleagues, the basis of art was rational and scientific, based on an understanding of phenomena that were observable, predictable, and repeatable. As Leonardo wrote, “Those who become enamored of the practice of the art, without having previously applied to the diligent study of the scientific part of it, may be compared to mariners, who put out to sea in a ship without rudder or compass, and therefore cannot be certain of arriving at the wished-for port.” For Leonardo, perspective is the sine qua non of all of the visual arts, without which nothing can be done well: “The young student should, in the first place, acquire a knowledge of perspective, to enable him to give to every object its proper dimensions.… Perspective is to Painting what the bridle is to a horse, and the rudder to a ship.” Nowadays, we take it for granted that artists should always carry a sketchbook around with them, but this was actually one of Leonardo’s greatest innovations. At a time when most artists turned to their studio pattern-books to see how to draw any given object, Leonardo insisted that they go to nature as the source, and take their sketch books out into the street and observe nature firsthand: “Be quick in sketching these with slight strokes in your pocket book, which should always be about you. When it is full, take another, for these are not things to be rubbed out but kept with the greatest care; because forms and motions of bodies are so infinitely various, that the memory is not able to retain them; therefore preserve these sketches as your assistants and masters.”

8. If Wölfflin’s The Principles of Art History helps one to analyze the stylistic differences between periods and styles, then Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy examines the social forces and cultural norms that makes one particular period—fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance art–look the way it does. The book starts out by asking the question, Why is it that Renaissance paintings look the way they do, and how do we read (interpret) them? In other words, when we look at a Florentine altarpiece, we know that there is a lot going on that we can only half understand, like watching a movie with the mute button on. How did a fifteenth-century person see, and what did he or she know that made it possible for him to understand the painting much more completely? Baxandall concludes that every culture has “visual habits,” and that these visual habits allow–or mandate that–we perceive visual information in certain ways. The style of pictures is therefore intimately related to social history. One of the most important social factors that Baxandall examines is money. To Baxandall’s way of thinking, “who paid for the painting” is just as important as “who painted it.” Because patrons often exerted strong influence on artists–both positive and negative–paintings become “fossils of economic life” and “deposits of social relationships.” He does this by examining contracts between artists and their patrons, trying to pay close attention to the client’s role in how paintings look. In Baxandall’s mind, the client and the artists made the picture together. This kind of thinking can be applied to almost any period in the history of art, even though modes of patronage have changed drastically.

9. One of the most inspiring books on the list is Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. I am not sure if I love it solely for itself, or because it reminds me so deeply of the Art Students League (where Henri taught for many years). Henri sees art making as the purview of everyone, not just professionally-trained artists. As he writes, “In every human being there is the artist, and whatever his activity, he has an equal chance with any to express the result of his growth and his contact with life. I don’t believe any real artist cares whether what he does is ‘art’ or not.” And although Henri carves out a special place for people who do dedicate their life to making art, he feels that all people can live creatively and freely, and be possessed of the art spirit. In Henri’s mind, the “art spirit” is

simply a result of expression during right feeling. It’s a result of a grip on the fundamentals of nature, the spirit of life, a real understanding of the relative importance of things. Any material will do. Anyway, the object is not to make art, but to be in the wonderful state which makes art inevitable. I am not interested in art as a means of making a living, but I am interested in art as a means of living a life. The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture—however unreasonable this may sound. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue, its result is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state. These results, however crude, become dear to the artist who made them because they are records of states of being which he has enjoyed and which he would regain. They are likewise interesting to others because they are to some extent readable and reveal the possibilities of greater existence.

10. Finally, I would end with Susan Sontag’s collection of essays, On Photography. We are so saturated with photographic images, and images have so infiltrated every aspect of our lives, that no one today can possibly imagine the world before photography. And while we are all well aware of the pleasures and benefits photography has conferred on us, we are less cognizant of its darker, more insidious side. It is this troubling aspect of photography that Sontag examines in her landmark essay, “In Plato’s Cave.” Sontag presents photography as a highly problematic activity. These problems are moral/ethical, aesthetic and philosophical in nature. Some of the problems that Sontag delineates, for instance, are:

• that photographs can only tell you how something looks at any given moment, whereas the truth about anything is revealed by observing how something functions over time;

• that photographs are confused with reality—they give us the false idea that we can hold the world in our hands as an anthology of images;

• that by furnishing this already overcrowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available to us than it really is;

• that people always “look” different when they know they are being photographed. What does this say about truth and appearance?

• that to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It puts one in a certain relationship to the world that feels like power and knowledge, but is not;

• that to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them in a way they never see themselves: it turns people into objects that can be possessed;

• that there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera- we “load,” “aim,” “point,” and “shoot” the camera;

• that the camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people being photographed (witness the number of people who took pictures of the subway passenger who was pushed onto the tracks, and subsequently killed, instead of helping him up.)

These are just some of the many objections that Sontag raises about this seemingly innocent and now ubiquitous activity. And Sontag was writing before digital photography and cell phone cameras made photography even more ubiquitous than it was when she was writing! All of these books raise issues of fundamental importance to artists. With these texts in place as building blocks, any subsequent works that you may read can be fit into place to form a larger framework for your thinking about the visual arts. Since I teach many of these books in the Seminar in the Literature of Art, I know well the value of re-reading important books. I have read some of these works a dozen times! And the best books will continue to reveal more and more, no matter how many times you read them.

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