The Vermeer Interviews — Conversations with Seven Works of Art

Bob Raczka’s The Vermeer Interviews — Conversations with Seven Works of Art has be one of the coolest, most informative books I’ve read in a long time.  I found a lone copy secreted away in the children’s book section of the Frick Museum here in New York.  I am not a child and have no children to read to at this point, so I almost passed on it.  Thankfully my love of Vermeer overcame any age-appropriate related hesitation.  I realized that I was being an idiot and obviously had to buy this book.   Thank goodness I did.  The Vermeer Interviews is a classic and well worth reading by art lovers of any age.

The book’s premise is that the author Bob Raczka interviews the characters in seven Vermeer paintings.  He interviews the geographer, the milk maid, etc.   They respond with patience and humor.  They tell him what they are thinking and point out some of the compositional details of their paintings.  They talk about shape, light, color, tone and so many other aspects of their paintings.  They also give some background on the history and culture of the times as they discuss the objects in their pictures.   I particularly liked the way the interviewer kepy trying to nail down the precise meaning of each picture, only to have the subjects posit that the picture might mean any number of things and that perhaps Vermeer wanted to leave things open-ended.   Best of all, the quiet feeling behind Vermeer’s luminous paintings pervades these lovely interviews.

This book provides an imaginative introduction to art history and theory.  Raczka’s explanations and his gentle reminders that the viewer is free to consider multiple interpretations are very welcome and encouraging.  This book could be read to a young child as a gentle yet enthusiastic way of looking at art, particularly in connection with a visit to a museum.  My guess is that many elementary school readers could read it themselves.  As for adults, let’s just say that it is completely enjoyable and that it has informed my thinking about these paintings far better than any dry museum description could do.   I really appreciated the enthusiastic tutelage on Vermeer’s art.

Really, you need to read this book!  Also, I just Googled Bob Raczka, and it appears he has written quite a number of books, and many of them are art-related.  I can’t wait to read how he embraces Van Gogh!

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Henri Matisse — A Small, Beautiful Book

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In 2014 and 2015, the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan presented an historic exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs.  The museums were deservedly mobbed for months, and I was one of many who made repeated visits, for it was well worth braving the crowds to see this epic presentation of Matisse’s cut-outs.

Alastair Sooke has written Henri Matisse  —  A Second Life, as a companion to the museums’ exhibition.  This brief, insightful book follows Matisse’s life and art from 1941 (in the middle of World War II) until his death in 1954 at the age of 84.  Sooke has provided welcome context and understanding, which I enjoyed even though I read the book months after I saw the show.

In the early 1940’s Matisse’s health was a mess and he was stuck in the middle of a war.  All things considered, it is amazing that Matisse even survived these challenges.  But challenge became opportunity, because this turned out to be the start of an amazing second act to Matisse’s already brilliant career.  It was in this period that he started working on his famous cut-outs.  The evolution of Matisse’s cut-out technique and creation of some of his specific pieces is described in the right amount of detail for the layperson.  A very clear and captivating picture emerges of Matisse snipping away rapidly and telling his assistants how to paint the paper and place the pieces.  Although this very short book has no pictures, other than some photographs of Matisse at work, it is easy to Google the particular pieces as they are discussed.  Read the book and Google away!  If you want to enrich your experience further, read the catalog for the show.  It is beautiful, too.

The Day the Crayons Quit

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No need to come up with a catchy title for a review of a book called The Day the Crayons Quit.  This hilarious, yet thoughtful book, was written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.  This book tells Duncan, the colorer, what his crayons are thinking.  Not only is this a great story, but it is a great segue to having children imagine what their other inanimate possessions may be thinking.  I really recommend that you get this book and then share it with a young colorer.  This book is destined to be a classic.

I found it while I was browsing through the exceptionally wonderful children’s book collection at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  If you haven’t visited this museum, you are missing something truly special.  The collection is magnificent, and the museum building and its grounds are gorgeous.  There are even some easy trails for walking.  The current exhibits are “Van Gogh and Nature” and another focusing on Whistler’s Mother.  The Van Gogh exhibit is reason enough to make the trip.  I thought I had really seen a lot of Van Gogh  —  at the big museums, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and at a bunch of special exhibits through the years.  But, this exhibit sheds new light on what he was trying to do with nature and focuses on his influences.  I am so glad we made the trip.  You should, too.