Susan Sontag and photography | Benjamin Moser


This post is by Benjamin Moser from Books | The Guardian


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The great critic shaped our understanding of the camera’s position in culture, which she continued to sharpen in her last days following the Iraq war

In 2004, as Susan Sontag lay dying, horrifying pictures began to emerge from a prison in Iraq.

She had received a diagnosis of blood cancer at the end of March that year, at the age of 71. Having had cancer twice before, she knew the suffering the disease, treated or untreated, would entail. And as she hesitated over what course to take, she, like much of the world, was looking at the pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib. This had been one of Saddam Hussein’s most notorious prisons, and was now in US hands. The pictures showed soldiers torturing Iraqis: chaining them to walls; forcing them to stand in painful and humiliating positions; piling them, naked, into human pyramids.

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The Lives of Lucian Freud by William Feaver review – youth: 1922-1968


This post is by Alexandra Harris from Books | The Guardian


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Lucian Freud lived recklessly and selfishly – and made paintings unlike anything in the history of art

Lucian Freud painted very, very slowly, requiring sitters to commit themselves to examinations that went on for hundreds of hours. In everything to do with making and looking at art, he proceeded fastidiously (a word he liked), with utmost patience and seriousness. In ways he generally declined to interrogate (“I don’t do introspection”), this epic care was vitally related to the rapid abandon with which he ransacked his world for experience. The slow painter was in love with quickness and with risk. He lived with an improvisatory recklessness he would never have allowed himself in a brushstroke.

William Feaver has been thinking about this life for decades. A series of interviews in the 1990s grew into a settled rhythm of telephone calls “most days”. Freud (who died in 2011, aged 88) didn’t want ...

Saving ‘woman hand’: the artist rescuing female-only writing


This post is by Elizabeth Dearnley from Books | The Guardian


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Kana let women express themselves freely and was used to write the world’s first novel – then it was wiped out. Meet the master calligrapher keeping the script alive

Anyone who has ever fired off a text in haste will sympathise with the first point on 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon’s list of “infuriating things”: “Thinking of one or two changes in the wording after you’ve sent off a reply to someone’s message.”

This list, her messages, and her Pillow Book in which they’re recorded – a sparklingly acerbic, blog-style frolic through the lives of Heian-era aristocrats – were written using kana, a Japanese script mainly used by women for nearly a millennium to write literature, arrange secret assignations and express themselves freely within the confines of court life.

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‘Short of imagination’: Germaine Greer scorns Leonardo da Vinci’s art


This post is by Mark Brown, Arts correspondent from Books | The Guardian


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The prolific author says the Mona Lisa looks ‘half-dead’ while speaking at Hay festival

Leonardo da Vinci, the incomparable Renaissance master? Actually, he was rather sloppy, disappointing and derivative.

His greatest work, the most popular painting in the world? “The bloody Mona Lisa … this half-dead woman, this strange green-faced female.”

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The lost Leonardo? Louvre show ditches Salvator Mundi over authenticity doubts


This post is by Mark Brown Arts correspondent from Books | The Guardian


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Art experts remain divided on the origins of the world’s most expensive painting

Salvator Mundi, the world’s most expensive painting, will not be part of this year’s big Leonardo da Vinci show in Paris because curators at the Louvre do not believe it can be attributed solely to the artist, it has been claimed.

The art historian and writer Ben Lewis has charted the remarkable story of a painting which made headlines all over the world when it sold for $450m (£354m) at Christie’s in New York in 2017.

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Judith Kerr obituary | Julia Eccleshare


This post is by Julia Eccleshare from Books | The Guardian


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The author and illustrator best known for the classic children’s book The Tiger Who Came to Tea

The creator of the classic children’s books The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Mog the Forgetful Cat, Judith Kerr, who has died aged 95, was unusual in being equally successful as a writer and an illustrator. She always claimed that she was “a very slow” illustrator and that her work was “more rubbing out than drawing”, but in a career that ran from 1968 to this year she created more than 30 books, mostly about Mog, all of which have remained in print and which sell worldwide.

The bestselling The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) was her first book. Characterised by its bold, naive-style illustrations and gentle anarchy, it tells the playful and imaginative story of how the everyday routine of a mother and her young daughter, Sophie, is disrupted ...

From Susan Sontag to the Met Gala: Jon Savage on the evolution of camp


This post is by Jon Savage from Books | The Guardian


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First published in 1964, Sontag’s pioneering essay Notes on Camp was a cultural earthquake. Fifty years on, as the theme of this year’s Met Gala, has camp finally gone mainstream?

First published in 1964, Susan Sontag’s essay Notes on Camp remains a groundbreaking piece of cultural activism. Sontag’s achievement was to give a name to an aesthetic that was everywhere yet until then had gone largely unremarked. It was visible in Dusty Springfield’s mascara and beehive, there in late-night TV reruns of old Humphrey Bogart movies; there in Andy Warhol’s screen prints Flowers and Electric Chair – images from advertising and the news media copied and provocatively represented.

Like pop, camp was the future; as Warhol had observed on his cross-country trip in 1963, it was omnipresent, so ubiquitous that it wasn’t simply an aesthetic. It was an environment, a climate, with profound implications for western culture. To notice ...

Walter Gropius by Fiona MacCarthy review – the visionary behind Bauhaus


This post is by Kathryn Hughes from Books | The Guardian


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From Weimar to Ikea ... a brilliant biography makes clear the master of modernism’s deep influence on design

If Fiona MacCarthy were a less confident writer, she would have started her biography of Walter Gropius with the moment they met, a year before the great man’s death in 1969. MacCarthy was attending the Bauhaus exhibition at the Royal Academy, a landmark event intended to introduce postwar London to the seminal art school Gropius had founded 50 years earlier in Weimar. While British builders and manufacturers had spent the early part of the 20th century churning out Tudorbethan semis and stuffing them with mass-produced clutter, their Bauhaus-trained counterparts – Germans, but also Swiss, Czechs and Hungarians – had been working towards a sleekly modern “international” aesthetic in service of a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) in which buildings and their contents were conceived as a whole entity. Here was a rational, functional ...

The Last Leonardo by Ben Lewis review – secrets of the world’s most expensive painting


This post is by Charles Nicholl from Books | The Guardian


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How much of the famous Salvator Mundi did Leonardo paint? And where is the $450m picture now?

In November 2011, a small Renaissance painting known as the Salvator Mundi (“Saviour of the World”) went on show at the National Gallery. It was a compelling, moody, somewhat odd picture: a half-length figure of Christ with ringlets of auburn hair, holding a transparent crystal orb. Even more compelling was the label, describing it as a newly discovered work by Leonardo da Vinci.

This attribution, at the upper end of the art world’s Richter scale, was controversial for various reasons, not least because – contrary to National Gallery policy – it radically enhanced the market value of a privately owned artwork. Its owners were at this point mysterious: an American “consortium” was mentioned. They were, in fact, two mid-table New York dealers, Robert Simon and Alex Parish, who had bought it in 2005 ...

Fewer than 2% of British children’s authors are people of colour


This post is by Alison Flood from Books | The Guardian


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Only 1.96% of authors and illustrators between 2007 and 2017 were British people of colour, compared to 13% of the population

For a decade in the UK, fewer than 2% of all children’s book creators – authors and illustrators – were British people of colour, according to the latest research into the publishing industry’s systemic lack of diversity.

Commissioned by BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity, the report by UCL associate professor Melanie Ramdarshan Bold combines an analysis of all children’s books published in the UK between 2007 and 2017, as well as interviews with 15 writers of colour including Benjamin Zephaniah and Malorie Blackman. BookTrust director of children’s books Jill Coleman said it reveals a “desperate lack” of people of colour in the industry.

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Leonardo da Vinci: the best books of the last 500 years


This post is by Jonathan Jones from Books | The Guardian


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His death was five centuries ago, but the artist, scientist and inventor still fascinates. Jonathan Jones recommends the best books to come to grips with the Tuscan prodigy

It’s 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci died and almost as long since the first, and still most seductive, biography of him appeared. Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 book The Lives of the Artists is still in print – and a great read. It’s full of strange tales, including the time the teenaged artist made a monster from lizards, bats and insects then painted it on a shield to terrify his father. The way Vasari tells it, you’re not quite sure if this was art or magic – it almost reads as if the monster came to life. Yet Vasari’s fabulism is threaded with nuggets from people who knew the polymath. They remembered his love of young men with long curly hair, belief in ...

Stonewall at 50: stories from a gay rights revolution


This post is by Kate Kellaway from Books | The Guardian


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In June 1969, in the violent wake of a police raid on a New York bar, Stonewall was born – a defining moment remembered here by those who protested

The Stonewall riots started in the early hours of 28 June 1969 during a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village, a favourite haunt of gay and lesbian New Yorkers. As customers were hauled out in handcuffs, the crowd outside erupted into fury. That night’s rioting was followed by days of further violent demonstrations in the neighbourhood. It would change LGBT activism for ever. The riots switched protest up a gear and pushed for an unapologetic, inclusive, enlightened culture in which gay pride would see off shame for good.

Fifty years later, Stonewall is one of the most significant global landmarks in the fight for gay rights (the gay rights campaign group in the UK is named after it). In ...

‘It is a religion’: how the world went mad for Moomins


This post is by Lisa Allardice from Books | The Guardian


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Kate Winslet and Rosamund Pike are among the starry lineup in a new TV adaptation of the Moomins. Why do Tove Jansson’s hippo creatures have such enduring appeal?

It is -15C and snowy outside but unusually relaxed and welcoming inside a grand building on the corner of Senate Square in Helsinki where a preview is taking place of the much-anticipated TV animation Moominvalley. The most expensive of its kind in the history of Finnish television, the series is the creation of Oscar-winning director Steve Box (Wallace and Gromit) and executive producer Marika Makaroff, of the company behind The Bridge (spoiler: it is much sunnier in Moominvalley).

That evening no one is left in any doubt as to the central place of Tove Jansson’s Moomins in Finnish culture as the vice president, clutching two Moomin mugs, tells the audience they are Finland’s “crown jewels”. “Moomins is a religion,” agrees ...

How Dickens, Brontë and Eliot influenced Vincent van Gogh


This post is by Kathryn Hughes from Books | The Guardian


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Van Gogh spent three years in London and delighted in Britain’s literary heritage, a love that is explored in a new Tate show

As Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône goes on show at Tate Britain, it is, in one sense, coming home. This might sound like wishful thinking. For the past half century the painting has hung in Paris, and its singing Mediterranean colours, which the artist himself described as “aquamarine”, “royal blue” and “russet gold”, bear little resemblance to the murky half-tints of the Thames, which runs past Tate Britain’s Millbank site. Yet its spring exhibition, Van Gogh and Britain, is organised on the principle that the foundations of the Dutchman’s art, both his eye and his intellect, were laid not in the south of France, nor in the misty light of the Low Countries, but in London, where he spent three life-defining years (1873-76) ...

When will the art world recognise the real artist behind Duchamp’s Fountain?


This post is by Siri Hustvedt from Books | The Guardian


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Evidence suggests the famous urinal Fountain, attributed to Marcel Duchamp, was actually created by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Why haven’t we heard of her, asks Siri Hustvedt

Why is it hard for people to accept the intellectual and creative authority of artists and writers who are women? Why did Lee Krasner’s obvious influence on Jackson Pollock go unrecognised for decades? Why was Simone de Beauvoir’s original thought attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre? Why did it take centuries for art historians to recognise the canvases of the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi as hers, not her father’s, even those that were signed by her? I don’t believe the people involved in these attributions were all monsters out to destroy the reputation of the artist or thinker. The evidence was there. They couldn’t see it. Why?

Paintings, novels and philosophy made by men feel more elevated somehow, more serious, while works ...

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes review – a brilliant, scrupulous portrait


This post is by Blake Morrison from Books | The Guardian


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For the first time in prose, the poet writes about his mother, a survivor of the Holocaust

George Szirtes’s mother Magda had a strong will and a weak heart. The weakness dated back to childhood, when she had rheumatic fever, and left her at risk of an early death. The strength came out in the plans she made for her husband László to marry again after she’d gone. She chose a wife for him and expected him to comply. László played along but only to keep her happy. The marriage didn’t take place. Nor did Magda die from a weak heart.

The ambulance was waiting at the junction. She had taken an overdose and time was short. The driver thought he saw a gap, moved forward, then stopped because the gap wasn’t big enough. The car behind ran into the back of the ambulance. The ambulance was damaged. Drivers got ...

Robert Crumb: ‘I am no longer a slave to a raging libido’


This post is by Nadja Sayej from Books | The Guardian


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The controversial artist talks about his latest exhibition, how his feelings on Trump have changed and why he has stopped drawing women

Robert Crumb has always been known as the bad boy of the comics world. He has filled sketchbooks with smutty drawings of women, made offensive remarks and still manages to show at a top New York art gallery with fans waiting for an autograph.

Related: Robert Crumb: ‘I was born weird'

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In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark review – art and scandal


This post is by Alfred Hickling from Books | The Guardian


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Masterpieces one moment, worthless the next – a hoard of ‘Van Goghs’ are at the centre of an irresistible story set in 1920s Berlin

Vincent van Gogh turned a revolver on himself on 27 July 1890, but apparently not even death could halt his output. As more and more works of doubtful authenticity began to infiltrate the market, the German satirist and critic Alfred Kerr wrote: “The dead Vincent keeps painting and painting.”

Kerr was responding to a scandal that shook the German art world in 1932 when a young art dealer named Otto Wacker was sentenced to 19 months in prison for selling faked Van Goghs. A leading authority declared 33 of the Wacker paintings to be forgeries; then brazenly changed his testimony on the witness stand, apparently under pressure from collectors and other interested parties. The most notorious of the Wacker hoard, a self-portrait purchased by ...

Dangerous appetites: the weird, wild world of Dorothea Tanning


This post is by Lara Feigel from Books | The Guardian


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Endless doors, glittering eyeballs, ripping walls ... a major Tate retrospective of Tanning’s art reveals her striking surrealist vision

In 1946, Lee Miller visited Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst in Sedona, Arizona, and took 400 photographs of the desert and her hosts. Her most famous image enlarges Ernst into a giant, striding forwards out of the picture towards us, his expression part inspired, part demonic. Tanning gazes up at him from just behind, caught in profile with her white skirt billowing, shrunk into a compact Alice in Wonderland. Is the photograph observing the power dynamics of the men and women of surrealism, with which Miller was all too familiar? Or is it more concerned with offering us a surrealist desert fairytale?

It was appropriate to depict Tanning as Alice. There is an Alice-like quality to her self-portrait in Birthday, the picture that established her as a painter and brought about ...