- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

Richard Avedon’s death this year has newly focused attention on this great American photographer. He was the brilliant inventor of the story-line fashion shoot, but Avedon’s real passion was for the faces of America: high, low, known, unknown. Some of these were brought to a large audience through his late stint as official photographer for the New Yorker magazine. Avedon’s chef d’oeuvre was the 123 images — out of 752 people photographed — that made up his “In the American West,” one of the outstanding photography books of all time and one of the most deeply felt books about America.

In AvedonAtWork: InTheAmericanWest (Univeristy of Texas Press, $39.95, 132 pages, illus.), Laura Wilson, a writer and amateur photographer who was at Avedon’s side throughout the six summers of the project, has put together a beautiful record of how a perfectionist photographer achieved unforgettable images of men and women who deserve to be remembered.

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The Museum of Modern Art’s collection of modern prints, including illustrated books, is one of the world’s most comprehensive. From this treasure trove, ArtistsandPrints: MasterworksfromtheMuseumofModern Art (Museum of Modern Art, $49.95, 288 pages, illus.), Deborah Wye has culled 350 works of absolutely first-rate quality, beginning with Pierre Bonnard’s seductive rethinking of the relationship of image to page, and ending with the current crop of iconoclasts: the English bad boys Dinos and Jake Chapman, the South African activist William Kentridge.

Deborah Wye’s eye is fabulous, and her navigation through the turbulent waters of modernism virtually flawless. Lots of surprises here: a haunting, unique Degas monotype, “Forest in the Mountains,” its greyed greens floating in luminous suspension; Robert Gober’s painfully real newspaper page mock-up showing himself in wig and bridal gown in a Saks Fifth Avenue ‘advertisement,’ under an article on Vatican harassment of homosexuality.

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In AlltheMightyWorld: ThePhotographsofRogerFenton, 1852-1860 by George Baldwin, Malcolm Daniel, and Sarah Greenough (Yale, $45, 290 pages, illus.), readers will see how Roger Fenton brought the technical and compositional virtuosity of early French photography to England and dramatically changed Victorian photography from an amateur practice into a profession.

He crammed into the 11 years of his photographic career virtually every aspect of the photographic art then being practiced — feats of architectural fixing, fulsome landscapes, war reportage (in which he was a pioneer), daily life with Queen Victoria and her family, carefully staged Oriental dress-up tableaux and still lifes that would have brought tears from a Chardin.

But it is his landscapes and architectural studies that are the most riveting, above all his studies of the ruined abbeys of England, monumental encapsulations of the passing of time.

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Aby Warburg was a definition-defying mix of mystic and punctilious scholar. Creator of an extraordinary library that in the face of Nazism moved from Hamburg, Germany to London, England (now the Warburg Institute of the University of London), his influence has permeated the discipline of art history.

His well-known colleagues, disciples, and followers brought portions of the radical Warburg vision to classrooms and lecture halls on several continents.

Philippe-Alain Michaud in AbyWarburgandtheImageinMotion, translated from the French by Sophie Hawkes (Zone, $33, 402 pages, illus.), brings us into close contact with the more intuitive leaps of Warburg’s thought, with an emphasis on Warburg’s fascination with magic, chance, and the darker territory of human culture, a line that most biographers of Warburg have tended to play down.

Particularly welcome here is the attention given to Warburg’s trip to America, where he found among the Hopi Indians confirmation of his understanding of the rituals of Renaissance Florence.

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The English fascination with Venice — its light, its political system, its mythic heroes — goes back to the Renaissance. But it was Joseph Turner who first pinned down in visual form the strange, elusive gossamer waves of color that are the long-lived memory images of Venice.

Starting in 1819, Turner made three visits to Venice over the course of his career. Ian Warrell’s TurnerandVenice (Tate, $50, 280 pages, illus.) is a remarkably full coverage not only of the artist’s response to the city, but of the influences on him, the reactions to Venice of artists working along side him, and of the legacy he left behind. It is the watercolors that take one’s breath away: washes of color recording the city, from center to periphery, from first dawn over the lagoon to the sparking lights of San Marco at close of day.

The painter’s industry impresses, but his special connection to the city belongs to the gods.

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The spell of the enclosed garden — giving contentment to the rich, easing the journey of the soul to the afterlife, a textbook for the cures of nature, a symbol of Virgin birth — is marked out across the centuries in Penelope Hobhouse’s PlantsinGardenHistory: AnIllustratedHistoryofPlantsandTheirInfluencesonGardenStylesfromAncientEgypt tothePresentDay (Pavilion, $24.95, 336 pages, illus.).

Probably as early as 2000 B.C., and almost certainly in the lush soil bordering the Mediterranean, plants began to be cultivated not simply for their utilitarian value but also for their beauty. The wonderfully architectural lotus leaf, the flowering lily, the giant reeds of the Euphrates, were celebrated in some of the earliest known pictorial documents.

This story of plant cultivation brilliantly combines selected photographs with a panorama of works of art. It’s all here: frescoes from ancient Rome, the illustrated herbals of Dioscorides and his followers, Renaissance and Baroque paintings that shimmer with the mystical charge of fruits and flowers, and views and diagrams of the formal gardens that celebrate the power of the ruler to control nature.

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A quiet, reflective book, GeorgiaO’KeeffeandNewMexico: ASenseofPlace by Barbara Buhler Lynes (Princeton, $39.95, 142 pages, illus.) is a study that slips under the radar screen of Georgia O’Keeffe hype. O’Keeffe visited New Mexico early in her career, but it was in the 1930s that she discovered this land to be her spiritual home. The book is based on an exhibition organized by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe, bringing together works from across the country.

The earliest painting, from the Phillips Collection in Washington, translates the softly molded clay of Ranchos Church, Taos, into mythic shapes that merge with and complete the clay soil out of which they were constructed. The last painting, done in 1951, a view into a canyon’s dry waterfall, recalls O’Keeffe’s early skyscraper studies, now melted into the primordial rock of the Southwest.

A unique feature of the book are the color photographs that match a number of O’Keeffe’s New Mexico landscapes with camera views taken from the same vantage point — startling comparisons that illuminate the combination of realism and abstraction that this eminetly American painter brought to a piece of this country that she loved.

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Although they didn’t know it at the time, the individuals who set up the British Museum in 1753 were creating a perfect embodiment of Enlightenment ethos. Now, a century and a half or so later, especially in books such as Enlightenment: DiscoveringtheWorldintheEighteenthCentury, edited by Kim Sloan with Andrew Burnett (Smithsonian Institution, $50, 304 pages, illus.), we can see the enterprise for what it was — an effort to bring everything that man, in the large sense — knew about himself and the world into one informative, beautiful, dazzling ensemble.

When the British Library packed up and moved to a spacious new building at St Pancras, the curators found themselves scrambling to fill the lacuna left behind. The brilliant solution for the august King’s Library — formerly used mainly as a display space for manuscripts — was to bring together a collection of objects across the full spectrum of all Departments. Celebrating the aims and achievements of the British Museum, this book serves as an accompaniment to the new Enlightment Gallery that now functions as the omphalos — the resonating center — of this great institution.

Debra Pincus, an independent scholar working in Washington, D. C., is associated with the Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts of the National Gallery of Art.

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