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Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Posted in Book Review, Ceramics, Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.

As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.

Victoria & Albert

How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.

William Morris

Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of  their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.

1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:

Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.

Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”

This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.

Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900

The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.

If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote  for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.

Venetian Red Bookshelf: 2009 Picks

Posted in Book Review, Christine Cariati, Design, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles, Wallpaper with tags , , , , on December 1, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Most every Venetian Red post cites a book or two related to the topic at hand. Occasionally we review books at length. Many readers have commented with appreciation, and we decided that more in this department just might be better. Today we introduce Venetian Red Bookshelf, a periodic round up of books, favorites from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait, 1500

In her beautiful book,  A Face to the World, Laura Cumming writes engagingly about the art of the self-portrait. Cumming draws you into her subject with the mesmerizing self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) on the cover and keeps your attention by her thoughtful inquiries into the intriguing art of the self portrait via literature, philosophy, history and biography. The book is thoroughly researched, very well-written, extremely entertaining and beautifully illustrated with self-portraits from Dürer to Warhol. —Christine Cariati.

The Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones. A classic in the annals of design; there isn’t much more to be said here. But if you do want want more, you might be interested in the VR post A Question of Ornament.Liz Hager

Necklace, Jaipur, mid-nineteenth century

Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts, edited by Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer, was published as a companion to the current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. It is a lushly illustrated book that explores both the reality and fantasy surrounding India’s maharajas, with knowledgeable essays about the splendid paintings, textiles, jewelry, metalwork and furniture of India’s rulers from the 18th century to 1947. —Christine Cariati.

Yasuhiro Suzuki—Cabbage Bowls, paperclay. Each leaf “peels” off to become its own functional bowl.

Designing Design, by Kenya Hara. “Creativity is to discover a question that has never been asked. If one brings up an idiosyncratic question, the answer he gives will necessarily be unique as well.” Quite possibly the most inspirational book in my collection.  This book by Japanese designer and curator Kenya Hara is chock full of pearls of deep wisdom on design as a philosophy of life. In between them are loads of images of creative solutions masquerading as products, graphics, systems, food, art. Think different!—Liz Hager

Gunta Stölzl, Untitled, watercolor and colored chalk, 1921

Finally, a book that does justice to the contributions of the women of the Bauhaus movement, Ulrike Müller’s Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design. Müller explores the life and art of the more recognized artists—weavers Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl and metalworker Marianne Brandt—along with those whose work has been largely neglected, such as Gertrud Grunow, Ida Kerkovius, Benite Otte, Otti Berger, Ilse Fehling, Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp, et al. An excellent companion book is Gunta Stolzl: Bauhaus Master, recently published by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with their current exhibition, Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity.Christine Cariati.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Findlay. In this part travelogue, part historical investigation Findlay traverses the globe in search of the often-surprising origin of natural pigments and dyes. Maybe you know that the “Ultramarine Blue” pigment was originally ground up lapis lazuli mined only in Afghanistan. (Michaelangelo is reputed to have held up a painting waiting for the stuff.) But did you know that the royal purple of the ancient world was made from the mucous gland of a sea snail (murex brandaris) or that Napoleon might have died from the arsenic in the green paint of his wallpaper on St. Helena? This book is a welcomed addition to any painter’s bookshelf.  — Liz Hager

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916

Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19 was published to coincide with the exhibition of the same name at The Courtauld Gallery, London, which was held from June-September of this year. It is a beautiful book which, in addition to showing finished pieces, also includes many preliminary sketches for designs. For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, a related exhibition, A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections is currently at Mills College, Oakland until December 13, 2009. —Christine Cariati.

William Kentridge: Five Themes (catalog). William Kentridge is quite possibly the most talented artist working today. He’s a man of enormous creative capacity, who has profound things to say. If you missed the “Five Themes” retrospective in San Francisco and absolutely cannot get to NY MOMA this spring to see it, this catalog may be a painful indication of what you have missed. If you did see the show, the catalog will forever be a reminder of his particular genius.  For more on the exhibition, see Last Days in San Francisco.Liz Hager

Wallpaper: The Ultimate Guide by Charlotte Abrahams is a rather giddy celebration of wallpaper, tracing its history, designers, manufacturers and uses—and has many full-page reproductions of contemporary designs. A good companion to the 2005 second edition of The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns and Techniques of Wallpaper edited by Leslie Hoskins which takes a comprehensive and detailed historical approach to the subject. —Christine Cariati.

Francisco Goya, from Los Caprichos, 1797-98, etching.

The Demon & The Angel, by Edward Hirsch. Mark Rothko once observed that “All art deals with intimations of mortality.” Drawing predominantly on Frederico Garcia Lorca’s concept of the the duende (literally translated as “demon,” although the Spanish word implies inspiration in the face of tragedy, even death), poet Edward Hirsch delves enthusiastically into the source of artistic inspiration, which he believes emanates from both the “irrational splendors” of the duende and the inspirational angel (divine, though not religious, notion). Not limiting himself to poets, Hirsch also invokes Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Jimi Hendrix, Portuguese Fado.  It’s heady to the point of obscurity in parts, but still worth the read for the thought-provoking nature of many of its insights.  —Liz Hager

Trade textile, block-printed and dyed cotton, Gujarat, c.1340-80

Each of the four small hard-cover books included in V&A Pattern: Slipcased Set #1 (William Morris, Digital Pioneers, Indian Florals and The Fifties) comes with a CD which designers can use to rework and redraw the patterns for their own use (after obtaining a license from the V&A.) The V&A plans to issue three more sets in this series, the next, V&A Pattern Slipcase #2, will be out in early 2010 and will include Owen Jones, Novelty Patterns, Secret Garden and Kimono. Not nearly as much fun as spending endless hours rifling through the V&A textile collections in person, but the books are lovely, with an interesting and somewhat unusual assortment of patterns that provide an inspiring glimpse into the vast resources in the V&A’s textile collection. —Christine Cariati.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera & pastel on cardboard.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orland.  What working artist facing the inspirational void hasn’t felt a fevered terror similar to the one depicted in Munch’s celebrated painting?  This booklet of 188 pages is both a pragmatic reminder of reality—i.e. “Making  art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward”— and soothing medicinal balm—i.e. “The best you can do is make art you care about—and lot’s of it! The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.” No artist should be without this. —Liz Hager

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