Peter Conrad’s best art books of 2017

A quest for the real Leonardo da Vinci, a memorial to Leonora Carrington and the art in Proust fascinate and illuminate

The definite article in the subtitle of Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography (Simon & Schuster £25.50) says it all – but why should the bestselling biographer of Benjamin Franklin, Einstein and Steve Jobs pretend to false modesty? Isaacson is uniquely well-equipped to write the definitive account of a universal man who was a painter and a musician, a scientific theorist and an engineer, a designer of military hardware and a theatrical impresario, and he makes Leonardo’s technological contraptions – a hoist, a perpetual-motion machine, a needle-grinder – seem every bit as fantastical as the effeminate saints and enigmatic sibyls he painted.

Isaacson marvels at the infinite curiosity of a thinker who set himself to “describe the tongue of the woodpecker”, yet refuses to babble about genius as a supernatural gift. His Leonardo is a human being with foibles and frailties, whose great mind ultimately goes into a “tailspin” in his late drawings of an apocalyptic deluge: the intelligence that wondered at the miracle of creation took an almost crazed delight in the spectacle of destruction.

James Hamilton’s Gainsborough: A Portrait (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25) presents the painter of the Georgian aristocracy as a riotously ungenteel character – a rake whose hell-raising habits prompt Hamilton to call him “Jerry Lee Lewis with a paintbrush”. Barbara Ehrlich White’s Renoir: An Intimate Biography (Thames & Hudson £24.95) is equally startling. Renoir’s creamy nudes encourage us to think of him as an unabashed hedonist; White, however, emphasises his grim battle with rheumatoid paralysis, which left him scarcely able to manipulate a brush. Art served as Renoir’s medicine, the only alleviation of his pain, and he emerges here as a brave stoic rather than a sweet-toothed connoisseur of female flesh.

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (Virago £20) is a funny, touching account of Joanna Moorhead’s unexpected friendship with the wildly imaginative painter and writer who happened to be her long-lost cousin. Carrington, a renegade debutante, scorned stuffy England and fled to Mexico with Max Ernst; incongruously nicknamed Prim by her family, she began life as a rebellious child, enchanted and alarmed Buñuel with her sensual antics, and aged into a hawk-eyed, fiendishly witty sorceress who mocked death and defied it to take her. She is lucky to have found such a memorialist.

Leonora Carrington in her studio in Mexico City in 2010, the year before her death.
Leonora Carrington in her studio in Mexico City in 2010, the year before her death. Photograph: Virago

In Ravilious and Co: The Pattern of Friendship (Thames & Hudson £24.95), Andy Friend has a more sedate but socially ominous story to tell. The watercolours and wood engravings of Eric Ravilious and a circle of friends including Edward Bawden helped to establish a “graphic identity” for Britain in the 1930s. Their homespun provincial anecdotes pastoralised the country: a foreign observer remarked that genteel leisure was the main preoccupation of what was once a hard-working industrial nation. This villagey vision of the country has renewed relevance now that Great Britain is contracting into Little England, literally insulated from the modern world.

A similarly enticing rural idyll recurs often in Martin Salisbury’s The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970 (Thames & Hudson £24.95). Vistas of somnolent valleys are wrapped around National Trust guides; on the covers for books about the English counties edited by John Betjeman; John Piper relishes wistful Gothic decay. A series on country pubs has designs in blushing, bibulous hues that aimed, according to marketers in the 1930s, “to seize the beholder in a chromatic embrace and give him a mental shake”. The selection also includes a balefully modernist jacket for Metropolis, the book of Fritz Lang’s science-fiction film, plus some lush art deco extravaganzas that improbably package novels by Ernest Hemingway. It’s all wickedly but irresistibly nostalgic.

Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles (Thames & Hudson £25) is a visual accompaniment to Proust’s labyrinthine mnemonic novel In Search of Lost Time – indispensable for the addict, but also enticing for the casual browser, since Proust’s mind contained a multi-cameral gallery of pictures, which he cited as sources for his characters and landscapes. His narrator notices women in the street who have stepped out of “the new and perishable universe” created by Renoir; as the novelist Bergotte dies, he muses about a “little patch of yellow wall” in a Vermeer view of Delft, a symbol of aesthetic perfection and a memento of the imperfect world he is leaving. Proust’s verbal images aspired to the condition of painting, and here their wish is granted.

Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein: a tour of the director’s sketchbooks exposes often erotic scenarios he did not dare include in his films. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Naum Kleiman’s Eisenstein on Paper (Thames & Hudson £60) does some cerebral spying on the great Soviet film director. The tour of Eisenstein’s sketchbooks deciphers what he called his “visuastenography”, and exposes scenarios he did not dare to include in his films. The graphic escapades are often erotic. In a Mexican arena the horned bull seems to be humping the matador; Nijinsky is sketched while performing his notorious act of frottage in the ballet Afternoon of a Faun. If you have ever wondered why Shakespeare doesn’t let us look inside the room where Macbeth kills Duncan, you should – if you’re not easily shocked – take a peep at Eisenstein’s imagined version of the forbidden scene. Here we see into the darkness punctuating the lighted images that flash across the cinema screen 24 times a second, as if we had penetrated the shuttered recess of Eisenstein’s subconscious.

The Artist Project (Phaidon £49.95) sets 100 contemporary artists loose in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to locate works that have a particular resonance for them. “The goddam Metropolitan Museum!” sighs one participant, depressed by the surfeit of masterpieces. Some of the players opt to spend their time venerating Velasquez or Rembrandt; more intrepid explorers track down obscure treasures, among them a murky totem from Mali and a slit gong from Vanuatu, a fragment of the pharaoh Akhenaten’s sinuous sculpted mouth and some armour worn by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. A Vietnamese exile selects a Eugène Atget photograph of a messy Parisian kitchen, as a homesick reminder that cooking is synonymous with culture. The choices made and the commentaries that explain them are endlessly fascinating: here is the voluminous proof of Proust’s belief that art multiplies reality, enabling us to see the world from inside someone else’s head.

To order any of the titles above for a special price, click on their titles, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Peter Conrad

The GuardianTramp

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