Friday, December 10, 2010

Books in Art

A few weeks ago, my family spent a sunny Friday playing hooky from regular daily life and instead visiting two terrific temporary art exhibitions in downtown Washington, DC. As usual, I had books in my backpack just in case a few minutes appeared in our schedule--but the day was packed with images of reading and books completely aside from the ones I was carrying.

The first exhibition we attended was the Norman Rockwell showing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Rather than being a general retrospective of the artist's work, this particular exhibition draws from the Rockwell collections belonging to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to point out how much Rockwell told complete stories in his individual paintings.

Rockwell told stories with his images, but he also illustrated the fact that stories create our images. I especially love this painting of a young boy reading his way into the chivalric book he holds:

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After a wonderful bento lunch at my 11yo son's current favorite restaurant Teaism, we headed down to the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art to take in their amazing Arcimboldo exhibit.  Arcimboldo painted in the sixteenth century, but his pictures of people entirely created out of vegetables or flowers or fish seem entirely modern.  While most of his pictures used natural elements to create his fantastical portraits, I am especially drawn to his painting of a librarian, made from books.  Check out those bookmark fingers!

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I love checking out what C.B. James finds for his "Picture Reading" series, whether they are paintings or photographs, serious or funny. Do you have your own favorite pictures of reading? Please feel free to provide links in the comments!


  1. I LOVE that Rockwell painting and the fact that you can see the knight's glasses, so you know the boy is imagining himself into the adventure. And what a sweet, faithful hound! I wonder if he's a reference to the dogs who were often shown at the feet of knights' effigies on their tombs?

    It sounds like a great jaunt!

  2. Aren't those glasses perfect? And his little cowlick is echoed by the plume on the knight's helmet.

    I didn't think about the dog-knight reference at all, but I bet Rockwell did! And I know he loved to paint dogs with his kids. A terrific confluence.

  3. Oh, these paintings are beautiful! Especially the first one. The significance of the dog at the boy's feet would have been lost on me had it not been for Penny's comment.

  4. That is exactly what I was hoping would happen on this blog! I hope you readers will continue to share insights and thoughts to help me see more about the books I am reading. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  5. Both great exhibits, and made complete by that visit to Teaism. A favorite place of mine too for a little ginger tea and udon noodles. Aren't we lucky to live in such a great place?

  6. Absolutely! We'll have to meet at Teaism some time for some book chat!

  7. SlowPlot-DrivenReaderDecember 12, 2010

    The Arcimboldo exhibit left me pondering the question of what do we mean by modern and post-modern. His works seems centuries ahead of their time. The more I learn about the earlier artists, the more I see how connected we are to them. So perhaps I am simply centuries late to Arcimboldo's time.

  8. SPDR: Until very recently when I saw Archimbaldo's work, I thought he must be a contemporary artist. Is if foodie postmodernism or is it Italian Renaissance?

    I love how what we think of as new is so often simply a reflection of what is old. I am seeing that in the pre-reading I am doing for the classics project as well.

    Where should we explore next?

  9. I adore Norman Rockwell's paintings. There's actually one on a sign above a tattoo parlour in our town!

  10. Now that is hysterical, VR! Which one? Now I have thoughts of Norman Rockwell painting a picture of a young sailor in a tattoo parlor getting inked...

  11. The more I look at the Rockwell, the more connections I see between the two subjects. The cloud around the head of the knight is his own dream, maybe. The shadow if the real boy is the long hair and skirts of the woman behind the knight. The dog doubles as the shield with the lion. The castle is paralleled by the stack of books. And what is that in their right hands? A And then there are the contrasts: the upright posture of the knight versus the hunch of the reader. Anything else?

  12. I was in DC for an extended weekend in October and also saw the Rockwell exhibit. I will shamefully admit that if it hadn't been for the Spielberg/Lucas connection, I might have skipped it. However, as soon as I viewed the first room of paintings I realized that I had sold Rockwell short as a painter (perhaps because of his connection with advertising). This one doesn't have a book connection but I was particularly struck by the painting called "The Jury." The subjects were vivid and vibrant. Their faces were so expressive, and the layers of paint were so thin, conveying that Rockwell didn't have to keep trying again and again applying more layers of paint to achieve just the right expression. It looks effortless.

    Did you see the one of Jo March reading in the attic? In the info below the painting it was mentioned that Rockwell illustrated a biography of Louisa May Alcott. The blog author of Louisa May Alcott is my Passion has a copy of this book and posted about it recently. Here's the Link:
    Post about Rockwell-Alcott.

  13. I completely understand about selling Rockwell short. When I was a child, my mother (almost against her will) took me and my grandmother to his house/museum. As soon as she saw the miraculous depth in the Thanksgiving picture, she totally changed her mind. What I remember most from that picture (which was not at the DC exhibit) was the ice water in the cut-glass goblet on the white table cloth.

    Thank you so much for the link to the Rockwell-Alcott post. LMA is one of my oldest favorites and I fell in love with Rockwell's painting of Jo.


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