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Four Takes: On artists and art, New biographies take us behind the pictures, The Boston Sunday Globe


December 20, 2020

Books about artists place their authors, at best, in a draw with their subjects. After all, the art is what drives our interest. How well can an account of the life, or an analysis of the work, ultimately compete? Still, the privilege of looking is not always ours. Especially if they contain good reproductions, books about artists can serve as bridges to their visual worlds.

In “Goya: A Portrait of the Artist,” the formidably prepared Janis A. Tomlinson takes on one of the masters of Spanish painting. Her latest and fifth book on the artist aims to be definitive. At times, “Goya” can overwhelm with its granular focus. Tomlinson is a restrained writer who adheres closely to the documentary record. Nevertheless, at least two Goyas emerge: one who became a polished court painter, and one who registered the underside of Spanish life, satirizing its superstitions and vanities. He had a way with unhinged minds.

Born in 1746, Francisco Goya worked in the shadow of the French Revolution. His career, spent mostly in Madrid, entwined him with people in power. He was present as Carlos III set about modernizing a fetid capital; witnessed the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy; weathered five years of Napoleon’s brother on the Spanish throne; and was able to welcome the restoration of Ferdinand VII in 1814, with a reminder that he was still owed money for a portrait.

Tomlinson makes clear how fiercely artists competed for favor at the Spanish court. Goya managed well enough to live in bourgeois comfort even through times of crisis. An inventory taken during his 60s noted that he owned 12 mattresses.

Misfortune found him nevertheless. Of Goya’s seven children, only one survived to adulthood. Illness destroyed the artist’s hearing at 47. Increasingly attuned to human suffering, he left us with a posthumous warning in the etchings grouped as “The Disasters of War.”

If Goya’s visual rebuke of the Age of Reason speaks perennially to new generations, Max Jacob might have wished it had skipped his. Known today (if at all) as the Frenchman who befriended a youthful Picasso, Jacob attained prominence as both an artist and a writer in early-20th-century Paris. “Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters” by Rosanna Warren establishes his importance to the city’s creative circles. It also portrays a man tragically of his time.

Gay, Jewish, and conflicted about both, Jacob converted to Catholicism after experiencing a vision some 20 years before the Nazis came calling. (To no avail: bound for Auschwitz, he would die in a transit camp.)

Jacob is credited with innovations in poetry and with revitalizing the prose poem. He also published novels. From about 1913 on, however, he typically earned more from his paintings. Disappointingly, the book features few examples.

Warren links the mystical strain in Jacob’s character to love for his native Brittany, and a longing to feel thoroughly French. History, of course, had other plans. Warren chillingly sketches the rise of anti-Semitism in France, and the stunning speed with which the Nazis’ extermination program advanced there.

If Jacob is little known in the United States, no such problem afflicts Frida Kahlo. Embraced for her bold mix of symbols and vibrant color, Kahlo has ascended to feminist superstardom. In “Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist,” Celia Stahr argues that the Mexican artist’s three years in the United States were crucial to her development.

In 1930, newly married to Diego Rivera, Kahlo followed the celebrated muralist to San Francisco, Detroit, and New York, where he worked on a series of commissions. She was just 23. How she skirted eclipse by her much older husband will probably always remain a mystery, but Stahr traces her opening moves. A pilgrimage to the gardens of Luther Burbank inspired a breakthrough painting, presenting the famed botanist as both man and tree, and arguably opening the way to Kahlo’s more autobiographical works.

After her return to Mexico, Kahlo’s reputation rose. At 31, she secured a gallery show in New York. In Paris for a group show shortly afterward, she met Picasso.

Not everybody did. A new critical appreciation of the American photographer Walker Evans suggests that he held himself aloof during a formative visit to France in 1926-27. “Walker Evans: Starting From Scratch,” by Svetlana Alpers, probes his attraction to all things French, including work by the pioneer photographer Eugene Atget.

Alpers draws particularly intriguing parallels between Evans and Flaubert. As the novelist sought to eliminate the authorial presence from his work, she proposes, so Evans strove for erasure behind the lens.

Evans is probably best known for documenting the Great Depression, but as Alpers demonstrates, his range was much broader. Content to play second fiddle, she has front-loaded her book with plentiful examples, letting the photographs vouch for his brilliance.

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