Reading is an intimate act. When we hold a book, we take possession of the words–with our hands and our eyes as well as with our mind. And when the book is an art book, we take possession not only of words but also of images. Of course, the images in art books are secondhand, because the startling immediacy of the painting or the sculpture has been diluted by the photographer’s lens and the printer’s ink. But we know this before we pick up an art book (we are not quite the victims of mechanical reproduction that Walter Benjamin feared we would become). And reproductions have their advantages, for we can strike up an easygoing acquaintance with them, which can in turn give us a yearning for the deeper, less readily contained experiences that we have with works of art in galleries and museums.
Or so I felt as I went through a raft of recent books dealing with the visual arts. A part of what is most satisfying in this season’s fare is the appearance of some volumes of relatively modest dimensions, which manage nevertheless to suggest the wildest reaches of artistic experience. Some of the most interesting new art books actually contain relatively few reproductions. And some of the best picture books suggest a break with the coffee-table behemoths; they are books you can hold easily, as you would a novel.
Poets and the visual arts—it is a vast subject; and all through the twentieth century artists and writers collaborated almost constantly, sometimes with such intensity that it seemed as if they were passing back and forth a single flask labeled “Inspiration.” Few poets have written more eloquently about the visual arts than Rilke, and one of the most beautiful books of the year is his Auguste Rodin(Archipelago Books, $30), translated by Daniel Slager, with photographs by Michael Eastman, which bring us close to the charged surfaces of Rodin’s bronzes, and catch their storm-tossed intensity. Rodin was at times a disturbingly bombastic artist–while his Gates of Hell may be the work of a genius, it is also pure kitsch–but in the years just after 1900, when Rilke got to know him, the avant-garde was still inclined to embrace Rodin as a rough-hewn visionary, a man in whose studio, as Rilke wrote, “everything was becoming, but nothing was in a hurry.” For Rilke, both Rodin and Cézanne suggested, through the very physicality of their labors, a route beyond fin-de-siècle preciosity. Rilke discovered in Rodin a man who was utterly committed to the materiality of the artistic vocation. Rodin taught Rilke to make his feelings concrete.