Review | Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King

9780385666091Ross King’s Leonardo and The Last Supper is a solid historical work on the artist and one of his most famous paintings. King does a good job setting the stage, by writing about the historical context in which da Vinci creates, as well as examining details of da Vinci’s distinct style and how it fit in within the larger context of art history.

The Last Supper has been the subject of many other art works, and yet da Vinci’s version became iconic long before Dan Brown launched a new generation of conspiracy theorists. King does a good job in examining what set da Vinci’s version apart from all others, in terms of technique, form and treatment of subject matter.

It is also interesting to get to know a bit of the man behind the work. Da Vinci has become such a cultural icon that it’s difficult to separate him from the mythos around him. King keeps the book firmly on the ground, and contextualizes da Vinci within his time, as well as paints a portrait of a man who is much more flawed than his “genius” moniker suggests.

My only concern with this book is that despite the rich history it explores, the writing itself is very dry. The beginning seemed a bit slow, and snippets of really interesting observations seemed almost lost within paragraphs of detail. I wanted to love the book, and I did learn some interesting tidbits throughout, but unfortunately, it was just very, very slow-going for me.

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Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Dancers Among Us, Jordan Matter

Dancers-Among-Us-Flat-Cover-700x824Oh wow. Seriously, that was all I could say when I opened up Jordan Matter’s absolutely gorgeous photography book Dancers Among Us

It’s breathtaking. These are photos that celebrate life, that just burst from the page with utter, utter joy, and make you stop, take a moment, and stare, because there is just so much going on in these images.

The subjects in the photographs are dancers, human beings who are so well in tune with their bodies that the slightest turn of the hand conveys a range of emotion, and the most dramatic of poses appears natural, almost languid. These are people who understand the human form, and who can make their every movement express so much. The book is as much a celebration about the art of dance as it is of life itself. Some of the photographs appear to be almost Photoshopped — no way can a human rise that high into the air and look so relaxed — and yet, these photographs are all real, these people do have the ability to do that.

To my surprise, however, my favourite images were not the ones that featured incredible acrobatic feats. Rather, they were the subtler movements — still, no doubt, requiring amazing physicality, but not the type of pose that’ll make an audience immediately burst into applause. There are images where it seems like the dancer is literally levitating, but I prefer the ones that seem almost like a regular person can do it, until you realize that the level of grace or the precision of movement are extraordinary. Dancers are trained to tell stories with their bodies, and Matter’s photographs take a specific moment to tell the full story.

Matter situates his subjects in a variety of public spaces — meadows, subway trains, pedestrian crossings, even a cemetery. The photos can almost be of any of us, living our regular lives, yet the movement of these dancers brings the ordinary scene to vivid, striking, vibrant life. The utter silliness of an elderly man singing in the shower is juxtaposed, pages apart, with the image of a woman draped over a headstone, utterly limp with grief.

The book is divided into topics (love, grief, work, etc), and Matter includes some text with each section, relating incidents from his own life. I admit I skimmed over those parts, because to be honest, the images were just so compelling I wanted to see more. Still, they were lovely tributes to his family, and little glimpses into his personal life. I do plan to giving it a closer read when I look through this book again. For now, however, I couldn’t help but indulge in his photography.

These are all professional dancers, and if you are familiar with that world, you may appreciate it even more than I did. I was just blown away. This is a gorgeous, absolutely beautiful book. Words cannot do it justice.

Below are a few of my favourite images, all from the artist’s website.

Dancers Among Us | Chicago, Angela Dice and Demetrius McClendon

Dancers Among Us | Chicago, Angela Dice and Demetrius McClendon

Dancers Among Us | San Francisco, Dudley Flores

Dancers Among Us | San Francisco, Dudley Flores

Dancers Among Us | A Train, Lisa Cole

Dancers Among Us | A Train, Lisa Cole

Dancers Among Us | 5th Avenue, Michael McBride and Ellenore Scott

Dancers Among Us | 5th Avenue, Michael McBride and Ellenore Scott

To see more photos and learn about the artist, the book and the prints he’s selling for charity, check out his website: dancersamongus.com.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Full disclosure: I read about this book in their catalogue, loved the concept, and asked if they could send me a teaser booklet or a link to a website with photos, so that I may learn more about it, and write about it on my blog. Instead, they sent me a finished copy of the book. A lovely surprise, Thomas Allen Ltd, thank you.

Review | The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson, George A. Walker

Most Canadians know Tom Thomson as a famous Canadian artist affiliated with the Group of Seven. His disappearance during a canoe trip and the discovery of his body days later have remained a tragic, yet intriguing mystery. Official cause of death was accidental drowning, but clues suggest possible foul play. If you’re interested in knowing more about this story, here’s the Wikipedia entry, and I’d also highly recommend Roy MacGregor’s fascinating Northern Light.

George A. Walker’s The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson is a beautiful addition to the list of books on Tom Thomson. Curator Tom Smart calls it a “visual elegy,” and I think that describes the book perfectly. Mysterious Death contains a hundred and nine woodblock engravings that cover Thomson’s life from his youth in the city to his death in Algonquin Park. I’m a fan of Porcupine’s Quill books in general — I love their textured pages, and think this is such a fitting format for the starkness of Walker’s medium. Mysterious Death is a wordless narrative, so all we have is a single black and white woodcut print at the centre of each page.

Certainly, it is possible to tell a story using only images, but I wouldn’t recommend reading Mysterious Death as a biographical resource on Tom Thomson. Rather, it is best to know a bit about Thomson’s life in order to understand the story. Because the images are so stylized, with faces either in shadow, or portrayed with few lines, and because there is no text, it can be difficult to recognize Thomson or other characters. Rather than give details about Thomson’s life, Walker gives impressions. This is especially true in the second half, about Thomson’s life at Algonquin. While the first half shows a more structured narrative, of Thomson as a professional artist, selling and exhibiting his work, the second half feels more like scenes plucked at random. Walker intersperses images of Thomson painting or fishing with images of the landscape, and creates an overall idyllic picture. Some of Walker’s images also give pleasant jolts of recognition, calling to mind, for example, Thomson’s famous The Jack Pine or West Wind.

The section on the fateful canoe trip is especially interesting because of the anger Walker conveys in his images. We may not understand the circumstances behind Thomson’s altercation with another man, but we can feel the menace, and the frustration. Walker’s account answers no questions about Thomson’s life; rather, it offers readers a sense of how that life must have felt — from the sense of purpose of getting his work exhibited, to the more relaxed, idyllic days painting in Algonquin Park, and finally, to the altercation that preceded his death.

Images from the book, from the Porcupine’s Quill website

A fact from the Author’s Note that I found especially interesting: The block used for the last image in the book is from branches believed to have fallen from the trees Thomson painted in Byng Inlet. That’s a fitting, rather haunting connection, eh?