Two ambitious new books recreate the full museum experience between two covers, making the world's artistic masterpieces accessible to all.
THE TREASURES OF EUROPE
Anyone who has ever battled the camera-wielding scrum in front of the Mona Lisa knows that a visit to the Louvre Museum in Paris can be exhausting. Now a handsome new book containing color images of every single Louvre painting on permanent display, The Louvre: All the Paintings, offers a chance to explore the world’s most-visited art museum at a gentler pace.
The Louvre’s permanent collection—3,022 pieces in all—covers European paintings from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. The book is divided into the Italian, Northern, French and Spanish Schools, and each of these is arranged by artist in a rough chronological fashion, allowing the reader to observe as, for example, the brilliant blues and reds of the Italian Renaissance slowly give way to the duskier hues of the Low Countries. Many pages only display numerous small images clustered together, showing the common characteristics of the work of a single artist or period, such as the smooth, O’Keeffe-like spareness of Pierre Henri de Valenciennes’ 18th-century townscapes. Four hundred select masterpieces are given larger images and descriptive paragraphs, and these are the real strengths of the book: The images are rich and sharp, the descriptions thoughtful and clear. An accompanying DVD allows readers to browse all the paintings by school or artist and to see the book’s tinier paintings at a slightly larger size. Altogether, this is a fascinating overview for anyone looking to learn more about the grand old European masters.
ART THROUGH THE AGES
The Art Museum offers a museum experience of an entirely different order. It is an astonishing book, not just because it displays the entire history of world art from the earliest cave paintings to the latest nominees for the Turner Prize, but also because it takes so much space to do it. Weighing nearly 18 pounds and measuring 13 by 17 inches, this is not a book that will fit on most coffee tables, but despite its unwieldy size, it is an exciting, nearly perfect collection of the greatest visual art in human history.
The Art Museum is divided into 25 “galleries” (representing different regions and eras) and 450 smaller “rooms” (representing specific schools, artists or genres), along with special “exhibitions” devoted to specific works or themes. It displays more than 2,500 works of art: paintings, sculptures, tapestries, the interiors and exteriors of buildings, pottery, furniture, photographs and much more. The most impressive “rooms” are the two-page spreads displaying actual rooms or other locations, such as the stunning wide-angle photograph of the ruins of Persepolis. Most rooms contain a handful of representative examples on a theme; every image is perfectly legible and has a substantial, lucid description. While some of the topics are conventional—Netherlandish Portraits, Maya Sculpture, Surrealism—many are more innovative. For example, Room 426, on “Systematic Documentation,” introduces us to artists who obsessively photographed the same objects—cinemas, water towers, Memphis streetscapes—over and over. The scope of the book encourages readers to make unexpected connections, as when rooms devoted to African masks and carvings usher us into a section on the Cubists, hinting at the affinities between the two. Indeed, given the scale of its ambition and achievement, perhaps we should be grateful that The Art Museum is as compact and user-friendly as it is.