from a history of color to how portraits of ‘murderous autocrats’ have shaped art

Mary Beard, Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, Princeton University Press, 384 pages, £ 30 (hb)

Cambridge University researcher Mary Beard reviews 2,000 years of art, analyzing how “portraits of the rich, powerful and famous in the Western world were shaped by the image of Roman emperors,” according to the editor. Beard reinterprets works by artists such as 15th-century Dutch painter Hans Memling and Renaissance figure Andrea Mantegna through the prism of “murderous autocrats” such as Julius Caesar and Emperor Domitian. Beard’s gaze also falls on Titian’s Chamber of Emperors – eleven bust portraits of Roman emperors made for the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua – and the famous Caesarean tapestries by Henry VIII which celebrate the life of the infamous statesman. Roman.

James Fox, The Colored World, Penguin, 320pp, £ 25 (hb)

Art historian James Fox ambitiously presents “a revealing global history of human civilization through the prism of color,” according to an editor’s statement, highlighting the “cultural constructs” around hues daily. Fox discovers how different civilizations and nationalities attribute moral qualities to certain colors, for example by examining the “Western polarization of black and white” – why are terms like the black arts and blackmail so pejorative? How and why artists fall in love with certain colors is also analyzed, from JMW Turner nicknamed The Yellow Dwarf to French artist Yves Klein who patented his own pigment, International Klein Blue.

Gabrielle Selz, Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis, University of California Press, 392pp, $ 34.95 (hb)

Gabrielle Selz chronicles the life and work of Sam Francis in this comprehensive biography that highlights the formative events that shaped the American artist, including how he learned to paint as a former aviation pilot while locked in a full cast for three years. Selz has interviewed artists such as Ed Ruscha and Robert Irwin, relying heavily on private correspondence. Francis’ career as an abstract expressionist is documented, moving from his dripping gestural paintings of the 1940s to calmer, zen works produced in Japan in the 1950s. His pivotal role in founding the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1979 is also explored.

Pablo Bronstein Botanical Gardens (2020-21)

Pablo Bronstein, Hell in Its Heyday (catalog), Koenig Museum / Sir John Soane, £ 24 (bp)

British artist Pablo Bronstein explores a multitude of subjects in his exhibition Hell at its peak at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, from consumerism to queer identity. The shows take visitors on a tour of the afterlife imagined as a monumental city through concert halls, casinos, auto factories and oil rigs. “Bronstein offers us here an ambitious cycle of 22 watercolors and a 20-minute film which together take a look at modern society and its values,” writes museum director Bruce Boucher in the preface. Bronstein comments on all of the illustrations, providing flowery descriptions of features of his fictional hell, such as the botanical gardens where “three pink swans with golden beaks form a fountain under a delicate gilded bronze gazebo adorned with flowers.”

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