A fascinating exercise and assay, Traces of Vermeer (Oxford, $34.95) serves as an elucidating technical accompaniment to the broader scope of Vermeer in Detail. Jane Jelley is, first and foremost, a painter. But she has become something of a reconstructive art historian through her engagement with Vermeer and his artistic process. Vermeer’s startling command of light, the snapshot-like quality of his 17th century masterworks, has long baffled even his greatest admirers. It would seem he used a camera obscura as an optic aide, but how exactly Vermeer might have used it—and whether its use in some way detracts from his genius—has been highly controversial. Jelley brings a vast knowledge, and, more importantly, practice, of traditional painting techniques to this discussion: grinding one’s own pigment, preparing canvases, long apprenticeships, third glazes. Through trials in the studio, she proposes a novel suggestion as to how exactly Vermeer could have used a camera obscura lens to arrive at his compositions, plot them onto canvas, and then prepare and layer paint to create his unparalleled works. The process, she maintains, would only further elevate Vermeer’s genius. Jelley’s engaging prose is a boon to both scholars and casual art appreciators.
“Thinking is my fighting,” Virginia Woolf said, and this might be Sentilles’s motto. Her profound and unsettling meditation on war and violence proposes many ways—writing, painting, making music, taking photos—to counter, if not undo, war’s devastation. Writing in the line of John Berger and Susan Sontag, Sentilles starts with the moral implications of looking at images of pain. She considers ethical problems of aestheticizing suffering and asks what good can be done for the victims by the viewer’s sympathy and unease. Yet without seeing exactly what war does, how will people learn to reject it as a solution? Writing in brief chunks, personal as journal entries, Sentilles tells multiple stories simultaneously. These concern a student in her art theory class who had served as a guard at Abu Ghraib; her grandfather, who was traumatized by his service in World War II; and Howard, a CO who was imprisoned for his refusal to serve. These profiles lead to discussions of Japanese American internment camps, lynchings, PTSD (and its foreshadow, the fear-driven anticipatory TSD), the inheritance of trauma by later generations, the use and sacrifice of animals in war, and artists’ appropriation of war images for art. While Sentilles, a former divinity student, closes with a prayer that the world be made anew, she knows the task will be long and difficult.
As Walter Benjamin was “more than a literary critic,” John Berger is more than an art critic. The work collected in Landscapes (Verso, $26.95) dates from 1954 to 2015 and includes essays, memoirs, and poetry. It showcases Berger’s skills as storyteller and aphorist (“a drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event…a ‘finished’ work is an attempt to construct an event in itself”), and as a Marxist art historian. Defining “landscapes” in the broadest sense, these pieces evoke not only actual places—Ramallah, Finistère—but map the intellectual ground of figures including Roland Barthes, Rosa Luxemburg, and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as exploring the particular terrain of the European peasantry and the Soviet states. “The Moment of Cubism” is quintessential Berger, showing how Picasso and Braque “imagined the world transformed, but not the process of transformation,” and how this marked a shift from the Renaissance, when not the way something was depicted but the subject determined the picture’s expressive power. Berger is as attentive to what lies outside a frame as to the colors and lines within it, and his sincerest wish is that all “art should be an inspiration to life—not a consolation.”