What survives from the past—what we see in textbooks and museums—are the monuments and artworks of an age. But how do we interpret these artifacts? And can we trust, say, images of battle scenes commissioned by the victors to accurately portray their subject? HOW TO READ WORLD HISTORY IN ART (Abrams, $35) explores the relationship between those who control the historical record and the masterworks used to pass down particular versions of events. The authors, Flavio Febbraro and Burkhard Schwetje, give a two-page spread to each of the scores of artworks they study; this includes a summary of the relevant historical event and close scrutiny of the piece’s significant details. The book considers the great figures of history, including Charlemagne and George Washington, and the great battles, but it also offers a look at everyday life during periods of upheaval, such as bubonic plague years, and turning points like the Industrial Revolution. From the Code of Hammurabi to the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, this volume makes a magnificent and masterful tour of unforgettable historical moments and the great works of art in their wake.
From the opening pages, when two thieves dressed as policemen steal $500 million worth of art from a Boston museum, The Gardner Heist (HarperCollins, $14.99) speeds along like fiction. What follows is journalist Ulrich Boser’s precise, fascinating unraveling of the greatest art-crime in history and the obsessive investigations that followed. Boser illuminates the shadowy black markets that swallowed the paintings. He also shares the quirky history of the Gardner Museum itself. We meet its eccentric founder, the 19th-century heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner, along with the many art detectives, underworld denizens, and aficianados whose lives have been warped by the theft. The Gardner Heist is at once a page-turning mystery and a poignant meditation on the seductive, sometimes destructive, power of art.
John Drewe was a very smart man, but he wasn’t a nuclear physicist, a professor, or an international armaments consultant. He wasn’t even John Drewe. But he had something of a Midas touch, turning everything into fool’s gold. His own Provenance (Penguin, $16) was as phony as that of the paintings he passed off as original Giacomettis and Dubuffets. Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo reconstruct the fascinating story of how Drewe, aka John Cockett, aka Rickard Cockcraft, manipulated a talented but unexceptional--and broke--artist into creating works in the style of great painters, and how through the 1990s he charmed and duped art dealers, archivists, curators, collectors, and a world of art experts. The thriller pace, the amazing feats of a criminal mind, the tour of galleries and studios, and that nagging question of what is real make this book hard to put down.