The best recent exhibition catalogues

Richard Stemp Author Of The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art
By Richard Stemp

Who am I?

I have always enjoyed looking at art, and love it when I can help others to enjoy it too. Curators and academics are incredibly knowledgeable, but sometimes theory gets in the way, and academic precision can lead to turgid texts. I’d rather write in a way that is as simple as possible – without being condescending – and so help people to understand art more fully. That’s why I love it when exhibitions bring art together in new ways, encouraging us to look afresh at familiar images, or startling us with something we haven’t seen before.


I wrote...

The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art

By Richard Stemp,

Book cover of The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art

What is my book about?

I wanted to write an introduction to the Italian Renaissance which would not only cover as much material as possible, but also give the readers the tools necessary to learn how to look at art that is not included for themselves. Different elements are introduced in simple, bite-sized chunks which gradually lead you towards far more complex ideas and images. As well as being great for the complete beginner, there is also enough unexpected material to surprise and delight enthusiasts who already have some knowledge of the subject.

The books I picked & why

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Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky

By Jonathan Watkins (editor), Amanda Hilliam (editor), Alessandro Delpriori (editor), Stacey Sell (editor), Anna Degler (editor), Audrey Flack (editor)

Book cover of Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky

Why this book?

One of the best ways to keep up with the latest ideas about art is to go to temporary exhibitions curated by the leading minds in each field – which is why I am recommending my favourite catalogues from the past year. Carlo Crivelli is one of my favourite artists, and this particular catalogue is undoubtedly the best thing written about him so far. His work was neglected for decades because Art Historians couldn’t find a way to fit him into a rather restrictive ‘Story of Art.’ The curators wanted to explain what was truly remarkable about him – and they succeeded. Crivelli’s work just happens to be some of the most sophisticated of the 15th century, playing games with picture making that wouldn’t be seen again until the modern era.


Poussin and the Dance

By Emily A Beeny, Francesca Whitlum-Cooper,

Book cover of Poussin and the Dance

Why this book?

It’s hard to love every artist – we all have different tastes – and I have always had problems with the apparently dry and academic art of Nicolas Poussin. That is, until I saw the exhibition Poussin and the Dance. Not only does it show a more relaxed side to this apparently reserved man, reveling in the fluidity and intimacy of movement, but as an exhibition it was perfectly formed. Every object, whether painting, drawing, sculpture, or vase, had a reason to be there, and each was informed by its presence with the others: a true conversation between artworks that you could enjoy and from which you could learn. And of course, the clarity of the minds which brought these exhibits together is also evident in the writing of the catalogue.


Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection

By Stephan Koja,

Book cover of Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection

Why this book?

The exhibition dedicated to Johannes Vermeer at the Old Master Picture Gallery in Dresden last year was one of the best I have ever seen. Inspired by a recent discovery – a crucial detail in one of the Gallery’s own works had been painted over – the exhibition set out to explore the artist’s work in-depth focusing on this one image. The restoration of the painting and the revelation of the hidden detail led to a re-evaluation of Vermeer’s art. Each room of the exhibition, and chapter of the book, introduces a different aspect of the painting so that, when you finally get to see it and read about it, you have a thorough understanding of its meaning and development, and even of the society in which it was produced.


Laura Knight: A Panoramic View

By Anthony Spira, Fay Blanchard,

Book cover of Laura Knight: A Panoramic View

Why this book?

Some artists, I think, have been unjustly neglected. In 1936, 168 years after it was founded, Laura Knight was the first woman to be elected as a full member of the Royal Academy of Art. In 1965 she was the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the same august institution, and yet today her name is little known. Why is that? Quite simply because she was a woman. Not only that, but her work valued the traditional craft of naturalistic representation precisely when abstraction, and then other forms of art beyond painting, became popular. Last year’s exhibition, the most comprehensive staged so far, together with the superbly written and illustrated catalogue, should go a long way to set the record straight. I think she was a great artist!


Alison Watt: A Portrait Without Likeness: A Conversation with the Art of Allan Ramsay

By Julie Lawson, Tom Normand, Andrew O'Hagan

Book cover of Alison Watt: A Portrait Without Likeness: A Conversation with the Art of Allan Ramsay

Why this book?

To my mind, Alison Watt’s unerring eye and technical skills rank among the best, and conceptually her paintings are equally compelling. Dealing with the complexities of perception, they constantly question the nature of art: what is this magic that paint alone can perform? Her work is an ongoing conversation with the art of the past, and the exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was her response to the 18th Century portraitist Allan Ramsay. The paintings remind me of exhibits in a trial, or evidence of a forensic examination, focusing on specific details, insisting that we look more closely, enjoying forms and colours, and inviting us to speculate on their relevance to the original subjects. The catalogue, beautifully produced, is a work of art in its own right.


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