As one of the most interesting art books of the season, The Chinese Art Book (Phaidon, $59.95) provides a window into the art of the “world’s oldest continuous culture.” Representing all materials and disciplines, the book, introduced by Colin MacKenzie, senior curator at the Nelson-Akins Museum of Art, serves as a compendium of Chinese art dating back to Neolithic cultures and on to works produced today. Effective in its clean presentation and digestible essays by Keith Pratt, Jeffrey Moser, and Katie Hill, the book contextualizes China’s artistic, cultural, and political history through three hundred singular creations. By presenting ancient funerary masks next to digital video stills, the book’s unconventional approach and aesthetic is compelling and informative for both aficionados of and newcomers to the subject.
Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asks, “What’s in a name?” Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, asks what some twenty objects can tell us about the manners and mores of Shakespeare’s Restless World (Viking, $36). Ranging from a communion goblet to a silver medallion to a peddler’s trunk of miscellaneous fabrics, these artifacts offer a trove of illuminating details about Elizabethan history, politics, and culture. In a simple wool cap, MacGregor finds an icon of social stability. A nine-inch, two-prong iron fork recovered at the Rose Theater showed its owner’s continental savvy as well as the importance of concessions to a playhouse’s bottom line. Similarly, MacGregor reads a history of imperial and otherworldly powers in an obsidian “mirror” that belonged to the Aztecs before it was John Dee’s, and notices personal security issues in the rapier and dagger that were standard accessories for young men going out on the town. As he did so brilliantly in A History of the World in 100 Objects, MacGregor lets material culture tell us how much of the past we haven’t lost.