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.
Drawn from the exhibition commemorating the quadricentennial of Caravaggio’s death in 1610, CARAVAGGIO (Skira, $70), edited by Rossella Vodret, of the Polo Museale in Rome and Francesco Buranelli, a member of the Pontifical Commision for Cultural Heritage, presents two dozen of the 50 paintings that have been attributed with certainty to this 17th-century master. Each of the paintings is accompanied by an essay on its subject as well as on the details of the work itself. While many of the paintings are icons, like the Bacchus from 1597 and The Supper at Emmaus from 1601, others, such as the Basket of Fruit and Sleeping Cupid, are less familiar. Caravaggio, who often found the models for his saints among street ruffians, has been called the master of light and dark for the striking chiaroscuro that typifies his work; this is a great occasion to revisit this Baroque master.
TELLING STORIES: Norman Rockwell from The Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (Abrams, $65) is the companion volume to the impressive exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Essays by Virginia Mecklenburg, with help from Todd McCarthy, outline the ways Rockwell influenced his kindred spirits, Lucas and Spielberg. All three artists produced incredible bodies of work that, taken together, document classic American images, values, history, and dreams. Rockwell used his medium to tell stories, but unlike the filmmakers, did it in only one frame. He built his pictures using an almost cinematic approach, creating a setting, rehearsing a scene, defining characters, and creating visual impact. Text and photographs demonstrate how lighting, props, and costumes maximized the sense of dramatic moment. For those who didn’t get to enjoy the collection in person, this book is a great introduction to an amazing selection of paintings. For those lucky enough to have seen the exhibit, the catalog makes a wonderful keepsake.