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December 2001
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

I got to thinking about visual art--particularly fantasy/sf-related art--as I started to consider what I would read for this month's column, and wondered if it really has a place in a forum normally devoted to discussing story and characters and ideas. And as soon as the question arose, I realized that of course it's relevant--as much and perhaps more so than the prose such art illustrates.

Why more so? Well, for many of us it was the visual images that first drew us into this field. A book cover that caught our eye. Illustrations in a fairy tale or a classic children's story that was read to us when we were young. Perhaps it was the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, or comic books, or Salvador Dali, or the pulp magazines. The visual caught our attention, awoke our imagination, and helped stir the fire of the Sense of Wonder that we still look for when we open a book or a magazine.

We didn't come full-blown into reading these wonderful stories about space and the future and Middle Earths. Though some of us came to the field through the recommendation of a trusted friend ("You've got to read this."), most of us were drawn to them first by that visual stimulus.

Which isn't to say that art is, or should be, subservient to the written word. Not by a long shot. At the risk of being accused of trotting out an old cliché (okay, I am, but bear with me), a picture really is worth a thousand words. It doesn't have to be narrative or illustrative art, either. It can simply be some abstract image that puts our imaginations into gear. For while good art doesn't have to tell a story, like good fiction, it should still awake stories in us--the ones that we see in the work.

All of which is a long preamble to a discussion of a number of art books that have shown up in my post office box of late . . .

*     *     *

Opus 2 - Barry Windsor-Smith
Fantagraphic Books, 2001; 224pp; $49.95
Hardcover; ISBN 1-56097-393-5

As was the case with Opus 1, which was reviewed in one of last year's columns (the March 2000 issue), this second volume of Barry Windsor-Smith's autobiography/monograph series can be appreciated on different levels.

Visually, it contains another wonderful sampling of his mostly Romantic art: paintings, drawings, sketches, and studies, rendered in pen & ink, pencil, watercolor, and gouache. There are stand-alone pieces, excerpts from strips, and even complete strips, all with accompanying commentary that illuminates the artist's process and the history of the piece, but leavened with plain language and humor so that it never becomes precious.

To repeat what I said of Opus 1, if that was all Windsor-Smith had given us with these books, it would have been enough. But he's also using these books as a way of exploring the way the paranormal has intruded into his life. The greater portion of the text is devoted to relating to such experiences and his thoughts on them. Employing a similar language and tone as was used in his descriptions of the art, Windsor-Smith discusses these spiritual matters in an accessible manner so that unlike the narratives of some other authors, with too much flowery language, or too many New Age platitudes, he doesn't lose the general reader.

As he points out in the "Afterthoughts" section of the book, the greater part of the world embraces the paranormal as a part of every-day life. It's only in Western culture that we live a life divorced from spiritual concerns and it's refreshing to have someone write about it so matter-of-factly. You don't have to believe, but if you approach this material with an open mind, you'll find a thought-provoking experience, worthy of your time.

Or you can simply appreciate the gorgeous art.

*     *     *

Wings of Twilight: The Art of Michael Kaluta
Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine, 2001; 80pp; $24.95
Hardcover; ISBN 1-56163-276-7

And speaking of gorgeous art, Michael Kaluta eschews all but the most basic text in this new monograph featuring art from comic book covers and strips, as well as generous selections from his illustrations for Metropolis and the 1994 Tolkien Calendar.

Like Windsor-Smith, linework is predominant in his art. His technique is flawless, his style Romantic--even when drawing machines--but it's his sense of design that I find particularly appealing.

This is a slender volume, but it's packed with visuals: finished pieces, sketches, and studies. With it's superb production values, it's a real bargain at the price and belongs in the library of any lover of fantasy art.

*     *     *

The Art of Chesley Bonestell - Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III
Paper Tiger, 2001; 256pp; $49.95
Hardcover; ISBN 1-85585-884-3

And then there's sf.

At the beginning of this column I made mention of how, for many of us, art was the doorway into this field. I think it's safe to say that for a great many--at least of my generation--our first views of what lies beyond the earth were provided by Chesley Bonestell. I can't be certain--my memory's just not what it should be--but I had a real sense of déja vu as I looked through this book, remembering the images, and even the sense of awe and wonder they awoke, if not remembering exactly where or when I first saw them.

Bonestell's work graced everything from early issues of this very magazine you're holding to planetarium murals, matte paintings for film studios (which were used in films such as Citizen Kane), illustrations for Collier's magazine, architectural studies, and countless paintings on all manner of subjects. But he specialized in views of the planets and depictions of men in space, and these paintings are simply stunning.

The book is divided into two parts. The first details Bonestell's life, as well as the many facets of his art, and is profusely illustrated with sketches, color studies, photographs, and finished paintings. The second half is a gallery in which the finished paintings mostly take precedence, view after astonishing view of landscapes both imagined and true, as well as numerous detailing of spacecraft and space stations. Considering the dates of these paintings (many were completed in the forties and fifties, before any sort of space travel was an actuality), Bonestell's vision and ability to bring these images to life is all the more astounding.

His style ranges from painstakingly rendered oils that could almost be photographs to loose, painterly expressions that capture his own emotions towards his subjects.

While the subject matter might initially appear to be narrow in focus, this is a book that will appeal to any lover of fine art. And the more one looks at his paintings, the less surprising it becomes that the Association of SF & Fantasy Artists (ASFA) named their annual awards after him.

*     *     *

Visions of Spacecraft - Frederick I. Ordway III
Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001; 176pp; $50.00
Hardcover; ISBN 1-56858-181-5

Nearly anything would pale after the Bonestell book, and in many respects this collection of, as the subtitle says, "Images from the Ordway Collection" does suffer in comparison.

It's a shorter book for pretty much the same price and the reproduction values aren't nearly as good. It's also such a diverse collections of images that, while there's probably something in here for everyone, there will also be much that doesn't appeal to certain tastes. In artistic terms, many of the pieces fall short of Bonestell's work (and interestingly enough, there's a chapter that's almost entirely illustrated by Bonestell that has neither the power nor the scope of the work that appears in The Art of Chesley Bonestell). But in historic terms, many will find this collection invaluable.

It's the early work that Ordway has collected that's so fascinating: images of space flight and space travelers that date back as far as the 1600s. While many of these pieces appear crudely-rendered by today's standards, it's illuminating, to say the least, to realize how far back in our history men were drawing and painting such images.

Still, at the price and for the less-that-sterling reproduction values, I find it difficult to recommend except to libraries and die-hard collectors of sf art.

*     *     *

Albert - Donna Jo Napoli
Silver Whistle/Harcourt, 2001; 32pp; $16.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-15-2015772-8

Since this column has turned into a discussion of art books, I thought I should slip in a quick mention of this delightful children's story, charmingly illustrated in colored pencil by Jim LaMarche. Through simple, but timeless, language, we meet an agoraphobe named Albert who always finds a good excuse not to go outside. But one day when he sticks his hand out the window to judge the weather, a pair of cardinals begin to build a nest in his palm, and the story heads off from there.

While this is aimed at the 5-8 age range, I think you'll have as much fun with it as the child to whom you might read it.

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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