Caribana, the Greatest Celebration:
The Greatest Celebration

by Cecil Foster, Chris Schwarz,
96 pages,
ISBN: 0345398165

People Who Make a Difference

by Brent Ashabranner, Paul Conklin,
ISBN: 0525650091

After Geometry:
The Abstract Art of Claude Tousignant

by James D. Campbell,
178 pages,
ISBN: 1550222457

Nova Scotia

by Terry James,
96 pages,
ISBN: 1551091135

Spellbound under Northern Skies

by Theo Allofs,
129 pages,
ISBN: 1551091283

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Brief Reviews - Gift Books - Diversity of Gifts
by Diana Brebner

A few years ago, at my eldest daughter's elementary school book sale, I found a small, simple, perfect book called From Ben Loman to the Sea, published by Nimbus Publishing. It consists of a long folk poem by Lance Woolaver, with, on every other page, facing the verses, a bright, "primitive" painting by Maud Lewis, Nova Scotia's "Grandma Moses". This was my chance introduction to the folk art of Nova Scotia.

Nimbus has recently reprinted the very popular and useful exhibition catalogue Nova Scotia Folk Art (Nimbus, 49 pages, $12.95 paper), edited by Bernard Riordon, the curator of a Canada House exhibit that circulated in the UK in 1989 and 1990, showing everything from portraits to weathervanes, quilts, gunracks, embroidery samplers, wooden sculptures, and even a crocheted armchair. It was a great success and the catalogue had become a collector's item. This new printing is welcome and a copy would be a great gift for anyone with an interest in folk art.

Two other new books from Nimbus are less esoteric and fall perhaps into the category of "tourist book". Yukon: Spellbound under Northern Skies (Nimbus, 129 pages, $29.95 cloth) is the kind of coffee-table book from which my European relatives develop their peculiar ideas about Canada. The photographer Theo Allofs, originally from Germany, comes to the Yukon with the same European fascination with wilderness, frontiers, and open space. He is, technically, an excellent photographer with a romantic sensibility, a somewhat conservative sense of composition, and an open-eyed use of colour that reflects the vitality of the Yukon and Yukoners. In the midst of magnificent landscape photographs there are also lively and whimsical shots: a man with three llamas in Kluane National Park, calf-roping at the Whitehorse rodeo, some fetching grizzly photos, a patient sled dog having his felt booties adjusted, and my favourite, "Curious Eyes", which depicts a sled dog peering out in resignation from his transport box.

Somewhat less successful is Terry James's Nova Scotia (Nimbus, 96 pages, $19.95 cloth), which errs too often on the side of caution, even for a gift book. While the photographs are pleasant enough I never had the sense of passionate interest that was evident in Allofs's book. Only one photograph, a winter scene of a Hereford oxen race, jumped out at me as being fresh and interesting, so I wasn't surprised to read that James is also the author of In Praise of Oxen. There are few photographs with people in them and I couldn't help but notice that almost all the active people in his photographs are white and male. Although brief mention is made of the African-Canadian, Acadian, and Micmac communities in the brief introduction, there are no photographs of these people, while women and girls fare not much better-they appear in historical dress at Louisbourg or performing traditional Highland dance. Now, a Nova Scotia from George Elliott Clarke or Rita Joe, that would be interesting!

The African-Canadian community is definitely evident in Caribana (Ballantine Books, 96 pages, $16.95 paper), which is less a gift book than a souvenir album. Cecil Foster and Chris Schwarz have collaborated to produce a big, splashy, colourful book that explores the origins and events of the Caribana festival that is held every August in Toronto. In early years the festival occurred in an atmosphere of radicalism but also in one of hope for change in attitudes. This was a time of visits to Toronto by Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Martin Luther King, and a young Derek Walcott, whose play "Dream On Monkey Mountain" was produced as part of the first Caribana festival.

The authors capture the excitement and energy of the parade/street dance/celebration, and also go behind the scenes to capture the invisible hands and faces of those who make the elaborate costumes and provide support to the performers. This book is sure to bring smiles of recognition to Caribana "regulars" and to pique the interest of those of us who've never been there, done it, got the T-shirt.

Now, a very different kind of gift, and book is People Who Make A Difference (Viking/Penguin, 218 pages, $50.00 cloth). What can I say about a book whose sub-title is Photographers and Friends Against AIDS without sounding like a heartless scrooge? First of all, I come from the left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-hand-is-doing school of giving so I would be embarrassed to have a big, do-gooder coffee-table book lying about where people could see it. That aside, I still have problems with People Who Make A Difference. This is not a book of photographs of people with AIDS who have made a difference (which might have been more interesting) but of "famous people" like Roberta Bondar, Jean Chrétien, and Douglas Cardinal. Artists, writers, designers, and dancers mix with bank presidents, George Cohon (McDonald's head honcho in Canada), and Mr. Dressup. One wonders, too, whether some of the subjects are included because of the size of their pocketbooks. Margaret Atwood in her introduction says, "This book, too, is sort of sublime irrelevance." How true. I'll just write a cheque, thanks, and do without this expensive, tree-chomping, picture book.

A big book for a big show is Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 500 pages, $125.00 cloth), which features works from an exhibition this year at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I have always associated the name "symbolism" with what I thought was primarily a literary movement, in particular with French poets of the nineteenth century such as Mallarmé and Baudelaire.

This superbly produced and sumptuously illustrated book shows us links between writers, painters, sculptors, and designers from almost every European country. These works are what I was educated to call, somewhat derisively, "decadent art". The organizers and essayists respond to this point. Was symbolism a decadent movement or a modern one? Was it renovatio or innovatio? Its most obvious heirs are Art Deco, German expressionism, and surrealism, which all recombine many of the themes, symbols, and forms of representation found in symbolist work, and which continue to reflect the despair, disconnectedness, and disruption of fin-du-siècle and early twentieth-century art and life.

Myth, symbol, narrative, and the figure all have a large role in symbolist work. Many pieces in the exhibit are "bad art", according to contemporary criteria, and symbolist art is, I think it fair to say, an acquired taste. What is fascinating in this book is to see, amid the works of rather obscure artists, interesting ones by Redon, Burne-Jones, Rodin, Klee, Klimt, Gauguin, and Munch. Also arresting is the surreal lyricism of photographers such as Frederick Holland Day and Anne Brigman. The writers of the essays have gone to great lengths to show us how all these works are connected to the symbolist movement, with varying degrees of success but always with a laudable sense of exploration and re -evaluation.

Always one to eat my red Smarties last, I've saved and savoured After Geometry: The Abstract Art of Claude Tousignant by James D. Campbell (ECW Press, 179 pages, $65.00 cloth, $500.00 limited edition with signed monochrome). Where Lost Paradise is sumptuous verging on voluptuous, After Geometry is cleanly beautiful. Carefully and intelligently written, with colour plates selected from rarely seen paintings in the artist's own as well as private collections, this book is an art lover's delight.

Campbell is a distinguished writer on art and a frequent contributor to such magazines as Espace and Parachute. In 1996, ECW will publish his Abstract Art in Canada: A Concise History.

He traces Tousignant's career from his early years. The recent work includes his well-known "monochromes" and the very interesting charcoal and graphite series "Suite Wittgenstein", which is reproduced here. The book's crowning glories are the last two chapters. In "Some Implications of an Abstract Art", Campbell tries to answer his opening questions:

"How can one meaningfully come to terms with a corpus so cohesive, implicit in which is such an implacable logic and such a genetic process of making? How can one fathom so svelte an evolutionary arc? What would be the implications of treating Tousignant's abstract practice as a radicalized form of writing and reading? Does it make sense to suggest that a monochrome painting can be interpreted as a semantic space?"

He concludes eloquently, intimately, and somewhat playfully, with "The Anatomy of a Painter's Doubt", using such examples as "Le voyage au bout du bleu" and the white and white monochrome "Blanc et blanc" (what else would it be called?) to explore Tousignant's constant evolution as an artist.

Tousignant has always worked towards creating art devoid of reference and allusion. No narrative, literary, or representational elements here, only the search for pure chroma, a continually reinventive approach to abstraction.


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