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Treats For The Coffee-Table
by Richard Perry

MOST LARGE FORMAT, heavily illustrated books released for the holiday season in Canada focus upon the subjects of nature and art, and this year`s publications run true to form. One of the more valuable titles on the 1990 gift book list must certainly be David Burnett`s Masterpieces of Canadian Art from the National Gallery of Canada (Hurtig, 240 pages, $49.95 cloth). This is a substantial volume that should engage those who actually wish to read about art as well as peruse the pictures. Burnett, from 1980 to 1984 the curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario and a freelance critic/scholar since, was invited by the National Gallery to help celebrate the museum`s new exhibition halls with this guided tour of selected masterworks. Nearly 90 painters were picked by Burnett, and from the work of each at least one painting selected for colour reproduction and critical commentary; a few artists (jean-Paul Riopelle, Guido Molinari, the Group of Seven gents) are honoured with several plates each. A reader familiar with the National Gallery`s holdings might question some of Burnett`s omissions and selections, but on the whole it`s a reasonable sampling; and, with entries for Liz Magor, Joanne Tod, Jeff Wall, General Idea, and a few other contemporary artists, by no means too conservative. For each entry, Burnett provides a brief biographical precis, a general evaluation of the artist`s place in the history of Canadian art, and a terse critique of the illustrated painting. Burnett`s analyses can be problematic, as when he suggests that Bertram Brooker`s work lost its "daring" after he met Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald; and at times, as in the entry for William Kurelek, the author`s investigation into the chosen painting is surprisingly superficial. Occasionally, as in the commentary to Christopher Pratt`s The Visitor, Burnett`s interpretation can be simultaneously sharp and prissy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the succinct critiques, for they are both informative and thoughtful, and the production quality of the book itself is very high. Equally delectable for the eye, and only somewhat less nour ishing for the mind, is Paul Duval`s Canadian Impressionism (McClelland & Stewart, 166 pages, $65 cloth). "This book was born," writes Duval, "of a perceived need to bring together a group of Canadian painters who practised Impressionism, including a number whose contributions have been too long neglected or overlooked." A sign of the author`s commitment to forgotten art may be found on the very cover of the book, which reproduces not the usual Tom Thomson or Lawren Harris, but a detail from Helen McNicoll`s The Chintz Sofa. Duval rescues many painters whom time and Canadian collectors have not favoured: Frank Armington, John Russell, Albert Robinson, Mary Wrinch, Mabel May, and William Clapp, to name but a few. Although historians and critics of Canadian art history like to point out that impressionism lingered on in Canada as a conservative approach long after it had served its purpose in Europe, Duval finds no reason to apologize for the 70 plates that he has chosen to present, confident that "for stress-filled twentieth-century man, they offer both a balm and a refreshment for the spirit" In addition to a terse history of impressionism`s allure for Canadian painters, Duval offers plate annotations that are more biographical than critical, but his research will be valuable to some and the book`s excellent reproductions a visual delight to many. The organizing conceit of The Landscape of Craft (Goose Lane, 96 pages, $29.95 cloth) seems reasonable enough: that the products of the artisans of New Brunswick are motivated in form and content by the natural landscape of the province. George Fry, the editor, has divided his publication, sponsored by the New Brunswick Crafts Council, into several chapters entitled "Form," "Line," "Pattern:` "Shape," "Texture," "Colour," "Rhythm:` and "Content:` and has provided each chapter with a poem to set the mood. The problem, however, lies not with the arbitrary way in which the various craft objects are assigned to a category, or with the tenuous connection with the New Brunswick landscape, but rather with the photographs of the works themselves. The person responsible would appear to be Dale McBride, who fails seriously, particularly in the black-and-white plates, to separate object from background. Sharp focus, adequate depth of field, and proper lighting are lacking in all too many of McBride`s shots, thus leaving some fine artwork dead on the page. Where else could you find Baby Pataburp, Vous Doo Trudeau, Twinkle Eskimo, Willy the Mountie, Renee Boudoir, Oil Patch Kid, Gooslum, Jacques Cartier, and Betsy Wetsy but in the index to Evelyn Robson Strahlendorf`s Dolls of Canada: A Reference Guide (University of Toronto, 421 pages, $75 cloth)? As one who frequently attends farm auctions, I am continually amazed at the high prices that old dolls, even broken limbs, Command from fiercely competitive bidders. For private and institutional collectors, antique dealers, and flea-market pickers, Strahlendorf`s profusely illustrated and finely annotated encyclopedia of Canadian dolls should prove an indispensable reference work. After several brief but thorough chapters on Inuit, Indian, settler, ethnic, Eaton`s celebrity, and paper dolls, the author surveys commercial doll companies of the 20th century as well as contemporary Canadian doll makers; in all, about 1,000 dolls are annotated with the kind of seriousness that museum curators devote to medieval icons. A glossary and bibliography, as well as sturdy paper stock and binding, contribute to the merits of this important antiquarian publication, which is, in its unique way, a mirror to the changes in 20th- century Canadian society. Equally specialized in its subject matter is The Marine Art of J. Franklin Wright (National Marine Arts, 176 pages, $60 cloth), in which the oil and watercolour illustrations of Canada`s leading painter of ships are promoted with over 80 full-colour reproductions. A native of Cape Breton, Wright grew up looking out over the Strait of Canso and thus became deeply imbued with a love of the sea. A lifetime of painting seascapes and variously powered ships has apparently been unaffected by urban, modernist ideas; these depictions of historic sailing vessels, Canadian Navy ships, and small fishing dories primarily seek meticulous accuracy of representation. From whitecaps to sail riggings to cloud formations, no abstract or impressionistic brushwork intrudes into these careful scenes. As such, Wright`s artwork is eminently static, lucid, rational, and nostalgic, and will no doubt be of interest to anyone with an abiding passion for the history of sea travel. jean Wright-Popescul provides a brief textual documentation for each of the ships depicted. Three attractive books of wildlife photographs compete for the gift-giver`s budget this season. When I first glanced at Bright Wings (Prairie Books, 150 pages, $50 cloth), I thought that the plates reproduced bird paintings in a hyper-realistic style, so carefully ordered are the compositions and so perfectly in focus are the fine details in the entire field, from border to border; this is not the way the eye naturally perceives the external world. But these colour plates reproduce photographs, perhaps the best photographs of birds that I have ever seen. They are the handiwork of two Toronto high school teachers, Bob and Peter Wood, brothers who have obviously taken the approach of Eliot Porter as the model to emulate. The Wood brothers pursue with equal fascination not Only common and rarely seen North American birds, but also the highest degree of technical perfection for their prints, as well as a depth of field sufficient to overcome blur at the edges of their images. If some of their shots capture a rather static scene and lack an inner, animating rhythm, many successfully substitute an ineffable intensity of concept and gaze. Patience in the field, fastidious darkroom skills, and a thoughtful conceptual approach all coalesce in these consistently fine photographs, expertly printed not in Osaka or Macau, but right here in Canada. In The Kingdom (Douglas & McIntyre, 204 pages, $49.50 cloth), the 107 colour plates by the Seattle-based wildlife photographer Art Wolfe are less motivated by perfection of technique or unified by a single artistic concept than the bird photos of the Wood brothers, but they are often quite satisfying nonetheless. The striking eye contact between animal and photographer will often suffice here in a shot that is otherwise blurry fore and aft; other plates offer conventional -if spectacularly lit -- images of animals in their natural habitat acting out normal behaviour parterns. Birds, mammals, snakes, fish, and amphibians are all stopped in time by Wolfes professional camerawork. The avowed purpose of The Kingdom is to offer an "eloquent plea to protect this wholeness, to preserve this [natural] process which has shaped and continuously edifies us." To that end, Douglas Chadwicks essays -- rambling, personal, anecdotal, hortatory, and informative -- survey the entire continent section by section, while Wolfes photos receive more specific, scientific annotation in lengthy marginal notes. Large in size and well printed in Japan, The Kingdom is an earnest, handsome production that may end Lip on more coffee-tables than on readers` laps. Two hundred years ago, an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears roamed the northwest United States; today, says Candace Savage in Grizzly Bears (Douglas & McIntyre, 176 pages, $35 cloth), there are fewer than 900, and the decimation of ursus arctos continues in North America and the Soviet Union. Part of the rationale of Savage`s book is to encourage protection of grizzlies by celebrating both the awesome power of the scary beast and its anthropomorphic habits as well. After all is said and done, bears don`t do too much -- they flap at fish, stand high to peer at a possible threat, yawn, tussle, lumber through the fields, and lie on their backs to pick their paws -but this stunning collection of field photographs (obviously taken at some peril) of such behaviour provides Savage the opportunity to write numerous captions, some informative, many banal. More useful are the brief chapters that discuss the mythology, natural history, and future survival of these "creatures with exceptional power to move the human mind." This is a book that one can give to hunters or environmentalists, or to one`s stockbroker. Finally, two books of special ethnic interest. Andreas Schroeders The Mennonites: A Pictorial History of Their Lives in Canada (Douglas & McIntyre, 192 pages, $34.95 cloth) is an unduly sombre book, even given its subject matter. True, Mennonites practise reticence, simplicity, quiet social service, and all those honest virtues espoused by the Bible that the modern world seems to have forsaken -- one doesn`t expect too many dramatically gripping photographs or a text reminiscent of Tom Wolfe. Still, Schroeder has found neither the methodology nor the personal inspiration to animate some pretty dull snapshots of honest folk staring into the Brownie, sitting around a dinner table (hearty eating may be the Mennonites` Only overt passion) or standing outside their farmhouses. Even when a particularly evocative photograph -- such AS that Of the author Paul Hiebert -provides the perfect opportunity for annotation (what did Hiebert write? what xas lie like as a man?), Schroeder says nothing. This historical sketch of Mennonite life in Canada is dry anti factual, and does little to reveal the curious intensity of the sect`s family life. Beedahbun: First Light of Dawn {Tomiko Publications, 98 pages, unpriced) is a book closest in spirit to the Christmas season. The core of this devotional publication consists Of a cycle of paintings, based on the theme Of the Stations of the Cross, by Leland Bell, an Anishnabek Indian from Wikwemikong, Manitoulin Island. Subsequent to a B.A. in Native studies at Laurentian University and a vision quest, Bell was renamed Bebaminojmat and aligned his art with traditional native techniqUes. For this Stations of the Cross series, in which the forms are tendered in a kind of simple cloisonne style, the artist provides explanatory notes, the biblical implications of which are greatly elaborated upon by two priests, Greg Humbert and George Leach. Although the text needs A decent editing, the deep sincerity of the project is convincing on its own terms.

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