A handful of delightfully, lavishly assembled books offer options for thoughtful gifts this holiday season, starting with art historian Matthew Wilson’s The Hidden Language of Symbols (Thames & Hudson), an illustrated legend to the emblems within great works of art throughout the centuries. That eagle almost blending into the chandelier in Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (1666–1668)? It’s an indication of the Dutch artist’s deep-seated Catholicism. That bull in Picasso’s Guernica? Its significance stems from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The signs are everywhere with this book as a guide.
Why do we associate Japanese design simultaneously with stark minimalism and blinged-out, neon maximalism? The answer, Mihoko Iida, an editor at Vogue Japan, and Danielle Demetriou suggest in Japanese Interiors (Phaidon), has to do with the island nation’s natural disaster–prone position at the intersection of several tectonic plates and its rank as one of the world’s top consumers. A communal spirit also affects interior design: A bookshelf, for example, would not be placed in a multigenerational living area without considering that it might topple over if an earthquake struck. No matter how dominant the pared-back concrete aesthetic (given the prominence of certain starchitects) and a possession-limited ethos (given the prominence of certain organizational gurus) might be, this book illustrates a truly stunning and full array.
The writing of an artist can reveal the theory that underlies their work or musings on what they’ve eaten for breakfast—a charming mix of high and low. Love Lucian: The Letters of Lucian Freud, 1939–1954 (Thames & Hudson), edited by David Dawson and Martin Gayford, presents one such agreeable assortment, offering the artist’s correspondence in facsimile, the better to appreciate his doodles and drawings. Beginning in his childhood and focusing on his early career, Love Lucian is a portrait in sumptuous, illustrated collage of the artist’s development. A domestic accident in which he cut his hand meant that the naturally left-handed boy had to begin writing with his right hand, but the gracefully colored-in loops of young Freud’s cursive are a work of art in their own right.
Is there something a little subversive in the left-handed person’s perspective, asks Judith Thurman in A Left-Handed Woman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Such orientation was once considered a “malign aberration,” she points out, and schoolchildren were routinely “switched” to facilitate a more conventional grip. When Thurman was a child, she was warned not to refer to herself as a “leftie” lest she set off McCarthy-era alarm bells. Precision with language has been a guiding principle for Thurman, whose exacting profiles of mostly female subjects ranging from Rachel Cusk to Marina Abramović to Charlotte Rampling are collected here—they’re not all lefties, but each has their own slant. For those who have followed the New Yorker journalist’s writing, the collection is a welcome review; for the uninitiated it’s an intoxicating entry, tied together by a touching introduction in which she admits that writing about others has offered her greater insight into herself.
For an even more eclectic assortment of holiday reading, two major new ballet books offer an on-point option for dancers and their fans: Jennifer Homans’s biography of George Balanchine, Mr. B (Random House), and Rupert Christiansen’s Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Other admirers of events onstage will lose themselves in D.T. Max’s collection of late-in-life conversations with Stephen Sondheim, collected in Finale (Harper), or take a trip to Dublin through Bono’s life-spanning new memoir, Surrender (Knopf). Nino Strachey’s Young Bloomsbury: The Generation That Redefined Love, Freedom, and Self-Expression in 1920s England (Atria) explores a different artist era, while Hermès “nose” Jean-Claude Ellena’s Atlas of Perfumed Botany (MIT Press) dissects the natural artistry of scent.
Browse all of these, plus more ideas—among them recent biographies of Shirley Hazzard, Martha Graham, and John Singer Sargent; collections of photographs by Steven Klein, Diane Arbus, and Patti Smith; and memoirs from Linda Ronstadt and C.J. Hauser—below.
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