As the Victorians liked to say, every picture tells a story. On the other hand, not every story can be told in a picture.
That’s the lesson of “Decade,” a book billed as “the definitive photographic history of the first decade of the 21st century” (Phaidon, 504 pages, $39.95, 24.95 pounds).
Flipping through these 500 glossy images, you soon discover that some important events are eminently photographable, others far less so. The selection, edited by Eamonn McCabe, includes harrowing shots of victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, 9/11, massacres and tsunamis.
Political upheavals are less visual. As for finance, well, a shot of the exterior of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s London headquarters on the day the bank filed for bankruptcy just doesn’t cut it. Still, this book is highly browse-able and good for inducing early-onset nostalgia.
If, like Simone Signoret, you believe nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, a more old-fashioned variety can be found in Paul Levitz’s “75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking” (Taschen, 720 pages, $200, 135 pounds). Here, in XL format, are all the heroes of yesteryear: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Robin et al. Most of them are pretty XL themselves.
Those were simpler, more innocent days, when heroes and heroines looked like bodybuilders on steroids and could get away with the most outrageous costumes. Wonder Woman went around in a bodice emblazoned with the American eagle, plus blue shorts bearing the stars (but no stripes).
This was the kind of popular art that inspired pop art. Just one word of warning: Anyone old enough to feel genuine nostalgia for the golden days of comic-book derring-do should be careful of their backs when handling this volume; as the publicity boasts, even Superman might have trouble lifting it.
Durer and iPads
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was something of a popular artist in his day. He was the first great painter-draftsman to use the new media of woodcuts and engravings to break through to a mass public that could afford an image printed on paper, though not a painted one. His works were on sale in Italy as well as his native Nuremberg. In many ways, he was the first international art star and the forerunner, in his use of novel technology, of today’s iPad artists.
He is the latest Old Master to get the XL treatment, in “Albrecht Durer” by Norbert Wolf (Prestel, 304 pages, $120, 80 pounds). Though handsome in format, this volume suffers from a chewy text and gimmicky design. It abounds in details that have been blown up to sizes massively bigger than they appear in the original works.
Lucian Freud, who celebrated his 88th birthday on Dec. 8, is the nearest thing we have to a living Old Master. “Lucian Freud: The Studio” (Hirmer, 256 pages, $65, 44 pounds) is an English translation of the catalog from an acclaimed exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris earlier this year.
The book contains a good chronology; some fine David Dawson photographs of the artist at work; essays by several writers; and a range of Freud’s paintings, including more naked sitters than clothed. A fully comprehensive catalog of Freud’s work doesn’t yet exist; this makes a handy compilation while we wait.
Freud’s old friend Francis Bacon was one of many artists much influenced by Eadweard Muybridge, the subject of Hans Christian Adam’s “Eadweard Muybridge: The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs” (Taschen, 804 pages, $69.99, 39.99 pounds).
Nudes Take Tea
Muybridge (1830-1904) was a pioneer -- the first to use a sequence of rapidly taken images to capture the reality of how men, women, horses and other creatures actually move. All the plates from his original publications, “Animal Locomotion” and “The Attitudes of Animals in Motion,” can be found here.
In these pictures, we can still see late 19th-century people, often stark naked, walking, running, jumping, climbing and performing such everyday tasks as feeding the dog and drinking tea.
Muybridge’s process was a close precursor of cinema. If you run his photographs in rapid succession, you can see our great-great-grandparents in the nude come jerkily to life. It’s a strangely touching sight.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)