Summer Art Reads

Summer is not yet over. So, whether you’re lounging in the garden and soaking up the last rays of sun, or cruising (not that kind) the Med on a boat, there’s still time to leisurely lose yourself in a good book.

 Here are five inspired, and inspiring, art (and music) reads to sink your teeth into.


1. The Noise of Time (2016), by Julian Barnes

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1950. Photograph: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images


Dmitri Shostakovich’s battle of conscience against the oppressive Stalinist state is explored in this historical fiction from Man Booker prize-winner, Julian Barnes. Rising to the attention of Stalin himself, the brilliant Russian composer is caught in a struggle between maintaining creative integrity and compromise in order to survive.

A story about power and art, with a touch of Gogolian irony, The Noise of Time is a brilliant and masterful follow-up from the celebrated author of The Sense of an Ending (2011). In only 192 pages (no Jonathan Franzen weighty tome here) Barnes draws us into the troubled mind, but unbroken spirit, of this great Russian composer.



2. Francis Bacon: In Your Blood (2016), by Michael Peppiatt

Francis Bacon in his studio, 1980. Photograph: Jane Bown


Michael Peppiatt met Francis Bacon while still an art history student at Cambridge in 1963. From his first encounter with the artist in a Soho French pub until Bacon’s death three decades later, the two men maintained an ambiguous friendship that made Peppiatt privy to some of the artist’s most defining career and life moments.

This book is both a personal account of their friendship, and a portrait of the artist, as it takes us through Paris and London’s Soho with Bacon’s inner circle of friends, revealing an exuberance often at odds with Bacon’s tortured paintings.

Francis Bacon: In Your Blood is peppered with Bacon’s waspish witticisms, boozy table talk and insights into the ‘gilded gutter life’ of one the 20th century’s greatest artists. You’ll be armed with plenty of impressive anecdotes next time you stand before a Bacon painting.


3. Genesis Dada: 100 Years of Dada Zurich (2016), Arp Museum Banhof Rolandseck and Cabaret Voltaire (eds.)



On 5 February 1916 a motley crew of European artists and poets  including Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara, and Jean Arp inaugurated the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich. The evening marked the birth of Dada as an artistic movement that would continue to influence artists to this very day, and Cabaret Voltaire with its legendary performances became a place of historic significance (and possibly the coolest thing in Zurich since Swiss cheese).

Genesis Dada honours the centennial of Dada with this collection of illustrated essays exploring Dada’s origins in the wake of WWI; its influences, from mysticism to African art; and the role of Dada’s founders. Read it before you catch the tail end of Manifesta’s Cabaret Voltaire programme in Zurich.



4. The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez (2016), by Laura Cumming

Self-portrait by Diego Velázquez, 1640.


Have you ever wondered about the journeys paintings make from artist’s studio to collectors’ or curators’ hands over the centuries? The Vanishing Man is part detective story part historical account of a little-known painting from Spanish master, Diego Velázquez. Laura Cumming, art critic with the Observer, brings together the two worlds of the 17th century Spanish court, when Velázquez painted the portrait of English King Charles I, and Victorian England, when the painting was rediscovered by John Snare, a bookseller from Reading. Mistakenly attributed to Van Dyck, Snare goes to great lengths to prove the painting’s real creator, resulting in the unraveling of his life.

The painting, of which no print or engraving was ever made, disappeared in 1898 and has not been seen since. A thrilling page turner full of fascinating historical facts and beautiful prose.



5. Portraits: John Berger on Artists (2015), by John Berger



One of the most celebrated art writers (and practically a British national treasure), John Berger has enjoyed a career spanning six decades. Portraits takes us through a well-edited body of Berger’s writing to look at the works of Rembrandt, Francis Bacon, Goya, Pollock, as well as a cast of lesser-known—though no less relevant and interesting—artists and friends of the writer. Darting between centuries, from cave paintings to the internet age, Berger explores art in a broader social, historical and political context.

With a mix of poetic storytelling, and insightful and original prose that is acute, direct and sometimes cutting, Berger’s writing is a much-needed reminder of what great art writing can (and should) be. I pick this up whenever I’m in need of beautiful art writing (which is often). A soothing tonic for the art weary soul.


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