In praise of the P volume of World Book Encyclopedia


Were you a Britannica kid, or a World Book kid?


I was definitely the latter. With its glossy paper, very readable text and lots of images, World Book Encyclopedia was my first and only "art school." Now and then I'd open a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica in the school library, but quickly close it;  its dense, scholarly text on bible-thin paper, law-book leathery binding scant illustrations seemed to be talking to a different kind of kid than me - one who didn't care for pictures.

This is the volume I took of the shelf most often: The P volume, pages 26 to 77.


I can safely say my obsession with art comes from the PAINTING section in this volume. I'd flip through the pages for hours, poring over the images, reading and reveling in the captions. Years later, on visiting MOMA, there they were, these iconic paintings hanging life-size in front of me.

I felt a wave of nostalgia to see my long-donated P volume again. I went online trying to wrestle it from eBay sellers insisting on selling the whole set and was eventually able to buy this musty copy for $10.

It did need a good sponge bath and quarantine in a plastic bag with bicarbonate of soda to try and remove the mildewy smell from years of neglect, thanks to the internet.



The musty smell remains. But I said down with a tingle of excitement and nostalgia as I turned to page 26.

The first painting that captured my attention was Return of the Hunters by Peter Breughel the Elder. I even bought a poster of this and hung it on my bedroom wall. The panoramic perspective is amazing, jettisoning me from my suburban Sydney backyard into somewhere so far and cold - and blanketed in with snow I'd never seen (Sydney doesn't snow. Ever).

Return of the Hunters by Peter Breughel the Elder. 

Then, Chagall: what kid didn't stare at this trip shot of a man floating to kiss that lady as she ran towards the window? I could feel the air under my feet as I mentally floated up and over with him, and wondered about my neck, bent at 270 degrees, and her tiny, tiny feet. 

Birthday by March Chagall

Flipping past the more religious, classical works, I spent a lot of time gazing at the Picassos.  In Mandolin and Guitar, wanted to go behind the instruments to where I could see water, and and walk on those terra-cotta tiles with my bare feet. Seated Bather made me want to stick my hand through the spaces between the orbs of stone-like flesh. The spaces in Picasso's abstractions felt like Alice through the Looking Glass to me - like most kids, I loved to fantasize about portholes, wormholes, secret doors, mirrors you can jump through into another world. 

Mandolin and Guitar, Seated Bather and Woman Weeping by Pablo Picasso
The caption of Albert's Son by Andrew Wyeth painting intrigued me - the phrase "Modern Egg Tempera" had me obsessing about egg in the painting. As kids, we fixate on minutiae.

Albert's Son by Andrew Wyeth
While I was drawn to modern art, the shiny streak on the nose of this Rembrandt captured my imagination: how did he do that? I touched the page over and over and I was sure I could almost feel the skin of his nose coming through the page.

Detail of Man with a Magnifying Glass by Rembrandt

Now despite being a budding modernist, frescos and illuminated manuscripts fascinated me, particularly the 2-dimensionality of this Giotto:

The descent from the Cross by Giotto
... and the groundbreaking perspective of this Fra Angelico:

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico
El Greco scared the crap out of me, especially when I peeked at the "Revelations" chapter in the bible and somehow associated it with this image:

The Burial of Count Orgaz by El Greco
Raft of the Medusa haunted me;  I had recurrent dreams of flying over this doomed raft suspended by a giant raptor and whisking the occupants to safety.

The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault
In Seurat's pointillist masterpiece I imagined the figures fashioned from spray-on stone, if that made sense. It did to me.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte bu Georges Seurat
Henri Rousseau's Sleeping Gypsy was my all-time favorite. I was utterly mesmerized by the toes of the sleeping man (woman?), which looked to me like they were on a cardboard backdrop rather than sand, along with the warped guitar. I'd read the accompanying text over and over and over, desperately wanting to climb into that scene but no idea what I'd do if I got there:
Rousseau had one of the most unique styles in the history of art. He painted dreamlike, mysterious scenes that resemble surrealistic paintings of the 1920's. The Sleeping Gypsy illustrates the remarkable individuality of his style. In this painting, Rousseau created a sense of haunting mystery by placing the sleeping figure and the lion in a dreamlike landscape. 
(Aside: Rousseau was actually considered a schmuck by critics, only to be hailed a genius much later - thanks to his pal Picasso, who recognized his talent).
The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau
For a high school art class exercise I reproduced stroke for stroke Kandinsky's Little Pleasures No. 174. It was to "get into the head and hand" of an artist, much like writing out in longhand whole pages from the literary greats. I never felt my writing or painting improved using those techniques, but I did start to hallucinate that I was falling headlong into the Kandinsky and swimming in his "little pleasures."

Little Pleasures No. 174 by Wassily Kandinsky.
Duchamp I never cared for, but Stuart Davis I adored, probably because the style of "The Barber Shop" resembled the cartoons on TV:

The Barber Shop by Stuart Davis
And Dali - what kid wasn't freaked out by Dali, Magritte, Miro et al? Dali painted fantastical sci-fi like doorways,  drippy clocks and dark shadows that I wanted to pluck from branches and let run though my fingers and down my arm.

Gala and the Angelus of Millet Immediately Preceding the Arrival of the Conic  Anamorphoses by Salvador Dali; Landscape by Joan Miro
As if to throw my pre-teen brain into backflips, a Grant Wood appears right next to a de Kooning's Woman, I. Stylistically, the two could not be farther apart. I remember not seeing a shred of merit in De Kooning's Woman, I. It resembled a finger painting by a someone in a lower grade with zero talent. I still don't like de Kooning, but I admire his auction estimates.
American Gothic by Grant Wood; Woman I, by Willem de Kooning
Edward Hopper's Nightowls is another crowdpleaser, but it was probably my first glimpse of New York. I had a dark view of the New York for many years after seeing this painting.
Night Owls by Larry Rivers
I found Larry Rivers'  Forty Feet of Fashion totally baffling but engaging: The figures fall into a "shaped canvas" and remind me of the dioramas I made.

Forty Feet of Fashion by Larry Rivers

And finally, the minimalist guru himself, Frank Stella, with Jasper's Dilemma. This pair of paintings make me think of the color and black and white TVs scattered around my parent's house.

Jasper's Dilemma by Frank Stella 
I could go on and on. But now, when I look at this volume, I see there are a ton of other topics that are right up my alley: PLANET, PLANT, PHOTOGRAPHY, PERU and ... PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

$10 well spent!



PLANET

PLANT

PHOTOGRAPY

POTUS





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