My first artgasm: The P volume of World Book Encyclopedia
Were you a Britannica kid, or a World Book kid?
I was definitely a WBK. With its glossy paper, very readable text and lots of images, World Book Encyclopedia was my school outside of 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 and scant illustrations seemed to be talking to a different kid - one who was a lot smarter and didn't need coloredpictures.
This is the World Book volume I pulled off the shelf most often - the P volume:
I can safely say my obsession with art comes from the PAINTING section in this volume, pages 26 to 77. I'd flip back and forth through this section for hours, poring over the images, reveling in the captions. Years later, on visiting MOMA, there they were, these iconic paintings hanging larger-than-life before me. Amazing!
Recently, 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. I was eventually able to buy this musty copy for $10.
On arrival, it needed 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:
The musty smell remains. But I sat down with a tingle of excitement and nostalgia as I turned to page 26.
The first painting that ever captured my attention was Return of the Hunters by Peter Breughel the Elder. I even bought a $10 poster of this image as a kid, and hung it on my bedroom wall. It was popular - I know several people who told me that had that very same poster hanging somewhere in their childhood home. The panoramic perspective is captivating, jettisoning the viewer from their suburban nowhere to somewhere far off and blanketed with snow - snow I'd never seen growing up in suburban Sydney.
|Lower right: Return of the Hunters by Peter Breughel the Elder.|
Next page: Chagall. What kid didn't stare at this trippy shot of a man floating to kiss his beloved as she ran in explicably towards the window? I could feel the air under my feet as I followed his feet, mentally floating myself up and over, wondering how my neck could bend at 270 degrees, and how she could run towards the window with those tiny, tiny feet...
|Birthday by March Chagall|
Flipping past the more solemn, classical works, I spent a lot of time gazing at the Picassos. In Mandolin and Guitar, I wanted to go behind the shape-shifting instruments to see more of the sea, and feel the warmth of those terracotta tiles under my bare feet. Seated Bather made me want to stick my hand through the spaces between those orbs of stone-like flesh. Staring at the spaces in Picasso's abstractions felt like I was Alice peering through Looking Glass - like most kids, I loved to fantasize about portholes, wormholes, trick mirrors and secret swiveling doors you could step through into an alternate universe.
|Mandolin and Guitar, Seated Bather and Woman Weeping by Pablo Picasso|
|Albert's Son by Andrew Wyeth|
|Detail of Man with a Magnifying Glass by Rembrandt|
Despite being a budding modernist, I was drawn to frescos and illuminated manuscripts, particularly this Giotto:
|The descent from the Cross by Giotto|
|The Annunciation by Fra Angelico|
|The Burial of Count Orgaz by El Greco|
|The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault|
|Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte bu Georges Seurat|
(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).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.
|The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau|
|Little Pleasures No. 174 by Wassily Kandinsky.|
|The Barber Shop by Stuart Davis|
|Gala and the Angelus of Millet Immediately Preceding the Arrival of the Conic Anamorphoses by Salvador Dali; Landscape by Joan Miro|
|American Gothic by Grant Wood; Woman I, by Willem de Kooning|
Edward Hopper's Night Owls is another crowdpleaser, and my first glimpse of that far off place called New York. I had a dark, lonely view of New York for many years after seeing this painting.
|Night Owls by Larry Rivers|
|Forty Feet of Fashion by Larry Rivers|
And finally, the minimalist guru himself, Frank Stella, with Jasper's Dilemma. This pair of paintings channeled the color and black and white TVs scattered around my parent's house.
|Jasper's Dilemma by Frank Stella|
What can I say? My P Volume, musty and yellowing, was ten dollars and a hundred colorful memories. So don't toss out your musty set of encyclopedias so fast. Between swiping and Googling on your smartphone, I urge you to sit down with a random volume and start turning pages. You never know where it will transport you in 30 years time...
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