The best art books of 2021 | Art and design books

When I spoke to Ai Weiwei earlier this year, he insisted that “every time we talk about democracy, we talk about continuous questioning and argument.” The artist’s latest contribution to this ongoing debate is a typically frank memoir, 1000 years of joys and sorrows (Bodley Head), in which he offers a personal story of his ongoing battles with the repressive Chinese state, and his provocative dramatization of what creative freedom looks like. “To express oneself needs a reason,” writes Ai, “but to express oneself is the reason. “

The more the years go by, the more David Hockney delights in the coloring of the seasons. Spring cannot be canceled (Thames & Hudson) celebrates lockdown on a farm near Bayeux, eyes and iPad alive with sap-soaked greens and the glare of the sun. Thankfully, his longtime confidant, Martin Gayford, was on hand – or at least on FaceTime – to re-record the Painter Seeing the World again.

The Kitchen in Charleston by Vanessa Bell, from This Dark Country by Rebecca Birrell. Photograph: © Estate of Vanessa Bell. All rights reserved, DACS 2021, Photo, Charleston Trust

that of Rebecca Birrell This dark country: women artists, still lifes and intimacy at the start of the 20th century (Bloomsbury) asks a series of provocative questions about the pioneering lives of artists such as Gwen John, Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington, then finds imaginative ways to answer them. The key among the questions is this: “What kind of life, what kind of individuality, would best nourish their art? In a startling act of collective empathy, Birrell brings to life not only the inner worlds of painters and their work, but also the support network – of girlfriends and domestic staff – that enabled them.

that of Edmond de Waal Letters to Camondo (Chatto & Windus) is a poignant coda from his bestseller The hare with the amber eyes. There he recreates the world of the Parisian elite of the early twentieth century with “conversation and food and china and politeness and civility and all that is possible”, through the preserved home of the great Jewish collector, the Count Moise de Camondo, who uniquely escaped Nazi plunder. . His reconstruction is told in a series of letters to Camondo across a century, a delicate tribute to what he calls “lacrimae rerum”: The tears of objects.

Wing Blue Roller by Albrecht Durer (c1512), after Albert and the Whale by Philip Hoare
Wing Blue Roller by Albrecht Durer (c1512), after Albert and the Whale by Philip Hoare. Photography: artistic heritage / Alamy

that of Philippe Hoare Albert and the whale (Fourth Estate) begins as a book about Albrecht Durer and his (failed) efforts to draw a failed Leviathan. It quickly becomes something much stranger and more magical, a vivid personal memory free from an obsession for an artist, as well as a meditation on the great realistic eye of the Nordic rebirth, who “painted God in dirt.” and blood ”.

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