These are brief reviews of books recently sent to us. We have included ordering information for publishers that accept mail, phone, or online orders. For other publishers, your local bookstore or a mail-order house is the place to look.
This catalog examines the work of 21 self-taught artists through their intricate narratives. It accompanies the exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City that continues through May 27. Curated by Valérie Rousseau of the American Folk Art Museum, the exhibition was organized in collaboration with the Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut in France, where a selection of works was shown earlier this year. Rousseau edited and was a major contributor to the catalog.
Vestiges & Verse: Notes from the Newfangled Epic by Valérie Rousseau (American Folk Art Museum, 2018, 154 pp., softbound, $38 plus S/H from the American Folk Art Museum, [https://shop.folkartmuseum.org] or  595-9674).
Short illustrated essays by art historians, curators, and scholars explain narrative works by the 21 artists. Some of them, such as Henry Darger (1892-1973), Charles A.A. Dellschau (1830-1923), Achilles G. Rizzoli (1896-1981), and Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), are well known. Others, such as Jean-Daniel Allanche (1940-2015), a Tunis-born French professor of physics, the Spaniard Josep Baqué (1895-1967), and William A. Hall (b. 1943), a homeless American man who composed most of his colored pencil drawings on the steering wheel of his car, are introduced here.
Jean-Daniel Allanche’s theoretical research on chaos methods applied to games was illustrated in dozens of notebooks embellished with equations, number sequences, and symbols written with blue, red, green, and black ballpoint pen. Allanche’s difficult personal visual language has a decorative and expressive quality. “My painting is like dust that keeps the memory of life,” he wrote.
Josep Baqué, a municipal policeman, devoted his free time to drawing 1500 fictitious creatures in his notebooks. His 1932-40 bestiary in graphite, gouache, ink, and watercolor on paper will now, like Allanche’s laboratory notations and Ariane Bergrichter’s collages of people at Brussels cafés, be part of the known literature and history of Art Brut.
The intricate narratives of the artists in this catalog include drawings conceived in series, illustrated diaries, imaginary maps, assembled collages, and journals. Examples of their work have been installed at the American Folk Art Museum in a stunning exhibition. Each of the short essays focuses on the artist’s narratives behind the visual storytelling.
In the introduction, Rousseau explains the show’s title and notes that “the selected sequences stand as a ‘vestige’ of the foundation of ambitious and sophisticated narratives, remnants embedded in more voluminous bodies of work.” She calls these artists “survivors, guardians of memory and knowledge,” and she suggests that from this perspective their works “bring to mind the intricacies and often convoluted nature of epics, where voices are bestowed upon geniuses or elevated characters—notably alter egos of the artists—implementing visionary systems filled with metaphysical questionings.”
Rousseau acknowledges that the “visual dimension is indeed only one aspect of the process. [The] two registers—the writing and the image—form an inseparable device.” Rousseau suggests that “these peculiar bodies of works...could be considered as newfangled models for the present day in a digital age where communication modes appeal [to] different sensibilities and cognitive perceptions.”
The catalog provides useful art history, crib notes to the visually compelling exhibition, and a useful addition to the literature of storytelling self-taught artists at a time when narrative art is enjoying a revival.
Margaret Shiels Konitzky asserts in this book’s preface that most Americans know the basics of home-front life in World War II, “pulling together, working war jobs, and dealing with rationing...but few understand the reality of hardships, toil and stress that Americans lived in from 1941 through 1945.” Konitzky wrote this book to show what life was like in small-town midcoast Maine during the war years. She interviewed people who lived through those years and did extensive research using primary sources such as local newspapers and town directories. Vintage photos and reproductions of posters and pamphlets help her tell the story of how people in towns from Topsham to Damariscotta supported the war effort and coped with challenges that 21st-century Americans may find hard to imagine. Whether you are a local Mainer or someone “from away,” if you like history, you will find this a fascinating read that is by turns sobering and inspiring.
Midcoast Maine in World War II by Margaret Shiels Konitzky (The History Press, 2018, 224 pp., softbound, $21.99).
Why is it important to know what the marks on a piece of silver mean? As Judith Miller explains in this book’s foreword, a simple silver teaspoon that was made in Aberdeen, Scotland, circa 1820 would be worth £20 to £30, depending on the maker, but a similar spoon made around the same time just 15 miles away in Stonehaven, with good clear marks, could be worth as much as £5500.
The first volume of this two-volume slip-cased set starts by explaining the basics of hallmarks and how to read them. A two-page section explains three types of silver standards (millesimal, lot or loth, and zolotnik), and a short chapter by Alastair Dickenson offers tips on how to identify fake silver. The bulk of Volume I is a visual index to silver marks, organized by type (such as animals, architecture, human figures, numbers, and objects). Each small image lists the country that uses the image and refers the reader to the appropriate page in Volume II.
Volume II, the geographic index, lists marks by country of origin. More than 70 countries are included. Some countries, such as England and the U.S., have lengthy sections; others, such as India, Iraq, and Lebanon, are only a page or two. This volume also includes suggestions for further reading, a list of assay offices around the world, a list of museums that have silver collections, a geographical index, and an index of maker names.
Although suggested values of silver pieces are not listed in these books, there is plenty of other helpful information for anyone trying to identify makers and country of origin.
Miller’s Encyclopedia of World Silver Marks: Volume 1, Visual Index, and Volume 2, Geographical Index by Judith Miller and Duncan Campbell, general editors (Miller’s/Mitchell Beazley, distributed in the U.S. by Hachette Book Group, 2017, 1032 pp., hardbound, $175).
Not to be confused with the historic preservation organization of the same name, Historic New England is a handbook covering a range of must-see sites spread across the six-state region it covers. Of the 100 entries, there are plenty of old houses bedecked in period furniture. That being said, this book offers something for everyone. Kids are covered by carousels; military and sports buffs are provided for as well (Yale Stadium and the original U.S. Naval Academy are two examples); and who doesn’t like food? The oldest continuously operating restaurant, Union Oyster House in Boston, is on the front cover. Of course readers will also find museums galore. Also included are the abodes of several notable writers (Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson to name a few) and famous artists—not to mention houses painted by them, as in the case of the Olson house in Cushing, Maine, featured in the iconic Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World. All in all, this is a book meant to be dog-eared, but its photo illustrations and narrative structure would make it equally at home on the shelf or in the glove compartment.
Historic New England: A Tour of the Region’s Top 100 National Landmarks by Patricia Harris and David Lyon (Globe Pequot, 2018, 256 pp., softbound, $21.95).
Originally published in the June 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest