Art book recommendations #2 Muse, Sybil & Cyril, Arabicity.

This is part 2 of my art books recommendations. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Muse by Ruth Millington, illustrated by Dina Razin

Sybil & Cyril. Cutting through time by Jenny Uglow

Arabicity. Contemporary Arab Art edited by Rose Issa and Juliet Cestar

Three book covers. Left Muse, centre Sybil and Cyril, Right Arabicity.
Book covers:
Muse by Ruth Millington, illustrated by Dina Razin
Sybil & Cyril. Cutting through time by Jenny Uglow
Arabicity. Contemporary Arab Art, edited by Rose Issa and Juliet Cestar

Muse by Ruth Millington, illustrated by Dina Razin, published by Square Peg 2022

Cover of Muse by Ruth Millington, illustrated by Dina Razin. Cover illustration is based on Girl with Pearl Earring by Vermeer.
Cover of Muse by Ruth Millington, illustrated by Dina Razin

Ruth Millington takes a closer look at the muses of art history in her fascinating book debut. Reevaluating their contribution to some of the most famous and also lesser-known artworks, the author brings those often misrepresented women and men back into the spotlight. The book challenges the stereotypical image of an artist’s muse: a passive and submissive woman with no agency. Often seen as ‘icons of idealised and sexualised beauty’(p.4), whose main role was to inspire the artist, in reality muses were so much more than mere models and sources of inspiration.

Grouped into seven themes, each short chapter discusses the life of one muse and the impact they had on their respective artists and art history in general. The themes are: The artist as Muse, The Self as Muse, Family Albums, For the Love of the Muse, Performing Muse, Muse of a Movement, Muse as Message. From Juan Pareja and Dora Maar, through Sunil Gupta and Beyoncé, to Lila Nunes and Ulay, the book highlights muses living across different time periods and various geographical locations. Many famous muses were also artists themselves. Artists and muses discussed in this publication include painters, photographers, sculptors and art performers. The selection is quite diverse and each chapter is a captivating life story. Even if you thought you knew some of the iconic artworks very well, this book will make you look again. Meet Moro, the man who became human sushi, learn about Dora Maar, known as the Weeping Woman, and find out the unsettling truths behind the iconic painting ‘Christina’s World’ featuring Anna Christina Olson.

There are no reproductions of artworks in the book, but each chapter is introduced with a black-and-white illustration of a muse inspired by an original artwork or artworks. Artist Dina Razin really brings the muses to life. I especially love the cover illustration, based on the ‘Girl with Pearl Earring’ by Vermeer in which Razin combines clear lines and blocks of colours with elaborate patterns and textures.   

Illustration by Dina Razin to the chapter Artemisia Gentileschi from the book Muse by Ruth Millington. Image shows a black-and-while drawing based on the self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi where the artist depicted herself in the act of painting on canvas as the Allegory of Painting.
Illustration by Dina Razin to the chapter Artemisia Gentileschi from book Muse by Ruth Millington.

The book ends with Epilogue: the Muse Manifesto in which the author sums up her main ideas. One of the points in the Manifesto states: May artists treat their muses with respect, considering them as equal partners in a collaborative relationship’ (p.292). Millington also argues that the muses should be in position to request that their images are not exhibited anymore, as some already did (see the chapters about Sunil Gupta and Nilupa Yasmin). 

In recent times the attitudes to muses and artists are changing, art historians are working on shifting the narrative. We no longer should uncritically describe certain famous artists as geniuses and their muses as mere sources of inspiration. Unfortunately, the mainstream media, auction houses and many museums and galleries still need to catch up in this regard. The time has come to stop objectifying the muse. 

I will definitely read this book again in the future. Very well researched, jargon-free, and filled with fascinating stories, Muse will be an excellent read for any art lovers out there. 

Sybil & Cyril. Cutting through time by Jenny Uglow, published by Faber & Faber 2021

Cover of Sybil & Cyril by Jenny Uglow. White vertical stripe on the left with title and the author's name in gold and black font. On the top right a stylised geometric depiction of horse-racing in red, brown and black. On the bottom a stylised geometric image of a man in a brown suit and a hat climbing on a red and green escalator.
Cover of Sybil & Cyril by Jenny Uglow

A double biography of Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power by Jenny Uglow is a detailed account of lives of the two artists who changed the British art scene with their ground-breaking prints and linocuts. The pair of artists met when Sybil Andrews was starting out as an artist, but she already had her own studio, Power did not have one at the time. In 1922, at 50, Power left his family (a wife and young children) for 24-year-old Andrews, in order to pursue an art career on the side from his architect day job. According to Andrews their relationship was strictly professional and not romantic. During their twenty-year partnership, the two artists lived and worked together and took inspiration from each other. 

It could not have been easy for young Andrews who chose this way of life at odds with societal expectations for women. For a period of time both artists worked at the Grosvenor School of Art, which opened in 1925, where Power was employed as lecturer, while Andrews was the school secretary. Sadly Andrews had to fight for recognition most of her life. As an example, the series of iconic London Underground posters, although a collaborative project, were signed ’Andrew Power’, which arguably erased Andrews’ contribution. In reality it was Andrews who did most of the work on this project.

The mid-war period in the art world was a melting pot of influences and subjects. Andrews and Power’s linocuts echo Expressionism and Futurism with their blocks of colour, strong contour and dynamic geometrical shapes. Both artists depicted scenes of busy urban life and industry, sports, London Underground, and occasional religious subjects. Their legacy continues to this day. Their experimental work in art printing inspired new generations of artists and thanks to their influence, linocuts were introduced as part of art education in British schools. 

View of the book Sybil & Cyril. Cutting through time by Jenny Uglow. Pages featuring prints by Sybil Andrews ( left top and bottom, top right), and by Cyril Power (bottom right). 
Top left: stylised geometric scene of hunting on horses in black and orange colours. Bottom left, stylised geometric image of otter hunt, where a group of orange hounds and a hunter wearing green clothes and hat encircle unseen otter. Top right, stylised geometric scene of eight men wearing white shirts rowing a boat. Bottom left stylised geometric scene of several people in blue short overalls carrying together a long metal construction element.
View of the book Sybil & Cyril. Cutting through time by Jenny Uglow. Pages featuring prints by Sybil Andrews ( left top and bottom, top right), and by Cyril Power (bottom right)

During WWII Andrews and Power parted their ways. Sybil Andrews joined the war effort, helping build ships working as a welder. This was where she met Walter Morgan whom she married in 1943. Ciril Powers rejoined his family near the end of his life, he died in 1951. Andrews emigrated with her husband to Canada in 1947, where she continued to work as an artist and art teacher until her death in 1992. She is widely celebrated as a Canadian, or English-Canadian artist.

Sybil & Cyril is an excellent double biography of two pioneering artists. It benefits from good quality reproductions of rarely exhibited works and archive photos. Thoroughly researched and full of lively details from the artist’s archives, this book was a pleasure to read. 

Arabicity. Contemporary Arab Art edited by Rose Issa and Juliet Cestar. Published in 2019 by SAQI. 

Cover of Arabicity featuring a photograph by artist Raeda Saadeh 'Angel'. The photograph shows a black-haired barefoot woman wearing an angel's costume with white feather wings and a golden crown on her head. The woman is attempting to walk away from a tall concrete wall with a barbed wire on top, but she is unable to move as one of her wings is stuck between two wall segments. The photograph represents the inability to escape a prison literally and metaphorically.
Cover of Arabicity featuring a photograph by artist Raeda Saadeh ‘Angel’

This beautifully presented album is an essential introduction to Contemporary Arabic Art. The first part includes essays with contributions from Rose Issa, Georges Corm, Michket Krifa and Etel Adnan. 

Arabicity is a loose translation of the Arabic term Ourouba, which seems like a fitting title for an anthology of Arab artists. Gathered in this volume is a selection of works by artists active in the last four decades, many of which featured in exhibitions curated by art historian and curator Rose Issa. In her contribution titled Art: A weapon of mass destruction, Issa explains the format of the book, which ‘follows the sequence of wars and key moments of change that mobilised the mind and politics of the Arab world’ (p.7). Beginning with Palestine and ending with the Gulf countries, the book explores a range of subjects, most notably: identity, dispossession, hope, war, violence, gender and tradition. 

The main body of the book consists of profiles of selected contemporary Arab artists. A wide range of media covered includes painting, sculpture, installation, photography, video and performance. Some of the artists are already well established and recognised internationally, such as Mona Hatoum (b.1952), known for her concept sculptures and installations, or Chant Avedissian (1951-2018), the late Egyptian-Armenian artist, most famous for his portraits of historical figures and icons of Egyptian popular culture. Belonging to the younger generation is Abdul Rahman Katanani (b.1983). He was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon where he still lives and works using found materials: barbed wire, or corrugated steel. Many of his artworks are a commentary on the lives of Palestinians in refugee camps. 

View of book Arabicity showing metal artworks by artist Abdul Rahman Katanani. Left page, image of a sea wave made of barbed wire. Right page two works made of corrugated metal sheets. Left, two children playing sitting on the ground. Right a girl playing with skipping rope.
View of book Arabicity showing metal artworks by artist Abdul Rahman Katanani

Arabicity includes over 200 artworks by more than thirty five Arab artists. Each artist is introduced with a short biographical note, often a carefully chosen quote from the artist and a selection of their works. Sometimes a short quote can speak volumes:

I am part of a generation of artists and writers who lived through twenty years of war and have nothing to say other than war. 

Ayman Baalbaki (b. 1975, Lebanon), painter and installation artist reflecting on his work (p.82).

iew of book Arabicity showing photographs of two art installations by artist Ayman Baalbaki. On the left page a small red car with a large pile of luggage on the roof, around the car on the floor is a blue neon circle. On the right page a larger light blue car with a pile of luggage on the roof.
View of book Arabicity showing photographs of two art installations by artist Ayman Baalbaki

The artwork featured on the book cover is a striking photograph ‘Angel’ (2013) by Jerusalem-based artist Raeda Saadeh (b.1977), who often uses her body as a starting point in her art practice. 

Arabicity fills the gap in the market as books dedicated to Arab and Middle Eastern artists published in English are still hard to come by. With a great selection of beautiful and thought-provoking works this book is a very good starting point for anyone who would like to learn more about contemporary Arab art.

Link to my previous blog post Art Book Recommendations #1 here

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