Art

The Best Art Books of 2023

recommended by Francesca Ramsay

Pinch Me: Trying to Feel Real in the 21st Century by Francesca Ramsay

Pinch Me: Trying to Feel Real in the 21st Century
by Francesca Ramsay

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From the latest research on what art does to the brain to how women in Renaissance times used cosmetics, this year saw a range of accessible and authoritative books about art. Art historian Francesca Ramsay recommends her best art books of 2023—and argues that for all the doom and gloom, it's an exciting time to be an artist.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Pinch Me: Trying to Feel Real in the 21st Century by Francesca Ramsay

Pinch Me: Trying to Feel Real in the 21st Century
by Francesca Ramsay

Read

Before we launch into the best art books of 2023 that you selected, tell me about your book Pinch Me. What prompted you to write this book, here and now? 

It was a painting that prompted me, a modest work by Picasso, a still life with a jug and apples, in Paris. I was so struck by it, experiencing a kind of full-body presence. And it was especially surprising because it’s a very unassuming painting. I wasn’t expecting it to have this effect on me. That got me questioning why it would affect me in that way. What was going on in my brain? How could I get this feeling back?

This encounter actually took place quite a long time before I wrote the book. It stayed with me though, and then, of course, lockdown happened. Our lives became very unphysical, very screen based. We weren’t touching each other, we weren’t having these bodily experiences. In fact, we were living kind of outside of our bodies. I’m sure I’m not the only one who found myself becoming more and more disconnected, more dissociated from what was going on in the world. With the fear of death and the pandemic as a backdrop, I wasn’t feeling as present as I had been in the past.

And then I discovered that a lot of my friends were feeling exactly the same way. This started me questioning the moments that I had really felt embodied, and the moments I hadn’t. Which in turn started this journey of trying to bring more of that presence and connection into my life. It started with this painting by Picasso, but then as I looked closely, I began to discover all sorts of other things that brought me into my body: swimming in cold water, walking through a beautiful landscape, looking at amazing vistas. PINCH ME is a broad and personal exploration into connection. I’m an art historian, so naturally it’s really focusing on the arts. But I think it’s relevant beyond the arts, and hopefully my readers will go on their own journey to find connection themselves.

You asked yourself about what goes on in the brain when you’re confronted by a painting that moves you. That’s a nice segue to the first on your list of best art books 2023, Your Brain on Art. Talk to us about this one.

This is a book on neuro-aesthetics, a search into what art literally does to the brain and how creativity can improve one’s mental health. Art can actually alter your neural pathways. GCSE science was as far as I got, so I’m definitely not a scientist myself. Nonetheless, I’ve had these really quite intense reactions to artworks for most of my life, and discovering a scientific backing behind my subjective, aesthetic experiences has been really fascinating. It’s a revelation to me that looking at art lights up the same neural pathways as if you’re falling in love, or if you’re touching a loved one. Looking at something beautiful has a very distinct physiological effect in the brain, very much on an objective level. It’s not just me being a whimsical art historian and calling everything beautiful!

We need creativity and beauty, on the scientific evidence, to lead a good life. There used to be no hard distinction between science and the arts. By insisting on a split between the two we’ve lost so much. Hopefully, and with the help of books like this, now we’re kind of going back to earlier, more holistic understanding, reconnecting and realising that our brains don’t see ‘aesthetic’ or ‘scientific’ experiences as necessarily different. On the contrary, we need this connection.

We’ve spoken previously at Five Books about drawing as thought. This book reminded me that the act of making something is a form of thinking, and a very engaged way of observing the world around us. Making art is a form of mental engagement with our surroundings. 

When you look at a drawing, I believe that’s the closest you can get to an artist. It’s like seeing that process of thinking. The direct connection from their brain to their hand and onto the paper they’re drawing on, the immediacy is something you can feel. I find it really intimate.

We also spoke recently on Five Books about Renaissance self-fashioning. You’ve chosen a book by Jill Burke that looks at how this applied to renaissance women. Let’s talk about the second of your best art books 2023. 

I specialise in Renaissance art, very specifically, in Renaissance drawings of the nude. What I find so intriguing about the Renaissance is that there were these pockets of power and influence for women, even in what was a highly patriarchal society. I’d never considered that makeup and beauty would have been a way of showing your power and sharing your individuality.

“Art can actually alter your neural pathways”

Jill Burke, an exceptional Renaissance scholar, brings an incredibly important insight to this under-researched topic. Don’t get me wrong, this is not some kind of serious or high-minded academic history book. On the contrary, it’s written in a way that is really accessible and really entertaining, not to mention completely relevant to art history today.

Isn’t it fascinating, for example, that we are still thinking in much the same way today as we were 600 years ago, when self-image and public image were deemed to be all-important? We’re still looking at ourselves in the mirror and criticising our looks, looking for ways to improve our image. Let’s face it, we haven’t really changed as humans. This is an astonishing thing about art history, when you can look at a painting from the distant past and realise, ‘God, that could be me!’

As we’re talking about appearance and public image, that brings to mind Charlie Porter’s latest book, Bring No Clothes, another one of your picks for best art books 2023. 

All of the books I’ve selected showcase different forms of creativity. They show the many ways in which we display to others who we are and how we experience the world. This can even be through different things like makeup, as we saw with the example of Renaissance women, or as Charlie Porter writes, through clothes. He focuses on the early 20th century Bloomsbury group of artists, six literary and artistic figures, and uses their example to open up a discussion about dress. What we wear is so linked to our creativity and how we’re getting ourselves across to others. The members of Bloomsbury were all artists, but they were showcasing their art also in the way they dressed, which was an important way of marking out who they were, and who they wanted to be in society.

I love the linkage between what artists create as their ‘product’, and how they present themselves to the public eye, which is an equally creative act. We featured What Artists Wear by Charlie Porter in our Best Art Books of 2022.

The Bloomsbury group weren’t the only artists engaged with creative expression through clothes. Think of the Surrealists, for example, and Dali taking his pet anteater for a walk. Whether visual artists or creatives of a different sort, dressing can be a form of performance art.

A very different form of creativity, perhaps, is monstrosity, the way that Laura Elkin describes it in her book, Art Monsters. What made this book stand out as one of the best art books 2023? 

In exactly the same way as clothes, this is a book about using something unexpected as the artistic medium. In this case, it deals with artists using the body. The female body, specifically. I’m writing a lecture about the nude at the moment, so questions of the body are very much on my mind. The nude was re-appropriated from the late 19th and into the 20th century from the confines of historic representation.

Laura Elkin looks to a number of truly incredible women artists, highlighting a further evolution of ideas of the body. Many of them are performance artists, but what unifies all of them is a heritage of anti-patriarchy, using the female form to assert these ideas. It’s a really powerful, angry text. These artists put themselves inside the canvas, which in this case is the female form. It’s somewhat whimsical but also remarkable to remember that we’re walking around inside an artistic canvas!

What struck me about this and your other selections is how much they revolve around embodiment. 

Absolutely. This book highlights the disconnection between the naked and the nude. A lot of these artists aren’t depicting themselves as nude, that is, as this rather idealised image of what the objective body should be. What they are showcasing is the physical experience of what it is to be inside a body, what it is to have a woman’s body, or whatever body in fact.

“Nakedness is a form of dress”, wrote John Berger

Berger wrote about the nude and about how women in the history of art have been granted only an idealised form, which mostly doesn’t change. Why? Because the protagonist of art history has been the man looking at them, and depicting them, and that never changes. So the re-appropriated nude turns away from this objectification. These are artists who are questioning how to depict themselves and how to depict the female body without entering into historical cliche, conscious of the male gaze, but not catering to it, nor necessarily rejecting it, but coming up with a different way of looking at the female body. This way of being she calls ‘monstrous’, borrowing a line from a novel by Jenny Offill, Dept of Speculation: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead.”

Let’s talk about the final book in your selection, Talk Art

This book is based on a fantastic podcast by Russell Taylor and Robert Diament. I got into it quite a few years ago, when it first started. It somehow hadn’t occurred to me until then as a Renaissance art historian that, well, all the artists I learned about are dead! There’s only so much that you can know about them, only so much they can tell us. For the art historian in me, this podcast and this book have been a real breath of fresh air, hearing directly from artists who are not being put on a pedestal, but behaving like makers, like real people, real practical living individuals.

The whole creative process is endlessly fascinating. Reading Your Brain on Art and learning about neurological states has been a great privilege because it’s given me a whole new way of understanding human making and human creativity. And in this book we can hear directly from creatives about that process. The interviews encompass established names like Grayson Perry or Tracy Emin, as well as new names. It’s not just visual artists, it also extends to other art forms, and includes conversations with the likes of Elton John, Paul Smith and Stephen Fry. All kinds of people making all kinds of art. In the end, it’s a glorification of simply being alive.

The podcast and the books emerging from it are almost like an encyclopaedia of contemporary voices in art. I think that’s why they’ve been so successful. The way they write and talk about art is not elitist, either. In spite of all of the disasters going on in the world, we live in a really exciting, creative time. It’s a world where we’re not blocked in by having to create religious art, for example, or art that’s not about sex, or whatever. People can be creating in whatever way they want. That’s a very significant element of positivity in our often dark times.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

December 19, 2023

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Francesca Ramsay

Francesca Ramsay

Francesca Ramsay is an art historian and writer based in Bristol. She specialised in Renaissance drawings of the nude, but loves works on paper of all periods. PINCH ME: Trying to Feel Real in the 21st Century is her first book. She is tentatively beginning her next.

Francesca Ramsay

Francesca Ramsay

Francesca Ramsay is an art historian and writer based in Bristol. She specialised in Renaissance drawings of the nude, but loves works on paper of all periods. PINCH ME: Trying to Feel Real in the 21st Century is her first book. She is tentatively beginning her next.