Best Art Books of 2020

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‘RAPHAEL 1520-1483’ Edited by Marzia Faietti and Matteo Lafranconi (Skira). There’s no 2020 show I regret missing more than this one in Rome, the largest Raphael retrospective ever. As the title indicates, both exhibition and catalog proceed in reverse chronological order. From the epic funeral procession after Raphael’s death on his 37th birthday, we rewind through his indelible portraits of the Medici pope Leo X and the courtier Baldassare Castiglione, past his grand “School of Athens,” to his first, hesitant figure studies in Urbino. This a posteriori saga gives us a refreshed Raphael, whose psychological acuity feels newly approachable.

‘FLUENCE: THE CONTINUANCE OF YOHJI YAMAMOTO’ By Takay (Damiani). Long resident in London and New York, the Japanese photographer Takay returned home to shoot this profoundly beautiful book, documenting three decades of experimental tailoring by the designer Yohji Yamamoto. Takay’s subjects trail Mr. Yamamoto’s black gowns and suits through undistinguished Tokyo streets; the fashion portraits alternate with images of birds on a power line or Shinjuku at midnight, shot in the grainy black-and-white style called are-bure-boke (“rough, blurred and out-of-focus”). Posing alongside the professional models are several titans of Japanese culture: the actress Rie Miyazawa, fragile and rumpled in a polka-dot gown from 1999; the theater director Yukio Ninagawa, pensive in a thick wool jacket; and even Daido Moriyama, the godfather of postwar Japanese photography, whose portrait here in a three-quarter-length overcoat embodies estranged Tokyo cool.

ARTEMISIA’ Edited by Letizia Treves (National Gallery, London/Yale). “I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do,” Artemisia Gentileschi told a Sicilian client in 1649 — and indeed, this Baroque painter put herself on the front lines of her dramatic tableaux. This catalog’s new scholarship reveals how Gentileschi blended self-portraiture and allegory, in paintings of herself as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, or in her gruesome “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” painted just after the notorious trial of the fellow artist who raped her. There is much more to Gentileschi than the violence she depicted: This book also reproduces recently discovered letters to a lover, swearing, “I am yours as long as I draw breath.”

‘THE PEOPLE SHALL GOVERN! MEDU ART ENSEMBLE AND THE ANTI-APARTHEID POSTER’ Edited by Antawan I. Byrd and Felicia Mings (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale). In the years after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, South Africa’s townships were papered with bold agitprop whose pared-down imagery came with a promise: This country would soon be free. They were the work of Medu (whose name means “roots” in Sesotho), a multiracial coalition of more than 60 artists who fought for the liberation of South Africa through screen prints and lithographs, printed in Botswana and smuggled over the border. This book assembles nearly all the surviving specimens, and should offer young artists a model of collective authorship and political engagement.

‘THE LOUVRE: THE HISTORY, THE COLLECTIONS, THE ARCHITECTURE’ By Genevieve Bresc-Bautier, photographed by Gérard Rondeau (Rizzoli). It’s not only Europe’s greatest museum; the Louvre is also a palace, upon which France’s kings, revolutionaries, emperors and presidents have projected visions of power and nationhood. Visit without the crowds or the jet lag with this sumptuous volume, whose 600 pages let you scrutinize the woodwork of Henri II’s bedroom, the gold of Louis XIV’s Galerie d’Apollon, the glass of I.M. Pei’s pyramid. The pleasure of this book comes from narrating the Louvre’s history as residence and museum together, and photographing the whole collection in situ.



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