Staff Picks: What Art Enthusiasts Can Read, Watch, and Listen to While at Home (Part 3)

May 20, 2020
A pair of tortoise-frame sunglasses sits atop a thin stack of books. A small bottle of hand sanitizer and the bottom-left corner of a laptop keyboard appear to the left. Leaves from a potted plant appear slightly out of focus at the top.

Despite museums being closed worldwide, the conversations around art never stop, and there are many great art-related books, podcasts, and movies out there. We asked members of our team to recommend their favorites. If you would like to see other Staff Picks, check out the first and second installments in our series.

A book cover shows a serene waterfall flowing over several tiers of rocks covered with green moss and brown leaves. The words “American Primitive” appear in the center with the author’s name “Mary Oliver.” “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” appears at the top, and “Poems” appears at the bottom.


American Primitive by Mary Oliver

Chosen by: Mike Collupy, Security Control Center Operator 

What it’s about:
 A book of uplifting and nature-based poetry with a focus on New England.

Why it’s recommended: The first poem, “August,” will transport you to experiencing the summery delights of woodlands filled with wild blackberries. What I love about Oliver’s poetry is that it is deceivingly uncomplicated, yet complex in its multiple layers of meaning. Oliver reminds the reader of the joys of even the most mundane aspects of our lived experience. 

A book cover shows snow-covered plant matter and crystallized frost along the top, against a white background. The words “A Year Without a Winter” and “Edited by Dehlia Hannah” appear below.


A Year Without a Winter edited by Dehlia Hannah

Chosen by: Martha Tedeschi, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director

What it’s about: This book is about the most powerful volcano eruption in human history, a cataclysmic event that took place in 1815 in present-day Indonesia. It precipitated extreme climate changes, including global temperature abnormalities, and devastated agricultural yields. The eruption and its consequences also inspired the apocalyptic visions of artists and writers, such as J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron.

Why it’s recommended: First, the book is a very compelling read. Secondly, this extraordinary natural event two centuries ago—spawning the hottest year on record—resonates deeply with our current climate emergency and provides a powerful exploration of art in response to the ethics and emotion of crisis.

A book cover shows a black-and-white photograph of Marilyn Monroe in profile, a red rectangular is drawn around her face. The words “Philippe Halsman” and “Astonish Me!” appears in diagonal over her chest.


Philippe Halsman: Astonish Me! by Sam Stourdzé and Anne Lacoste

Chosen by: Hsiao-wen Lee, Visitor Services Assistant

What it’s about: Astonish Me! explores all aspects of American photographer Philippe Halsman’s remarkable work, containing hundreds of lively photographs and a good deal of insightful commentary.

Why it’s recommended: I marvel at Halsman’s experiments with portraiture, his collaboration with Salvador Dalí, and his interesting philosophy of jump photography (what he called jumpology). The photographs are so dynamic, playful, and performative and are always staged in unusual settings. They bring me laughter, wonder, and astonishment!

The cover of a kit folder shows an image of a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. The words “solar powered photography” and “sunography” appear in the center. In the bottom left-hand corner, the words “6 90lb / 185gsm paper sheets” appear within a yellow graphic.


Sunography: Solar Powered Photography

Chosen by: Lynette Roth, Daimler Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and Head, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art

What it’s about: This easy-to-use kit allows artists of all ages to harness the power of the sun (and their own imaginations) to make one-of-a-kind cyanotypes.

Why it’s recommended: One of my current projects is on photograms, camera-less photographs that have their origin in the 19th-century cyanotype. Now that sunshine has replaced those rain clouds, this technique offers a much-needed break from screens and turns everyday objects—budding violets, orphaned buttons, tiny fingers or toes—into surprising and dynamic compositions.

A book cover shows a mostly white trompe-l’oeil painting of a torn book cover. The painting reveals a goldfinch perched between the roughly ripped sides of a tear running down the middle. The words “The Goldfinch” appear above the bird, and “Donna Tartt” appears below. A round, gold graphic to the right of the bird includes the words “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.”


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Chosen by: Shannon Kemper, Annual Giving Associate, Institutional Advancement

What it’s about: A grieving teenager who has lost his mother in a terrible accident is catapulted into the underworld art scene in New York. Stephen King, in the New York Times Book Review, praised the novel, writing that it “connects with the heart as well as the mind.”

Why it’s recommended: It was worth the 12-year wait for fans like me to get our hands on this masterpiece by Donna Tartt. This story of loss, obsession, and survival in the midst of an international art heist was one I couldn’t put down. Now may be the perfect time to settle into a 976-page book!

A book cover shows a detail of a painting of a woman’s pale face framed with curly auburn hair. She has delicate features, with light pink cheeks and lips and brown eyes. The words “Leonardo’s Paradox: Words and Image in the Making of Renaissance Culture” appear at the bottom, and “Joost Keizer” appears above.


Leonardo’s Paradox: Word and Image in the Making of Renaissance Culture by Joost Keizer

Chosen by: Joachim Homann, Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings

What it’s about: Why did Leonardo da Vinci, a prolific writer, never include writing in his paintings? 

Why it’s recommended: Joost Keizer’s concise and eminently readable book offers a fresh take on Leonardo’s intellectual engagement with the world by evaluating his practice as writer and painter. How do word and image relate? This seemingly simple question opens up perspectives on Renaissance thought and culture—and challenges readers to reconsider their own assumptions about visual and written records of the world around us.

A photograph shows a model of a monkey-like figure, with large black eyes, large forehead, and tiny teeth showing in its wide-open mouth. The creature is set in a small diorama, with a painted blue ocean appearing behind it.


#CreepiestObject challenge on Twitter

Chosen by: Cheryl Pappas, Editor, Communications

What it’s about: The Yorkshire Museum recently challenged curators around the world in a #CuratorBattle to share images of their museums’ creepiest objects on Twitter.

Why it’s recommended: It’s fantastically fun to see all the entrants: a painted whale eardrum from Historic Environment Scotland, a stuffed pig on the wall from the Imperial War Museum, the “mermaid” you see pictured above, from the National Museums Scotland, a snout-nosed wax child mannequin from the Museum of Fear and Wonder in Germany, and more. I found some objects to be more fascinating than creepy. Another very fun Twitter challenge is the #GettyMuseumChallenge to re-create famous works of art.

A black book cover shows a bold, stylized gold graphic of a woman’s face with a crown across her forehead. The word “Circe” appears toward the bottom in large font, with the words “A novel by Madeline Miller” below, and “The New York Times Bestselling Author of The Song of Achilles” above.


Circe by Madeline Miller

Chosen by: Nicole Linderman, Associate Registrar for Loans Out, Collections Management 

What it’s about: Miller’s story is the “back story” about the witch-goddess Circe from Homer’s Odyssey and her exile to the deserted island Aiaia.

Why it’s recommended: Circe is a vivid re-weaving of many of the Greek myths so familiar from my childhood, and I found them surprisingly comforting to re-read in this transformation. Miller provides not only an entertaining Who’s Who of Greek mythology, but a redeeming account of perhaps one of the most misunderstood sorceresses of all times. By comparison, Circe’s harsh expulsion also makes our current social distancing seem slightly more bearable.

A white book cover with purple binding includes a photo of an ancient Roman statue of a man in armor, with his right arm raised and his left hand holding the handle of a contemporary wheeled green suitcase. The words “Ancient Rome on 5 denarii a day” appear above, with “Your guide to sleeping, shopping and sightseeing in the City of the Caesars” to the right.


Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day by Philip Matyszak

Chosen by: Matthew Rogan, Curatorial Assistant for Special Exhibitions and Publications, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art

What it’s about: All the travel advice you need for your trip to second-century Rome.

Why it’s recommended: This book is an insightful and entertaining look into what Rome was like in ancient times. Told from the perspective of an ancient tour guide, it playfully guides the reader on what to see and do during their time-traveling vacation.