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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
#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.
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.
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.