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This Is...

A new series that makes the subject of art accessible and less daunting with the help of illustrations

by Nara Shin in Culture on 25 April 2014

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The new series "This Is..." from Laurence King delves into the lives of artists through text, photographs and illustrations. The project is the brainchild of Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram (who holds a PhD from Trinity College, Oxford and wrote her dissertation on Matisse), who authored the first three books in the series on Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí and Jackson Pollock. For the first two, she approached Andrew Rae (whose work has been on Secret 7" covers and an upcoming graphic novel with Nobrow Press) to create original illustrations to accompany her words; Peter Arkle was tapped to illustrate some of Pollock's life events.

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Ingram first got the idea when she worked with illustrator Julian House on a potential children's guide to the Science Museum in London. While the project fell through, the "magical experience" that came from the collaboration and seeing ideas visualized remained. She thought, "Why not do this with a subject I'm much more familiar with?" And while in Paris, Ingram saw a man with a philosophy book tucked into his back pocket, and the image triggered something. Noticing how the public enjoys consuming knowledge and ideas, she realized academic or specialized subjects could be casual and fun, rather than dry or feeling obligatory. As an art historian, she realized she could open up a somewhat elitist, intimidating subject through an illustrated book.

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Recalling the smaller-sized, friendlier books that are set up near bookstore cash registers, Ingram ponders, "Why aren't there art history books that are beautiful, accessible and un-daunting?" She emphasizes that the affordability of the book was also very important and a crucial part of the book being "conversational, friendly and warm." It's a contrast to the bulging textbook-sized coffee table monographs and, while the "This Is..." books are a little too big to fit into a back pocket, they're lightweight and can easily be slipped into a tote bag. "We want it to be taken on the tube and enjoyed," says Ingram, hoping each book is an "inclusive experience." Part of this is making sure that paintings are not referenced unless they are shown on the same or accompanying page.

The books do indeed feel vibrant, rather than a timeline of events or a chronological order of the artist's works. Ingram emphasizes the historical and cultural context of the artist's works by bringing up interesting yet relevant tidbits. For example, when iconic photographer Cecil Beaton featured Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm" as the backdrop for a Vogue fashion shoot in 1950, it had the potential to boost sales and interest for Pollock, who wasn't doing so well financially. Conversely, however, Ingram points out that the photo shoot—in which a model poses in front of the painting—merely bolstered critics who viewed Pollock's work as "wallpaper" or background decoration.

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Upon opening the book, the reader is able to explore the life and works of Warhol, Dalí and Pollock without being lectured, unveiling the shroud of mystery that surrounds these mythical figures. These famed artists were, in fact, people inspired by events, experiences and their time—people who had their own faults and idiosyncrasies and financial difficulties; they just didn't let those hiccups hinder them. Art is a human experience, Ingram argues, and it's these human factors that guide the story.

As for the illustrators, they were tasked with creating drawings that would be placed alongside time honored and recognized paintings, which can be a bit daunting. "But I also felt it would be a really good use of my illustrations as the images would need a mixture of research and imagination," Rae says. "Warhol needed a clean, clinical, sparse feel whereas Dalí needed to be more opulent and garish. I really enjoyed drawing the Dream Ball spread as there were these really odd, surreal descriptions of the party and of the guests and their costumes but there were no photographs so I had free rein to let my imagination go wild."

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The "This Is..." series kicks off with three books and a total of 30 artists will be featured. For future books, other writers and illustrators will be called on under Ingram's wing; she reveals that they're planning to expand the series to architecture as well. The first three books are now available for $16 each from Laurence King; Amazon users can pre-order before their 6 May 2014 release. For this fall, expect to see "This is Bacon" and "This is Gauguin."

Photos by Nara Shin

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