Watteau and His World
Alfred A. Knopf: 208 pp., $25
Don't YOU love it when serious, academic, career critics like Jed Perl, art critic for the New Republic since 1994, let loose? This whimsical little book, informed by a lifetime of writing about art, contains Perl's meditations on his favorite painter, Antoine Watteau, who died in 1721 at age 36. The artist's ebullient paintings of theater life, picnics, young lovers and troubadours have often been dismissed as frivolous and merely decorative. In these 26 short essays, one for each letter of the alphabet, Perl takes us into the paintings, Watteau's life and 18th century Paris. Coquettes, monkeys on tightropes, women in exquisitely detailed dresses flashing fans: "What I really want from art," the critic admits, "is a variety of qualities, a multiplicity of qualities . . . , the unpredictability of qualities, qualities that are as varied as the artists who create the works of art."
Turtle Point Press: 122 pp., $9.95
Music, painting, writing, Lord Berners (1883-1950) was the quintessential dilettante. Which is not to say that he had no talent: Balanchine choreographed his ballets, his paintings were widely exhibited and his novels and memoirs are now back in print. He lived in Rome and Oxfordshire, England. Berners' first two autobiographical essays, "First Childhood" and "A Distant Prospect," are set in England and cover the author's first 16 years. The next, "The Chateau de Resenlieu," set in France, describes Berners' first revelations about music and painting. "Dresden," the last in the series and set in Germany, is about his years in the diplomatic service. Berners darts from music to literature to theater and back to music. His memoirs, delightful in and of themselves, would be extremely useful for anyone working on theater/movie/opera set in that period.