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October 19, 2008

Antoine's Alphabet

Watteau and His World

Jed Perl

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."

Dresden

Lord Berners

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.

Frida's Bed

Slavenka Drakulic

Penguin: 162 pp., $13

Slavenka DRAKULIC, be forewarned, is a breathy incarnation of Anais Nin, with a gratifying Eastern European edge. She was born in Croatia in 1949, wrote some unforgettable observations of the Balkans, communism and the war there -- and some slightly unhinged, hormonal novels like "The Taste of a Man" (in which the protagonist literally kills and eats a man). So Frida Kahlo is ideal territory, that ferocious combination of pain and passion that mingled in her blood from childhood. Kahlo endured endless operations to fix a body hurt by poliomyelitis and then by a streetcar accident (which broke her right leg in 11 places, her spine in three places, her collarbone, two ribs, her pelvis and left shoulder: "the handrail for passengers . . . had ripped into her stomach near her left hip and come out through her vagina"). As a result, Kahlo spent much of her youth bedridden. Her imagination became an escape from pain. She began to paint. She met Diego Rivera and fell in love. Miscarriages, self-portraits, days on Demerol for pain, gangrene, infidelity, betrayal, alcohol, a relationship with Trotsky, the disintegration of her body, attempted suicide -- and, through it all, there was the comfort and prison of bed, to see the world from one's bed. Drakulic imagines this well, curling up in Kahlo's broken body as if she belonged there.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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