Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Judgment of Paris

The winners of the Governor General’s Literary Awards were announced today, with two ex-pat Canadians winning in the top two categories. In English Fiction the winner was Peter Behrens, for his first novel, The Law of Dreams. Behrens is from Montreal but now lives in Maine. In English Non-fiction the winner was Ross King, for his book The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that gave the World Impressionism. King is from Regina, Saskatchewan but has lived in England since 1992. Yes, it’s true – world-renowned art experts come from the same Prairie province as Brent Butt and Gordie Howe. I believe Ross King’s sister teaches in the English Dept. at the University of Alberta.

In an interview with Powell’s Books, here, King describes his newest book:
My new book … tells the story of how and why Impressionism started in Paris in the 1860s and early 1870s. I cover the art, politics and wars in the eleven years between the Salon des Refusés in 1863 and the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874. The book is a group portrait in a way, with Monet, Cézanne and Renoir in the frame. But most of all it's the story of two drastically different painters, Édouard Manet and Ernest Meissonier. They were opposites in virtually every way imaginable. They were known, in fact, as "the two poles of art." Meissonier was the world's most famous and most popular painter, garlanded with critical laurels and showered in huge sums of money. Manet, on the other hand, was a critical laughingstock who couldn't even give his paintings away. Their reputations have since reversed, but I try to take the reader back to a period when Manet's paintings -- especially works like “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe” and “Olympia” -- could scandalize and electrify a nation that was as obsessed with painters and painting as we are today with sports figures and other celebrities.

King’s award-winner is his third non-fiction book that looks at a crucial period in art or architecture, making a somewhat arcane subject accessible but without dumbing it down. His first was Brunelleschi’s Dome (2000), about the building of the famous dome in Florence’s cathedral, followed by Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (2003), about the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling in Rome’s St. Peter’s Cathedral.

King is a bit of a renaissance man, with two well-received novels as well. His first novel, Domino (1995), is a “picaresque tale of art, artists, patrons, and ne'er-do-wells” set in 1770s England.

I recommended his second novel, Ex-Libris (2003), as a Gazette Pick in January of this year:
In 17th century London, bookseller Isaac Inchbold receives a cryptic summons to a remote country house. Inchbold is asked to restore a library ravaged by war, and in the process slips into an underworld of spies and smugglers, ciphers and forgeries. An intriguing literary thriller for fans of The Name of the Rose.


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