The Books: Spring Reading

  • The essence of Americanness, the intricacies of human anatomy and the might of modernist architectural maestro Mies van der Rohe – what we’re reading this spring
    Photography Nikolas Ventourakis

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    Edited by Detlef Mertins

    Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – Mies to most of us – was a German-American architect who, arguably, worked in the most exciting historic eras of modern architecture. Indeed, many say that – together with Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, and Frank Lloyd Wright – Mies helped create ‘modern architecture’, whatever that is. Born in German Prussia in 1886, Mies’ career took off when he built the Barcelona Pavilion in 1929. The early half of the 20th century, before post-modernism took over, was ideal for such creative expression, be it in art or architecture. All of sudden technologic advancements had made a new way of building possible. But still there was no sign ofcommercial malls or concrete tower blocks; this was truly the golden age of architecture.

    Author Detlef Mertins might not have seen the end result as he died in 2011, but the Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania successfully traces Mies’ life, work and inspiration in his Phaidon monograph. Over more than 500 pages, Mies’s buildings are dissected and analysed – but also his life in general.

    Having moved to the US in 1937, unhappy with the direction Germany was going in under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, Mies carved out new career for himself from his Chicago studio. Though much of the book is about Bauhaus and Gothic architecture, it also deals with what happens when such strong influences are transplanted into an entirely new country and culture.

    David Hellqvist is Port’s online editor


    Institute of Contemporary Arts 1946 – 1968

    by Anne Massey, Gregor Muir
    Institute of Contemporary Arts

    In this detailed chronology of the early years of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, art historian Anne Massey describes post-war Britain as a land of “possibility, new beginnings and fresh starts”, though one still enthral to conservatism and the fabled stiff upper lip.For young creative types, places in which to gather and chew the existential fat in London were limited (it would be several years before the Soho coffee bar ‘boom’).

    The ICA, based at 17-18 Dover Street from 1950 until 1967, when it relocated to its current home on The Mall, filled that gap. Careers and whole art movements were born within this grand Georgian townhouse just off Piccadilly, including the earliest stirrings of Pop Art and Brutalism.

    Considering the weight of the work that emerged from the ICA during this largely austere time, it’s a minor miracle that Massey has managed to keep this authoritative record down to a mere 200 pages.

    Tom Jenkins is Port’s editorial assistant

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    American Artifacts

    by Phil Bergerson
    Black Dog Publishing

    Since the days of Walt Whitman, authors and artists alike have tried to pin down the essence of Americanness and the ‘American Dream’. The United States is the self-titled ‘land of the free and home of the brave’. No other nation springs to mind that has it’s own strapline.

    Yet in American Artifacts, Phil Bergerson’s photographic exploration of a country and an idea, there are no people, free or otherwise.Instead he presents us with abandoned houses, shop frontages that look like they haven’t seen trade for years; we’re not looking at a ghost town, but a ghost country. The opening of the book features contributions from Margaret Atwood’s non fiction work, Payback, in which the author ruminates on the idea of debt in all its manifestations. The foreword echoes the images contained, we are presented with political graffiti, ridiculous scrawlings on walls and religious signs, all in their own way signify personal or spiritual debt.

    It seems the American Dream, is just that, a dream.

    Nick Rainsford is Port’s production director

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    Encyclopaedia Anatomica

    by Monika v. Düring & Marta Poggesi

    Taken from waxworks housed at the Museo La Specola in Florence that were used in the 18th century for the training of medical students, Encyclopaedia Anatomica comprehensively presents the wonderful complexity of the human anatomical system: from skeletons to vein structures, organs to nerves, and arteries to the delicate pores of the skin.It’s endlessly fascinating to browse and the brief medical explanations on each spread are easily understandable to the layreader, though the trim size of just 5.5 x 7.7 inches often doesn’t do justice to the extraordinary detail of what’s been photographed.

    The short essay from Marta Poggesi, a biologist and former curator at the museum, provides interesting context on the history of the collection and the tradition of anatomical waxwork modelling, based on the use of human cadavers, that surely represents formidable evidence for the development of human thought.

    Jolyon Webber is Port’s porter editor


    I Used to be in Pictures: An Untold Story of Hollywood

    by Austin Mutti-Mewse & Howard Mutti-Mewse
    ACC Editions

    Beginning with a speculative letter written aged 12 to actress Lillian Gish for a school project – the star of The Wind (1928) and frequent muse of controversial film director D.B.Griffith – Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse embarked on a stream of correspondence with Hollywood’s vanguard that would continue for the next 30 years.

    In the 1990s, as young men, they travelled to Hollywood, where they were hosted by Bette Davis, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor and the reclusive Marlene Dietrich. Long after their faces stopped appearingin movies, these living icons regaled tales of Hollywood in its heyday, when they were the some of the most famous people in the world and when Hollywood was a hotbed of glamour and scandal.

    Between essays and unpublished correspondence are candid photographs of these screen stars in both their youth, and later years, when the brothers befriended them. It’s a moving insight into a by-gone era, a truly unique perspective littered with wonderful anecdotes, such as stories of taking Douglas Fairbanks Jr to the supermarket to buy groceries, and having afternoon tea with Elizabeth Taylor in Malibu – stories that are very ordinary, whilst simultaneously bizarre, for two men who grew up in New Malden, Surrey.

    In our upcoming Port Podcast, we talk in depth with Austin and Howard.

    Betty Wood is Port’s online deputy editor