Ever-curious to hear what people think of our books, we asked our Twitter follower @, a designer from Cardiff, to tell us about his favourite Thames & Hudson title. The answer he gave us was pleasantly surprising! Read on for Barry’s in-depth review of Monsters by Christopher Dell
‘Many of Europe’s museums and art galleries contain large collections of gothic, renaissance and baroque art. Walk around an exhibition displaying art from these periods and you’ll find flattering portraits of noblemen, scenes from classical mythology and panoramic pastoral idylls.
You’ll also encounter a lot of Christian artwork; stunningly beautiful, elegantly composed and technically magnificent. But there are only so many ways to venerate the holy trinity or the saints. After a while the genuflexion, piety and reverence of these artworks leave you with the feeling that, while the artists’ skills are soaring into the heavens, their imaginations and creativity remain resolutely on terra firma. Then you spot a painting of hell, of demons tempting a saint or Satan himself, and you see something wonderful has happened: the artist’s creativity and imagination has been unleashed. An impression builds that the artist truly enjoyed creating this painting, revelling in the freedom afforded by biblical descriptions of purgatory, demons and the devil. So when I spotted Christopher Dell’s Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre on the Thames & Hudson website I knew I’d found a book where artistic imagination had been given free rein; to shock us, horrify us, scare us, warn us, and move us using our most base fears and emotions. And I knew that I would enjoy it immensely.
Monsters brings together beasts from land and sea; from the heavens and Earth; and from the depths of history and mythology to the nightmares of gothic fiction. Sitting alongside familiar monsters — Beelzebub, the Minotaur, oriental dragons and werewolves — are more obscure examples — Japanese Kappa, the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu, the Tibetan demon dMu and many more.
Through clever organisation of the chapters, the author draws parallels between the roles of similar monsters in different cultures, and discusses how they pass through time and place to crop up in different stories, such as the Sirens and Mermaids found in both Homer’s Odyssey and Arabian Nights. The discussions also provide greater context, helping the reader to appreciate the role of each monster within its own culture or belief system. In parallel to reading Monsters I was also reading the ‘Mabinogion’ — the Welsh collection of pre-Christian and Arthurian romance tales. These stories are full of giants, shape shifters and creatures from Annwfn (the Celtic otherworld). Reading both books together helped me to appreciate that the monsters were a reflection of the fears of and threats to each culture, and thus helped me gain a greater understanding of those cultures.
The only thing I felt was missing from the text in Monsters was a discussion of the role of dinosaur fossils in the origins of the monsters in the book. For example, the Gobi desert in China and Mongolia is a particularly fertile ground for palaeontologists, and the resemblance of oriental dragons to dinosaurs is surely more than a coincidence. Perhaps this is beyond the scope of Monsters; the ‘Further Reading’ section gives useful recommendations for readers wishing to explore the subject in more depth.
While the prose is fascinating, this is also just a beautiful book. Christopher Dell has selected excellent source material; work by renowned artists such as Bosch, Goya, Hokusai and Raphael sit alongside paintings, statues and masks by unknown artists from various African, Asian, European and pre-Columbian cultures. A whole page or spread is given over to each artwork, with judicious use of cropping to focus attention on the monster under consideration. While many art books place captions alongside each artwork, reducing the space available for the image and lessening its impact, Monsters collates this information at the end of each chapter, letting the reader appreciate the artworks without distraction. Elements from relevant artworks are also used to illustrate the key and summary pages. All this ensures that every page is a ‘monstrous’ treat!
The monsters themselves are fantastic, in all senses of the word; a collection of bizarre, grotesque, gruesome and strange creatures that are a testament to both the artists’ imaginations and our collective capacity to create nightmarish beasts. My favourites include the Tripodero, a tripedal creature ‘discovered’ by loggers in North America in the 18th century; a 15th century cyclops with unfeasibly long rabbit like ears and arms that appear to be jointed to its jaw bone; and an 18th century harpy with two tails, fangs, horns, large clawed feet, a lion’s mane, wings and, incongruously, two large human breasts — after which, presumably, the artist either ran out of space or body parts to add.
I have many art and design books, but Monsters instantly became one of my favourites. I can’t recommend this book enough; both adults and children will enjoy leafing through its pages. The fascinating prose and magnificent monsters are both illuminating and inspiring. I often find myself doodling strange creatures in my sketchbooks for my own amusement. This book will definitely inspire future doodling and I know I will find myself picking it up again and again, losing myself amongst its ghastly and horrific creatures.’
Barry Richards is a designer based in Cardiff, UK. Visit his website here
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