The world of art is all-consuming and often too expansive to dwindle down into mere words. However, my love for it has only grown ever since I was a little kid looking to bury my nose into something new. My father used to be a painter and would encourage me to read into the lives of famous artists, whose works always surrounded us as if family portraits. These are a few picks of the reads that have impacted me the most, the ones I will always find myself drifting back to when in desperate need of inspiration, the ones I hope you find a part of yourself in too, with luck. – Vanessa

Ways of Seeing by John Berger (1972)

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” -John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Even if you’re not interested in art, I consider this book vital reading in order for growth on every front. Written in order to challenge western cultural aesthetics with feminist ideals, Ways of Seeing was initially a four-part TV series being shown by BBC. It was later turned into a book of the same name – a book I happened to come across years ago that changed how I perceived everything. At the time I wanted to be able to understand what I was seeing – not only what the artist intended for me to see, but challenge it’s meaning and question what I was being told. It is true that a visual holds 1,000 words, and Ways of Seeing helps make sense of this fact before it can get too overwhelming.

An excerpt from Ways of Seeing:

“In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.

In modern art the category of the nude has become less important. Artists themselves began to question it. In this, as in many other respects, Manet represented a turning point. If one compares his Olympia with Titian’s original, one sees a woman, cast in the traditional role, beginning to question that role, somewhat defiantly.

Titian The Venus of Urbino, 1538 (2)The Venus of Urbino, Titian C 1487-1576
olympia-1863Olympia, Manet 1832-1883

The ideal was broken. But there was little to replace it except the realism of the prostitute – who became the quintessential woman of early avant-garde twentieth-century painting. (Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Rouault, German Expressionism, etc.)

But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.”

Ways of Seeing can be purchased via Amazon.

Picasso and the Human Comedy by Michel Leiris (1954)

“Today Picasso is making a halt in his long pilgrimage. In the solitude of his Vallauris nights he is taking stock of his life’s work, an oeuvre from which he now stands aloof as though it were extraneous to him, but which lives on in the world of men. It forms a fully integrated whole, with its well-marked periods, successive discoveries, each leading to the next, its deviations smoothly and inevitably following on each other, its seeming inconsistencies, its phases of alternate harshness and serenity, moods of violence and tranquil joy – a rich panorama of achievement stretching out behind him but constantly before us. Is it journey’s end? No, that is unthinkable; this journey will end only with the ending of our great artist’s life. But now he has a sudden impulse to cast his eyes back to those early days when, long before he had attained his present mastery of plastic art he was forever drawing, drawing everything that met his eye, but also the haunting images of his desires and the trouvailles of his caustic humor. And they still are hovering before his eyes, and with them the traveling circuses of his boyhood, the player king, the little girl, the horses and the the monkeys and the clowns, waiting to be conjured up by his brush with that fluent ease which is the envy of his brother-artists and with a forcefulness intensified a hundredfold by the ordeal he has lived through and his awareness of having run the full gamut of human experience. By grace of his insatiable zest for life, Picasso is born anew each morning….” -Tériade

It is hard to feel like you “know” an artist when said artist has done everything – post-impressionism, cubism, surrealism, you name it, Picasso probably mastered it in a brief time period in his life. This book is not considered one of the “essentials” – in fact, I would’ve never come across it had it not belonged to my dad (which I sneakily kept from him) – but it is one of those rare glimpses into the true vision of an artist, without any editing or covering up what once was. I found myself looking through it and admiring the way he perceived human bodies – not as a commodity, but as a tool with which he could bend and distort until it said what he wanted it to say. It is complex in it’s simplicity, an ode to our soul within.

Picasso and the Human Comedy can be purchased via Amazon.

Van Gogh’s Letters (1875-1890) edited by H. Anna Suh

“As you can see, I am immersing myself in color—I’ve held back from that until now; and I don’t regret it.”—Vincent van Gogh, The Hague, September 3, 1882, to Theo van Gogh

I have often found it quite hard to articulate what Van Gogh means to me – yet, thankfully, he does it for me much better than I ever could. There is much less awareness about Van Gogh’s writing than there is about his painting – in my opinion, he does both in equal succession, two halves of one whole. If you haven’t read his writing, you’ve never gotten to see the whole picture. It is in these letters that I found a friend in Van Gogh, when I was a freshmen in college who more than anything just felt lonely. His tenderness and sincerity when it comes to addressing his brother Theo is more humanizing than not, a side of Van Gogh we are only used to seeing through colors instead of words. These letters, which range from 1875 to 1890, capture the progress in his work starting from the very first few sketches. First and foremost a sketcher instead of a painter, it provides us with a unique perspective inside the life of Van Gogh – his happy days, his sad days – his frustration with the ephemerality of what surrounds him, his contentment when he manages to capture it on canvas.

It was only years later when I found myself in his field in Auvers-sur-Oise, in his room where he made the decision to take his own life, in his melancholy, that I realized why this man’s artwork means as much as it does to millions everywhere. He’s you, he’s me – and that matters. It matters because it stands against the notion that your depression defines you, that nothing you do is of any consequence. It matters because, even though it may seem like he lost the battle, you can take a good look at the crowd that surrounds any Van Gogh painting, consisting of people of all ages speaking all kinds of different languages, and realize he didn’t.

Van Gogh’s Letters can be purchased via Amazon.

All text is copyrighted to their respective publishers.

Have any special art-related reads to recommend? Let us know in the comments – we’re always looking for something new.

Calling all Modern Girls: we want to hear from YOU! If you are a creative girl looking to share her written or visual content on the Modern Girls platform, send your original work to All voices are welcome. 


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