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THERE is no leading Christmas art book this year, but like everyone else I'm looking forward to the Vermeer exhibition at the Hague in March (go by Eurostar, change at Brussels) and two books on the Dutch master are essential reading before a visit to the show itself. Johannes Vermeer (Yale pounds 25) edited by Arthur Wheelock, is the catalogue of the exhibition. Wheelock is also the author of Vermeer and the Art of Painting (Yale pounds 30), a suitably calm and thoughtful work of that closely examines 17 of the 36 pictures that are nowadays held to be Vermeer's oeuvre. It's highly technical, using all sorts of evidence from x-rays and the like, but I've never read technical descriptions with such aesthetic sensitivity.

Early modern Russia seems quite as remote as Vermeer's 17th-century Holland. In Life on the Russian Country Estate (Yale pounds 30), Priscilla Roosevelt makes astonishing revelations of barbarism mixed with refinement. These enclaves of splendour and mad self-rule boasted harems, serf theatres, hunting, feasting and occasionally some pretty manners. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 is a key date. Then the Bolshevik revolution swept all away. But here is the real background of classic Russian culture. It's very well described. The volume is conceived as an art book, and every one of its 230 illustrations was new to me.

There are similar themes in Peg Weiss's Kandinsky and Old Russia (Yale pounds 40). The painter is familiar as one of the pioneers of abstraction. All too familiar, thinks Weiss. She describes his ethnographical training, his interest in old Russia and his knowledge of Finno-Ugric, Lapp and Siberian shamanism. Then she proves that iconography from such sources is found in Kandinsky's painting from first to last. This is a major re- interpretation of a great artist, and adds to the view that the modern movement was fuelled by mystic humanism.

The struggle for humanism under a repressive regime is the theme of Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T Dodge's Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience 1956-1986 (Thames & Hudson pounds 40). Dodge, a Maryland Professor of economics, describes himself as an obsessive collector since his boyhood. After his first visit to the USSR in the year of Stalin's death, 1955, he determined to acquire art of which the state disapproved. Thirty years later he amassed 10,000 such works by more than 900 Soviet artists. This book documents his collection and includes essays by experts in the field. Even when the art doesn't look terribly good the writing demonstrates its historical relevance and, often, the heroism of its creators. An essential reference book, and furthermore a guide to native self-expression in the distinct cultures of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia and so on.

Art books are getting more political. Reflecting the concerns of recent art history, they look at the roots of the present world order. Romy Golan's Modernity and Nostalgia (Yale pounds 35) is about the social pressures reflected in French painting between the wars. Much of her material is new, and she has disturbing revelations about French anti-semitism, endemic even within the avant-garde. Gino Severini's The Life of a Painter (Princeton pounds 22.50), written in the artist's native Italian in 1946, has crisp anecdotes about the adventures of a futurist in Paris. Sonia Delaunay: The Life of an Artist (Thames & Hudson pounds 26.95), edited by Stanley Baron, affectingly describes a brave woman whose multi-media work is still not fully recognised. Jewish, born in Russia in 1885, married to the dominating Robert Delaunay, she never put herself forward. Now a fuller picture of her importance in French art emerges, and not only in her contribution to Orphism. Lo and behold, it turns out that she lived to be one of the most sprightly new colour painters of the Sixties.

The exodus of radical artists from Paris to New York is described in Dickran Tashjian's A Boatload of Madmen (Thames & Hudson pounds 24) - the title comes from Andre Breton's description of his fellow surrealists on their way to the New World - and Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School (MIT Press pounds 34.95) in which Martica Sawin gives an exhaustive account of tensions in the American art world in the 1940s. Neither author acknowledges the other, as is often the way with such books. Specialists will want both. If you need only one, Sawin's gives better value.

Talking of value, the best art books this season seem a little cheaper than in recent years, and the best Christmas present has to be the low- priced National Gallery Complete Illustrated Catalogue (pounds 35), which reproduces all 2,200 pictures in excellent colour and with a lucid commentary. The more expensive version (pounds 94) comes with a CD-Rom, and should be in every school. Another excellent gift would be Christopher Finch's The Art of Walt Disney (Virgin pounds 50). I love this enormous book, and so does my son. It tells you everything you need to know about 70 years of Disney graphics, even the answer to my first and major question: Why does Mickey so little resemble a mouse? Because he's based on circles, Dad, and that made for easier animation.

Another book that might be enjoyed by parents and children is Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull's J R R Tolkein, Artist and Illustrator (HarperCollins pounds 35). It appears that the inventor of Middle-earth was talented with pen and brush. Early on, ie around 1912, he successfully imitated commercial artists of the day and he did some nice landscape watercolours of excellent places like the Lickey Hills. Personally I don't like the drawings he did for his own books, but he was good at imaginary maps, and that is an important skill in a children's author.

The most dignified and revealing new book about a (relatively) modern artist is Nicolai Cikovsky and Franklin Kelly's Winslow Homer (Yale pounds 40). Surely he was the greatest American painter before Pollock, especially if we grant that Americanness is itself a virtue. Anyway, Homer had frankness, honesty of style, liberation from middle-class constraints, a gift for instant friendship and a true though understated feeling for nationhood. The Civil War pictures are very moving. So are those of life in the Adirondacks and his Atlantic seascapes. Did he have a tragic final vision? Some think so, others believe he was exhausted. If you can't get to the Homer retrospective (currently in Washington DC) this book will help you decide.

The better-known Edward Hopper was in truth a lesser artist but is interestingly served by Edward Hopper and the American Imagination (Norton pounds 30), not exactly an art book but a tribute from other Americans including Norman Mailer and the poet Ann Lauterbach. Ivo Kranzfelder's Hopper (Taschen pounds 11.99) has 206 illustrations and is a far better introduction than can be provided by Mailer and his colleagues. It's the best little book about an American artist I've read for years. As usual, literary folk get it wrong when they write about art.

Unless they are that (alas) ex-poet Edward Lucie-Smith. As I've said in these pages before, nobody should be snooty about Lucie-Smith's books just because he writes so many of them. The poet may have become a filing cabinet, but what files he commands! Art Today (Phaidon pounds 39.99) is a survey of all vanguard art from 1960 to the present, and with the accent on the present. It's a triumph. The contention is that since there's no dominant modern movement we're in an era of unprecedented confusion, so a plain guide is needed. And the book goes through everything, all round the world, with no fewer than 537 colour plates, an excellent bibliography and a largely impeccable set of artists' biographies.

What's lacking, of course, is a genuinely critical overview. This is also the demerit of Brandon Taylor's grim and passionless The Art of Today (Weidenfeld pounds 6.99). Yet the series to which it belongs, the "Everyman's Art Library", is shaping up rather well. A companion volume, Craig Harbison's The Art of the Northern Renaissance (Weidenfeld pounds 6.99) is an enlightening work. It makes the point that 15th- and 16th-century art in Flanders and the Netherlands should be studied in its own context, not in comparison with contemporary Italy. Okay, and let's spend more time on the northern branch of the Eurostar.

Another new series comes from Phaidon, all books priced at pounds 19.99. Though physically floppy they are big and feel more like a hardback than a paperback. This "Contemporary Artists" series has so far surveyed the British sculptors Antony Gormley and Richard Deacon, plus the Canadian Jessica Stockholder and the Cherokee-born Jimme Durham. There's little else about contem- porary artists. Bridget Riley's Dialogues on Art (Zwemmer pounds 15.99) is a sequence of heavy conversations about colour theory and so on. I would have liked a talk about her dress sense, an aspect of the Riley persona I have long admired, and for Christmas I am going to give her Aileen Ribiero's The Art of Dress (Yale pounds 40), which is about fashion in England and France between 1750 and1820, is scholarly, pretty and super in other ways too.

THE most substantial photography book this Christmas is Peter Hamilton's Robert Doisneau (Abbeville Press pounds 55), a massive biography that is also a revealing commentary on French life since the mid-1930s (above). Doisneau is best known for that romantic image of a couple kissing, "Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville", which I'm surprised to learn was posed by actors, but Hamilton's book demonstrates that his abiding subject was the Parisian suburb; not a picturesque suburbia but, in Doisneau's words, "a zone where you went either to play, to make love, or to commit suicide".

That sounds exaggerated. None the less Doisneau's photography continually suggests the private obsessions of ordinary French people. He was one himself, so went unnoticed. But Doisneau was good at noticing: that's what his photography is about. He saw his fellow Parisians as they went about their quiet lives or got up to tricks on canal banks, waste land, parks and cobbled lanes, those places at the end of autobus and metro services. Small shopkeepers, cyclists, Renault workers, mothers and children, self-employed artisans were his subjects, and he avoided the spectacular in order to make them all the more vivid.

All this is well explained by Hamilton, who had the advantage of long conversations with Doisneau before the phtographer died last year. Thus we learn what it was like to be a photographer during the Occupation, how Doisneau assembled his photo-projects for Life and Vogue and how he made his wonderful, not altogether respectful portraits of Picasso and other celebrated artists. Doisneau's sense of humour is significant: he knew that camera work can smile in all sorts of ways that painting cannot attempt.

Henri Cartier-Bresson once invited him to join the Magnum agency, an offer declined because Doisneau was so bound to the Parisian lower middle classes that he could not bear the idea of long trips abroad. Cartier- Bresson, for his part, was a devoted traveller and his Mexican Notebooks (Thames & Hudson pounds 18.95) bring together prints from two expeditions to South America, the first in 1934 and the second 30 years later. You can't tell which pictures were taken when, and perhaps that's the point. Conditions were no better: the people were the same. A preface by Carlos Fuentes laments the brutality of his native land in a curiously boastful manner.

Mexico also features in the multi-authored Edward Weston: Forms of Passion, Passion of Forms (Thames & Hudson pounds 48) since in his Mexican period after 1923 he invented the concept of "pure photography" and also took splendid nude photographs of his mistress, the Italian revolutionary Tina Modotti. Not his only mistress, and all contributors agree that Weston was a lustful man. Could "pure photography", with its insistence on abstract forms, have helped him to make good pictures of the nude? I think not. He was helped by Modotti's powerful personality. All the best nudes in photography are also portraits, and portraiture is a branch of art that "pure photography" cannot approach. Many of the prints here have not previously been reproduced.

Brancusi Photographs Brancusi (Thames & Hudson, pounds 12.95) is a little treasure. The Romanian artist took photographs of his sculpture throughout his career. Some were for the record, others were sent to potential purchasers. It's possible, though, that Brancusi photographed his work in order to contemplate it through a different medium. So his prints are awesomely thoughtful and monastic, just like their subjects. They take after the sculpture in a further way. There is a parallel attempt to be at once modern and primitive. Brancusi was attempting the impossible, to produce photographs as if taken before the invention of photography. Such an endeavour was by its nature doomed, and this makes his album all the more poignant.

Against expectations, Photographers' London 1839-1944 (Museum of London pounds 35) is a saddening book. It doesn't mean to be. The theme is straightforward. A large number of photographers of all nations are included, those who have recorded the capital at any time. Then their work is put in chronological order. So the earliest contributor is a Frenchman, a Monsieur St Croix, and the latest are Tom Hunter and James Mackinnon, both born in the 1960s. At the centre of the book, however, come the war and the blitz, and there is never a really happy moment in the record of the years afterwards. I don't suppose this slant on life in the city can have been deliberate. Perhaps those of us who live in the south-east are simply unaware of how gloomy we feel?

The book most people will want for a present is Magnum Cinema (Phaidon pounds 39.99). Photographers associated with the agency have been stalking the film world for half a century, and here are three dozen of them at the shoot, in the edit room, at film festivals and in pursuit of the stars in their private lives - though there isn't any true paparazzi work in the book, Magnum being a dignified operation. Some of the material is familiar, especially the pictures of Monroe and Gable in the Nevada desert for The Misfits; but much more is new, and leads to puzzling thoughts about the Magnum documentary style. What is it to be photogenic, for instance? Does the big screen make people more photogenic? It would appear so. Why are these photos so much better in black-and-white, and why do the formal portraits so often disappoint? But never mind the aesthetic questions. This is a book for fans.