BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / Art & Photography: Poetry and sex in every stocking

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The Independent Culture
MOST ART books written by academics are on the timid and careful side, so it's a pleasure to encounter John Gage's Colour and Culture (Thames & Hudson pounds 38) which tries to consider everything, literally everything, that has been thought about colour from the ancient Greeks to the present day. No wonder that the bibliography lists 2,400 items. But this immense survey isn't just for scholars. Gage has the rare ability to make colour theory interesting, and he stresses the human as well as the artistic side of his subject. Rightly so, too, for colour, consciously or unconsciously, affects all our lives. A courageous book.

Miro by Caroline Lanchner (Abrams pounds 47.50) is the catalogue of the artist's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, so it has a lot of documentary information of interest only to specialists. The plates aren't all that good. Nonetheless, Lanchner gives us the best overview of Miro's career I've ever read, from his Barcelona beginnings to surrealist Paris and the last years in Majorca. She explains the pictures well; also Miro's combination of song and earthiness - the generosity of his art, the way he wanted to fly through the starry night to put poetry and sex in everybody's stocking. And to celebrate Miro's centenary, Little Brown have a sumptuous Joan Miro, 1893-1993 (pounds 50), with essays by Rudi Fuchs, Christopher Green and Robert Lubar.

Not enough good books on modern painters recently. Publishers this year seem to prefer the Old Masters, which may be a sign of the times. Quite the best Old Master book for Christmas is John Pope-Hennessy's Donatello (Abbeville pounds 72), a noble tribute to an artist the author believes to be among the greatest who ever lived. I don't know that this is true, but I find it interesting that the best modern artists think Donatello the best of Renaissance sculptors. Pope-Hennessy has been studying him for 50 years. The book is both authoritative and remarkably fresh. Pricey, certainly, but many people will buy it for the plates alone.

It's Pope-Hennessy's year, for he has also published a beautiful edition of Paradiso (Thames & Hudson pounds 45), Giovanni di Paolo's illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy. These are 61 perfect miniatures, making up one of the finest of all Siennese illuminated manuscripts. They are now reproduced in colour for the first time, both in facsimile and with moving enlargements. The commentary is a wise introduction both to the art and to Dante. Astonishing how we can still get revelatory books about early classic art. Another one is William Hood's Fra Angelico at San Marco (Yale pounds 45), in which some of the most seraphic of Florentine paintings are matched to Dominican thought in a way that has not been done before.

A startlingly different Christianity is surveyed by Marilyn Heldman's African Zion (Yale pounds 40), a book about the sacred art of Ethiopia from the fourth century to the 18th, still largely unknown in the West. Christopher Wood's Albrecht Altdorfer (Reaktion pounds 34.95) is about the first of all Western landscape painters, a study that is bound to become a standard work. Mikhail Larionov and the Russian Avant-Garde (Thames & Hudson pounds 36) is Anthony Parton's important book about the leading Soviet artist. Its clear narrative has been immensely enriched by Parton's interviews with people who knew Larionov's milieu. Revolutionary idealists are also brought to life in Desmond Rochford's Mexican Muralists (Laurence King pounds 30). He follows the careers of Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros, the three central artists in the South American movement for public political art. Highly informative, with colour illustrations of all the major murals in Mexico and the USA.

An inexpensive but nicely produced art book is Julian Treuhertz's Victorian Painting (Thames & Hudson pounds 6.95). Its author has worked in museums in Manchester and Liverpool and he knows exactly how 19th-century British art became popular and accessible, not just in the RA but in the provinces too. This useful guide begins with the rise of genre painting in the early 1840s and finishes with an account of the landscapists of the 1890s. One of these later artists, to my mind much underrated, is examined in Kenneth McKonkey's excellent Sir John Lavery (Canongate pounds 25). This Belfast-born Scotsman, a no-nonsense grandee of the Edwardian art world, was French-influenced but one of 'the Glasgow boys', a society painter yet basically a professional of the easel. An elusive figure, hitherto, but now set in context and properly celebrated.

Top of the recent books on architecture must be Anthony Sutcliffe's challenging Paris: An Architectural History (Yale pounds 25). Many of us assume that Paris is a city whose beauty is in decline. Sutcliffe has no such despondent and romantic view, perhaps because he is by profession an economic historian. He begins with medieval and Renaissance buildings and takes the story up to the Haussmann era. All this we knew. But then Sutcliffe looks at the Haussmann legacy. He says that it became entrenched until the 1950s. Then he discusses high-rise modernism in the de Gaulle era, shows that this was rejected by the early 1970s and claims that in the last decade there has arisen a kind of neo-Modernist architecture that has been inspired by old Parisian building traditions.

If you cling to a traditional view of the city, then Atget's Paris (Thames & Hudson pounds 24.95) is the book for you. This thick paperback brings together the largest number of his photographs ever issued in a single volume: 800 prints, arranged by district. He must be the saddest photographer who ever lived. At first he seems a simple recorder of buildings, street corners and tradespeople. Then his compositional subtleties make themselves known. And then, slowly, there is revealed a whole despondent metaphysic of urban life. There has never been anything like it, nor could there be. The world has moved on, while Atget still ponders mortality.

With Richard Avedon's An Autobiography (Cape pounds 75), we are in a high-pressure universe of glitz and spiritual death. This huge volume is not really the story of Avedon's life, but he has divided his favourite prints into three parts: the first about 'the fine line betweeen hilarity and panic', the second about power and the third about the loss of illusions. Avedon's photos are grand, economical and too worldly to be truly sympathetic to their subjects. But this is still a work of great power - a sort of biography of modern America.

I like books of artistic gossip. They are much more fun than criticism, and chatter is often more enlightening than heavy appreciation. James Lord's Picasso and Dora (Weidenfeld pounds 20) is by turns foolish and clever, shameless, petulant, garrulous and in the end rather revealing. Here's this puppy-dog of an American who attaches himself to Picasso, has a long and quarrelsome friendship with the artist's mistress Dora Maar, then tells all their secrets. Wonderful stuff, the best book yet about Picasso's post-war entourage. David Hockney is a chatterbox too, but he takes himself all too seriously. That's the Way I See It (Thames & Hudson pounds 24.95) is the edited transcript of his conversations about opera, photomontage, fax machines, life in California, etc. The title well conveys the book's dogged self-satisfaction.

Finally, do give someone, or yourself, Max Beerbohm's A Christmas Garland (Yale pounds 16.95), a facsimile reprint of the 1912 original. Delicious parodies and caricatures, still very funny. A dapper little masterpiece, like the man himself.

(Photographs omitted)