BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Reading for pleasure? Our writers choose the titles they most admired and enjoyed this year; on the next few pages, a wide range of ideas about what to give this Christmas
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The Independent Culture
FINE ARTS The massive art publishing industry changes from year to year, fashions come and go, but one thing never alters. The classic French painters did lovely pictures, so they make lovely art books too. Marianne Roland Michel's Chardin (Thames and Hudson pounds 60) is a treasure. This much-loved artist has never been better served by colour reproductions - and what a lot of them there are! Here are paintings of whose existence I had no idea, plus lots of work by contemporaries, and even photographs of Chardin canvases as they were interpreted in Meissen porcelain. The text, long, serious and detailed, immediately becomes the standard interpretation, showing that Chardin was more complicated than we perhaps thought. But Mme Michel is not dull and is well translated by Eithne McCarthy. Definitely the top Christmas present.

Another Chardin expert, Philip Conisbee, has recently been looking at France's most mysterious painter of the 17th century, and his Georges de la Tour and his World (Yale pounds 30) is the sumptuous record of the big exhibition currently touring the States. Best known for his candlelit religious scenes, de la Tour is now revealed as a more varied artist. He was not only a central painter of the Counter-Reformation. He had a lively view of earthly life and could give simple people a massive dignity. So we might place him between Masaccio and Millet.

Among highbrow museum people there's currently a cult of Pierre Paul Prud'hon. To find out why, look at John Elderfield's The Language of the Body (Abrams pounds 55), which is an examination of the painter's life drawings. This book makes its subject emerge from his usual grey background in early 19th-century France. At first the drawings seem academic, more to do with statuary than with people. Consider further, and they turn out to be delicately beautiful, more than slightly sexy and full of love of art. Would that we could describe more art historians in the same way ...

Bruce Laughton, a very decent Euston Road painter in his early days, gives us, in his Honore Daumier (Yale pounds 45), an account of the artist that's genuinely sensitive to his work in all media. We always knew that Daumier was more than a caricaturist. Laughton demonstrates high achievement in both watercolour and oil pigment. Some of his paintings, though they were done in the 1870s, look like reinterpretations of Goya by a 20th- century artist. Two other good, also cheap, books on French art are additions to the Thames and Hudson "World of Art" series. Alan Krell's Manet (pounds 6.95) is a sophisticated reinterpretation. Sarah Whitfield's Fauvism (pounds 6.95) is more straightforward, but is very clever and shows that the author knows all the right pictures in French private collections.

As soon as you are able to travel on Eurostar again, pack Rachel Kaplan's Little-Known Museums in and around Paris (Abrams pounds 13.95). This handy-sized volume describes 30 of them and gives sound directions about opening hours and public transport. Featured museums include houses that are dedicated to Balzac, Carnival Art, Baccarat Crystal, Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Moreau, Edith Piaf and Maurice Ravel. For the magical dirty city in its best bohemian days, Carol Mann's Paris: Artistic Life in the Twenties and Thirties (Laurence King pounds 24.95) is simply excellent. Lots of photographs, copious and accurate information, not too much guff about art and interesting sidelines on fashion and architecture.

As Edward Lucie-Smith's Art Deco Painting (Phaidon pounds 16.99) makes clear, fashion and fine art came close in the years covered by Carol Mann's book. Many of Lucie-Smith's illustrations look like Virago covers, and he remarks that women made a substantial contribution to the art he describes. Nothing more is said on this subject, so the heavy analysis remains for other people to undertake. This year there are no good art books written from a feminist point of view, though a garish survey, The Twentieth Century Art Book (Phaidon pounds 25), which is arranged alphabetically, one artist and a caption to each page, has a much fuller selection of women than we would have seen only a couple of years ago. The captions are often rather good. The book's publishers should have given more credit to the people who wrote them.

Even more vulgar in its presentation is Nicola Hodge and Libby Anson's The A-Z of Art (Carlton Books pounds 19.99), again arranged with one artist per page. After half an hour I began to warm to their ludicrous volume. If I were a young teenager I might even love it. The alphabetical order means a whizzy absence of rationale. Gilbert and George come next to Giorgione, and are treated with equal respect. Angelica Kauffmann faces Mary Kelly. Samuel Palmer is paired with Eduardo Paolozzi. But maybe Cindy Sherman and Walter Richard Sickert would have more to talk about than we imagine? This book is obviously for teachers. They will find it more of a challenge than a simple classroom tool.

More substantial books about modern artists are led by the huge Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology (Guggenheim Museum Publication pounds 55), which surveys all of the popster's somewhat repetitious career. There aren't enough pictures in Jill Johnston's Jasper Johns: Privileged Information (Thames and Hudson pounds 16.95), for the simple reason that the painter refused to cooperate with the book. Perhaps he doesn't like being stalked? Johnston wanted to go into parts of his life that were previously secret or - quite properly - private. She has come back with fascinating material, but her attitudes are self- congratulatory and leave a sour taste in the mouth. Milan Kundera's Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits (Thames and Hudson pounds 45) has useful illustrations and a crass text. Many Scottish Christmas stockings could be filled by Andrew Gibbon Williams's The Art of Craigie Aitchison (Canongate Books pounds 25). Germano Celant introduces the work of Anish Kapoor (Thames and Hudson pounds 29.95) and Stanislas Klossowski de Rola's Balthus (Thames and Hudson pounds 24.95) succumbs to his father's conviction that nothing should be known about the biographical circumstances of his painting.

Not so good, these modern monographs. Lovers of early renaissance art are better served, especially by Diane Cole Ahl's Benozzo Gozzoli (Yale pounds 45). Since his rediscovery by Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1840s, Gozzoli has been loved by just a few people. This book will give him a wider following. Paolo Merachellio's Fra Angelico: the San Marco Frescoes (Thames and Hudson pounds 65) is the definitive account of his work in the Dominican convent in Florence. The Panorama of the Renaissance (Thames and Hudson pounds 29.95) is just what it says it is, panoramic. One thousand smallish illustrations touch down at important points over three centuries. Margaret Aston's sensible writing is designed for sixth-formers. In The Raphael Tapestry Cartoons (Scala Books pounds 9.95) Sharon Fermor describes the V&A's greatest renaissance treasure, now restored and with a fine new gallery - perhaps the best thing that's happened in our national museums this year.

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