Art: Bacon with trimmings

Charles Darwent recommends spending Boxing Day with Kandinsky's colours or on Francis's studio floor
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The Independent Culture

Prestel's monolithic Kandinsky (£99) weighs a stone, has a handsome slip-cover and includes a good facsimile portfolio of Kandinsky's Kleine Welten prints, originals of which fetch £150,000 apiece. All of which might lead you to think of this less as a coffee-table book than as a coffee table, in which you would be wrong. Prestel editions are as weighty in learning as they are in kilos. This one is edited by a pair of the world's foremost Kandinsky scholars, Helmut Friedel and Annegret Hoberg, and its unpublished archive material alone makes it a must-have for anyone with a yen for the father of abstraction.

Kandinsky fans with lighter pockets need not despair, thanks to Andrew Spira's The Avant-Garde Icon (Lund Humphries £40). Spira's compelling study unpicks the place of Orthodox iconography in Russian (and later, Soviet) modernism, arguing that the anti-illusionist tendencies of icon painting fed seamlessly into the experiments of painters such as Malevich, Larionov and, of course, Kandinsky. Kandinskyites can also track their hero through John E Bowlt's excellent Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia's Silver Age (Thames & Hudson £24.95), an A-Z of tsarism's last, magnificent flowering of the arts.

Even as Russia teetered on the abyss, Proust was cataloguing the parallel slide of France's Old Regime. In Search of Lost Time is Kandinskyesque in its eliding of the senses, most memorably in the case of literature and patisserie but also of writing and painting. Pictures are everywhere in Proust, from comparisons of a Veronese sunset to strawberry mousse, to Odette de Crécy's resemblance to a Botticelli. In Paintings in Proust (Thames & Hudson £25), Eric Karpeles ferrets out all the passages where the author mentions artists and artworks, and then illustrates them with colour plates. Even hardened Proustians may be surprised by the outcome, which reveals In Search of Lost Time to be the Gesamtkunstwerk it always was.

A century after Kandinsky and Proust, it is China that calls the cultural shots. For most of us, though, contemporary Chinese artists remain as hard to understand as they are to pronounce. Richard Vine gives a clear-headed account of what is going on in New China, New Art (Prestel £30), tracing the dual art histories, traditional and modernist, that do battle in the Chinese breast, while guiding us gently through the latest movements and schools in Beijing and elsewhere. It is a measure of the need for Vine's book that Art Now Volume 3 (£24.99) – Taschen's annual, self-styled "cutting-edge selection of today's most exciting artists" – includes precisely six Chinese names among the 140 or so whose work it looks at. Still, ANV3 is pretty well compulsory reading for anyone who hopes to keep up with all that is newest and grooviest in the contemporary art world. Also, its texts are in English, French and German, so you can be pretentious in three languages as you walk around Tate Modern.

Heavier in all senses of the word is Phaidon's Art & Today (£45), although it, too, devotes oddly few of its 440 large-format pages to things Chinese. Edited by Eleanor Hartney, this tome sets out to rewrite not so much art history as art historiography. Ever since MoMA's founder, Alfred H Barr, doodled a flow-chart in which Art Nouveau became Surrealism became Abstraction became Minimalism, modern art has been seen as a linear chain of cause and effect. By contrast, this book treats it as a series of broadly interconnecting episodes, which is easier to believe in if harder to remember.

An equally heterodox, if wackier, view of the current state of things comes from Formulas for Now (Thames & Hudson £12.95), edited by über-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist asked Yoko Ono (pictured inset), Richard Dawkins, Gilbert & George, etc, to come up with equations whose solution is "today". If you add a pair of dice, you could probably turn the book into a Boxing Day parlour game.

One unexpected twist in the history of now is the return to favour of figuration in painting. A notable example of this is Elizabeth Peyton, a New Yorker whose washy oil portraits of friends, rock stars and princes William and Harry make her the mooted Warhol of our day. Phaidon's monograph, Elizabeth Peyton: Live Forever (£35), peppered with unidentified photographs, is as enigmatic as the artist herself.

Richard Calvocoressi and Sebastian Smee's handsome Lucian Freud on Paper (Cape £50) considers the work of the sulphurous Old Man of British Art via his drawings. By his own estimation, Freud reckons to produce 200 of these for every painting he does, which makes his sketchbook a vastly important resource. The drawings are also often tender, which may come as a shock to those attuned to the abattoir realism of his painting.

Freud's friend and nemesis, Francis Bacon, slyly affected never to draw, although this was a lie. Bacon, incredibly, would have been 100 next October, which explains the sudden outbreak of Baconia in art publishing. Among the best of the resultant books is Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait (Yale £18.99) by the late artist's friend and chronicler, Michael Peppiatt, a collection of essays and interviews that offer a uniquely intimate glimpse into the life of a notoriously unintimate artist.

Martin Harrison can't match Peppiatt in the Boswell stakes, but his encyclopaedic knowledge of Bacon minutiae and connections to the artist's estate make him a pretty good runner-up. His earlier In Camera explored Bacon's debt to photography. Now, Francis Bacon: Incunabula (Thames & Hudson £39.95) picks through the sweepings on Bacon's studio floor. Scraps torn from medical books, reproductions of Velázquez portraits, Muybridge stills, over-worked shots of massacres from newspapers – all were grist to Bacon's satanic mill. Harrison presents this trove without intervening text, as though we were truffling through the detritus on the floor at 7 Reece Mews ourselves. It's a good way of approaching Bacon; also of whiling away a wet Christmas afternoon.

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