Art: Beguiling visual journeys


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The Independent Culture

The enjoyment of great art often involves a beguiling journey or two. This season Thames & Hudson has provided two excellent companions for the pocket. The Art Guide to London (£12.95), offering one hundred different locations in which to see the stuff, is much more wide-ranging than we could ever have imagined.

It is organised in an interestingly readable way too. Each section leads with a slice of narrative history about one of art's many periods before guiding us through some of London's key institutions. Christopher Lloyd's In Search of a Masterpiece (£29.95) sends us scurrying through the galleries and museums of Great Britain and Ireland in pursuit of nearly 300 wonderful paintings.

While on the subject of personal choice, the late Tom Lubbock, sometime chief art critic of this paper, wrote a column (it continues) which, week by week, dissected with keenness, wit and erudition a single painting at a time. Some of the very best of these bravura performances can now be re-read in the indispensable Great Works: 50 Paintings Explored (Frances Lincoln, £18.99).

Carola Hicks delves even more deeply into a single work in Girl in a Green Gown: the history and mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait (Chatto & Windus, £16.99). Yes, there are still interesting things to be said about Van Eyck's great double portrait.

Some imaginative journeys can be taken without moving an inch. You can be out and about while at home in the armchair as you enjoy Anna Waclawek's thoughtful global survey of Graffiti and Street Art (£9.95), the latest addition to Thames & Hudson's World of Art Series.

While in London, you may have been trying and failing to visit the Leonardo show at the National Gallery. Its catalogue (Yale, £40), full of up-to-the-minute scholarship, is sumptuously tempting, but even better value is Phaidon's Leonardo by Patricia Emson (£6.95), a fully illustrated introduction to the man and his work. Martin Kemp's brief and excellent Leonardo (Oxford, £10.99) digs deeper into the ideas behind this tempestuously talented many-men-in-one.

David Hockney, sometime painter of languorous California poolside scenes, has been re-inventing himself as a painter of the landscapes of his native East Yorkshire. His wonderfully restless mind – which includes a continuing addiction to the latest technological innovation – is laid bare in A Bigger Message (Thames & Hudson, £18.95), a series of conversations with the critic Martin Gayford.

Art books are often a mite too expensive. Taschen has dealt with that problem this austere Yuletide by down-pricing an excellent series of guides to modern masters. Fully illustrated in colour, these handsome hardcovers wing us through the achievements of Georgia O'Keeffe, Klimt, Schiele and Cezanne. They are highly recommended at £8.99 each.

The names of the titans just mentioned are familiar to most. Much less familiar are many of the self-taught or outsider artists who never studied at any academy, but whose imaginative verve could be just as exhilarating as any Royal Academician's. Charles Russell, mingling the biographical with the art-critical, has written an enjoyable survey of the work of a dozen outsider artists of the past 100 years in Groundwaters (Prestel, £40). There is such no-holds-barred wildness in this book - and such profundity.

But there is more than one kind of wildness. David Hurlston's survey of the disconcerting art of Ron Mueck (Yale, £19.99) brings together essay-length appraisals by a number of scholars and poets. The photographic reproductions are pin-sharp – as is entirely appropriate for the work of a man who pays attention to every pore of the human body.

A kind of wild quasi-religious fervour is often to be found in Outsider Art. TJ Gorring's subtle and well-argued Earthly Visions (Yale, £25) challenges the assumption that much art of the so-called mainstream has become secularised since the 15th century. Spirituality, it seems, is thicker-skinned and longer-enduring than could ever be imagined.

And what of the new? Two books from Phaidon (neither cheap, but neither overpriced for what they are) offer different aerial views of the terrain. Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Works (£45), written by eight curators and museum directors from around the world, looks at key works, and describes how and why they have helped to define the art of the present. Vitamin P2; New Perspectives in Painting (£39.95) is more vitally up to the minute. Which young painters are re-invigorating the ancient art of painting? This is a risk-taking book, but at least some of the choices seem spot-on.

If you are really in the fortunate position where money is no object, treat yourself to The Art Museum (Phaidon, £125), a giant of a book which seems to weigh about as much as two hodsful of best Bedfordshire bricks. It is laid out like an imaginary museum in which are displayed, spread by spread, 3000 of the finest works of art in the world. It could be browsed on and on, with sherry or without.