Art books: sumptuous publications to strain your wallet and your shelves

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The Independent Culture

The most beautiful book of the year is undoubtedly Klimt, edited by Alfred Weidinger (Prestel 89) with texts by several other Klimt scholars and including a catalogue raisonn of his 253 known paintings, several of which are shown here for the first time. There are also many supporting biographical photographs and reproductions of works by artists influenced by him and those by whom he was influenced, including William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Leighton and Whistler. The format is vast and the reproductions glitter with Klimt's characteristic obsession with gold paint.

Like many of my generation I cut my art historical teeth on the handsome but rather austere output of the Phaidon Press, austere because there were few, if any, colour plates and the black and white illustrations were separated from the text. Then along came Thames & Hudson who made colour predominant and integrated text and pictures. Phaidon faded away but has in the last 10 years made a colour-dominated comeback. There are classic monographs on Raphael by Bette Talvacchia, and Titian by Peter Humfrey. They are both 24.95 and, while neither is jacketed, both are bound in a fine silk-based cloth of great elegance. Phaidon is also responsible for a useful volume on Peter Doig with texts by Adrian Searle and others, at 24.95 in paperback. It's well illustrated but fails to explain why Doig (born in Edinburgh in 1959) sells for up to nearly 6m for his pleasant if oddly simple paintings.

Phaidon's best book this year is The Arts and Crafts Movement by Rosalind Blakesley (39.95). Notably well written, with an acute perception of the history and politics of the movement's heyday between 1880 and 1910, it also shows a fine grasp of what we commonly regard as an exclusively British movement but which was in fact international.

For students of American painting there are two volumes, both published by Merrell, Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists' brush with leisure 1895-1925 by James Tottis et al (29.95), a useful introduction to the work of Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, John Sloan etc, which illuminates a coherent, still Europe orientated, movement. One of its most interesting artists was George Bellows (1882-1925) who gets a book to himself by Mary Sayre Haverstock (29.95). His industrial landscapes show how America in its prime actually grew, while his best art consists of his unerring gift for depicting boxers in the ring.

Admirers of Kenneth Baker's magisterial guide to George IV: A life in caricature will welcome his companion volume George III: A life in caricature (Thames & Hudson 24.95), which is equally scurrilous, even scabrous and full of prime examples of the satirical genius of Rowlandson, Gillray, Cruikshank and many other perpetrators of lse majest. At the other end of the political spectrum we get Soviet Posters by Maria Lafont (Prestel 12.99), covering the period from 1917 to the Cold War and mixing the genius of Rodchenko and El Lissitzky with some appalling Agitprop propaganda almost indistinguishable from its contemporary Nazi equivalents.

There are two interesting and notable studies of the art of the Second World War in this country. War Paint: Art, war, state and identity in Britain 1939-1945 by Brian Foss (Yale 35) is primarily a close study of the War Artists' Advisory Committee chaired by Kenneth Clark, in which those who flourished included Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash. But it proved to be fertile ground for many others including Henry Lamb, Stanley Spencer, CRW Nevinson (who had shone also in WWI), Edward Bawden and many more. Good to have ground not so heavily covered as the usual art book territory, and the same is true of Henrietta Goodden's Camouflage and Art: Design for deception in World War II (Unicorn Press 33), a genuinely riveting account of just how much winning war work could be achieved by so few, armed with so little by way of material, so that painterly deception was all. The great deceivers included Oliver Messel, Hush Casson, Basil Spence and the elegant couturier Victor Stiebel.

So many art books consist merely of some decent re-productions with run-of-the-mill texts, so it's a particular pleasure to recommend three books where the texts are genuinely interesting and even provocative. Linda Nochlin's Courbet (Thames & Hudson 16.95) is a collection of her essays on various aspects of the painter's life and work. Anselm Kiefer/ Paul Celan Myth, Mourning and Memory by Andrea Lauterwein (Thames & Hudson 39.95) is, while superbly illustrated with Kiefer's paintings, a highly sophisticated meditation on the effect of Celan's poetry on Kiefer's work and the resolution of the painter's attitude to the Holocaust and the Wagnerian heroics of the Nibelungs. Not to be undertaken lightly but well worth perseverance.

Andrew Lambirth's Roger Hilton (Thames & Hudson 35) is that increasingly rare beast, the definitive Life and Works of a British modern artist (1911-1975). Hilton was brave in war, difficult to live with, an unconventional, unclassifiable painter of great originality and a fervent member of the awkward squad. Lambirth shirks none of the difficulties and has produced a comprehensively illustrated and, ultimately, sympathetic portrait of a master of abstraction.

It's a bold author who uses the words "A New History of Art" as his subtitle but that's what Julian Bell has done with Mirror of the World (Thames & Hudson 24.95), a courageous and thought-provoking comparative study of who did what, where and when, throughout history all over the world. For those who still think that inter-war Berlin was one of the world's great artistic centres Rainer Metzger's Berlin in the 20s (Thames & Hudson 24.95) is a masterly concise survey of that exotic time and place, replete with 400 appropriate illustrations of vice, decadence, innovation and high culture from Bauhaus architecture and design to the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, from the brothers Mann to Otto Dix, from George Grosz to Walter Benjamin. A superb compendium of a vibrant, doomed period.

From the ever industrious Werner Hofmann, author of an excellent book on Caspar David Friedrich, comes an equally impressive study of Degas: A dialogue of difference (Thames & Hudson 45). With nearly 200 colour plates and some revealing black and while biographical and documentary photographs, this is an acute study of some exquisitely sensual art and a thoroughly enigmatic personality.

As so often, some of the most interesting books are exhibition catalogues. It would be churlish to describe Seduced: Art & sex from antiquity to now as being designed for the one-handed reader; partly because it's too substantial to be comfortably supported by only one hand and partly because it's an eminently scholarly book (Merrell 29.95). Nonetheless it is the accompaniment to the current exhibition at the Barbican, probably the most explicitly erotic show ever mounted at a public gallery and one inspected by the police before it opened and guaranteed by them to remain unmolested provided no one under 18 years of age was admitted. The curators and authors of the catalogue are all distinguished art historians: Marina Wallace, Martin Kemp and Joanne Bernstein. Unsurprisingly sex hasn't changed much in the 2,500 or so years covered here from Greek vase painting via Giulio Romano and Rembrandt, from the Japanese prints with their improbably large phalluses to Picasso's erotic etchings to the camp vulgarity of Jeff Koons. There is, as they say, something for everyone here.

Barcelona and Modernity; Picasso, Gaudí, Miró, Dalí eds William H Robinson, Jordi Falgàs and Carmen Belen Lord (Yale 40), is what its title suggests. Apart from the big four, it also contains 500 plus pages and hundreds of illustrations, with a massive amount of information about their less well known contemporaries in art, architecture and design. A truly great cornucopia of a book. The same can be said of Venice and the Islamic World 828-1797 ed Stefano Carboni (Yale 45). It is a spectacular and immensely instructive comparison and fusion of the visual cultures of Islam and Venice and a masterpiece of scholarly book production.

Last, but surely not least, a book for which the word monumental might have been coined. Michelangelo Complete Works, by Frank Zoellner, Christof Thoenes and Thomas Ppper, is published by Taschen at 120. The photography and the reproductions are superb and the book contains a complete survey of the paintings, sculptures, drawings and architectural plans. It measures 44cms by 29cms and weighs 7 kilos, i.e. more than one stone, so that it should be bought only by those of strong physique. Ironically, the German word Taschen means pocket, but the book is nonetheless a wondrous object.

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