Art & Photography: Cézanne puts the Aix in Xmas

Sadness and sensuality: Tim Hilton rounds up the year's most covetable coffee-table books

If someone gives you James H Rubin's Impressionist Cats and Dogs (Yale £25), you'll have a lovely Christmas present and will learn more about painting than about pets. The title sounds arch. But the book is a deft, academically expert essay about small animals in a movement renowned for its poise (like cats) and faithfulness to nature and mankind (like dogs). Delightful all the way through. Next, what about a book on impressionist horses?

There seems no end to the things we might discover in French painting. Nina Maria Athanassoglou-Kallmer's Cézanne and Provence: the Painter and his Culture (Chicago £45.50) is about the artist's relationship with his home area. By "culture'' she means provençal custom and tradition, climate, colour, attachment to native soil, a mixture of radical and conservative politics. These things, she argues, are firmly presented in Cézanne's landscapes and portraits. Surely she's right. And the "Master of Aix'' now seems more intelligent and profound than we knew him to be.

Vincent's Choice: Van Gogh's Musée Imaginaire (Thames & Hudson £32) presents and discusses the paintings - and popular graphic work, very often - that Vincent liked. Many of their artists are obscure or have long been out of fashion. Now, through Van Gogh's eye we can see them in a different way. It's too seldom said that he was a great art critic. All kinds of art, major or minor, came to his penetrating eye, then re-emerged in the pungent remarks of his letters or the joyous desperation of his own paintings.

The many authors of this book take note of Vincent's interest in 19th-century British art. That field is still open for exploration. J B Bullen's Byzantium Rediscovered (Phaidon £45) is the first account of the Byzantine revival and has pertinent remarks about many writers as well as artists, including Ruskin and Yeats. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Thames & Hudson £29.95) is the sumptuous catalogue of the exhibition currently - until 18 January - at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Whistler, Women and Fashion (Yale £35) is an account of feminine stylishness in the eyes of a painter who, one suspects, preferred finery to nudity.

The essential catalogue this Christmas and New Year is El Greco (National Gallery £40). Study the book now because it's too big to carry around the great exhibition opening in Trafalgar Square on 11 February. The show will amaze in many ways. Consider, for instance, El Greco's nude, sensuous sculptures. A pity that his admirer Picasso never saw them. He would have been thrilled.

Werner Hofmann is a former Director of the Kunsthalle in Hamburg and his Goya: To Every Story There Belongs Another (Thames & Hudson £45) is a weighty meditation. Hofmann is inspired both by the artist and European thinkers such as Goethe and Nietzsche. Although it is the most serious art book of the year I can - just - imagine that a dedicated sixth-former could read it, probably bit by bit, and looking more at the fine illustrations than the text.

Peter C Sutton's Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer (Frances Lincoln £30) would make a sweet gift from one sixth-former to another. The book is also about the general nature of letter-writing, a subject rarely tackled. My view, young people, is that there can be no true love without true letters. Stephanie Buck and Jochen Sander's Hans Holbein the Younger: Painter at the Court of Henry VIII (Thames & Hudson £29.95) is about his portraits of King Hal, his wives, prospective spouses and children. This concentrated body of work doesn't feel like a family album, for reasons we know. What lonely people Holbein painted: even the National Gallery's Ambassadors appear withdrawn from happiness and social life.

Julius Bryant's catalogue Kenwood: Paintings in the Iveagh Bequest (Yale £50) ought to be in the homes of all those regular visitors to the superlative Hampstead Heath collection. An informative and entertaining reference book is Ariane and Christian Delacampagne's Here be Dragons: a Fantastic Bestiary (Princeton £29.95). Just how much do you know about unicorns? Wise up within. Dozens of other invented animals are described, from medieval times to King Kong and the timeless, immortal Yeti - illustrated here from a Tintin book.

Hard to judge between the merits of two introductions to the art of an enclosed and traditional renaissance city, Timothy Hyman's Sienese Painting (Thames & Hudson £8.95) and Diana Norman's Painting in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena (Yale £25). The solution is to buy both. Neither author appears in the other's acknowledgements. Perhaps they have never met.

Mid 20th-century art in the US is well described by Bram Dijkstra's American Expressionism: Art and Social Change (Abrams £42). That expressionism was really tortured realism, so we see that Abstract Expressionism was often calmer than the art it replaced. Philip Guston Retrospective (Thames & Hudson £35) is the life of a painter who went from realism to abstraction and back again, crashing many American barriers on his way. Branden Joseph's Random Order (MIT £22.95) describes how Robert Rauschenberg went through aesthetic frontiers by scarcely noticing that they existed.

Christopher Allen's French Painting in the Golden Age (Thames & Hudson £8.95) is a helpful little book. His title refers to the 17th century. Much artistic gold was contained in the 18th, as described in Margaret Morgan Grasselli's Colorful Impressions: the Printmaking Revolution in 18th-century France (Lund Humphries £35). The delicate colour pictures in this book are so lovely, and so clever, and somehow elusive, that you want to look at them with a favourite cat in your lap.

Books for Scots, Londoners... and everyone in between

The best photography books this year contain social history as well as images; and the most instructive of them is The History of Japanese Photography (Yale £45) a volume of much beauty which is also a thorough account of the use of the camera in Japan during the last 150 years. For those of us who can't remember when the Edo period ended - 1868 - or forget that it was followed by the Meiji period, which became the Taisho period in 1912, which was followed by the Showa period (1926-89), the explanations and tables are helpful. The images also stop us from dreaming. Meiji and Showa photographs are as haunting and hard to recall as last night's sleeping thoughts. They don't have the sharpness of Japanese graphic art and are mostly influenced, I imagine, by Japan's atmospherics - that soft, quiet mystery always in the air. I like the glimpses of old palaces and gentlemen in meaningful robes, but the landscapes are best. Views into the distance make the Japanese camera exquisite, even when its subject is Hiroshima in 1945.

Japanese photography is not at its best with realism and fails when it mimics western art photography. Jack Birns's Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution (University of California £22.95) is photojournalism from 1947-9. Birns was a Life staffer but these shots were censored by the anti-communist head of the Time-Life empire, Henry Luce. This is their first publication. Jack Birns takes his place among the heroes of war photography; and the way that he escaped from the fall of Shanghai is an American adventure story.

Photographing Italy (Thames & Hudson £36) could have been a glamour book, a guide or a tourist-tease. In fact it is knotty and mostly sombre. These are intelligent and probing photographs. There are 350 images by 120 photographers. Their story begins when the Americans arrived in Italy in 1943 and brings us up to the present day. The editor, Giovanna Calvenzi, is an American-based photojournalist who looks on her native land with a mixture of emotions. This is a book for lovers of Italy whose true love includes sadness about the nation's destiny.

Murray MacKinnon's and Richard Oram's The Scots (Thames & Hudson £24.95) is also realistic more than romantic. It's a photographic history of Scotland between the 1860s and the First World War. In its pictures we find crofters, herring girls, a few aristocrats, the impoverished who enlisted as soldiers and the shipbuilders of the Clyde. A book for all Scots and those whose origins are across the border. This inexpensive volume ought also to be in every school north of Hadrian's Wall.

For those in the south, Liquid History: the Thames through Time (Batsford £15.99) would make a good Christmas present. The title's not beguiling, is it? But Stephen Croad has compiled an excellent book. Really, it's for Londoners, because we're given 200 pictures of the river from Staines to Gravesend, most of them dug out of archives. Croad's long captions are full of local detail and include opinions you may not have heard before: "Brentford was the nearest Middlesex came to having a county town.''

Aerial photographers continue to zoom through the skies. Paris from Above (Hachette £20) is a vivid, detailed document. It may upset lovers of the French capital who remember the city as it used to be. But it will also please younger people who get off the Eurostar without the baggage of nostalgia. Yann Arthus-Bertrand's colour photos were taken from a helicopter. So the differences in height of his vantage points are dramatic and, occasionally, exciting. Thames & Hudson have published a new, expanded edition of their best-selling aerial portrait of the globe, 365 Days, with photos by Arthus-Bertrand. The Earth from the Air: 366 Days (£24.95) is thus titled because 2004 is a leap year.

A bunch of books are concerned with celebrities. Karl Bissinger's portraits from the 1940s and 1950s are in The Luminous Years (Abrams £24.95). They are mainly of once-golden Americans - Brando, Capote, Montgomery Clift - and there's a self-loving introduction by Gore Vidal. In David McCabe's A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol (Phaidon £24.95), the God of Nothingness shepherds a flock of his admirers. People in Vogue (Little, Brown £45) is a brilliant collection of the magazine's portraits since 1918. Harry Benson's Once There was a Way (Thames & Hudson £19.95) must be read by all Beatleologists, not only for Benson's pictures but also for his account of the group's tours in 1964-6. Bet you can't guess what happened when they met Sonny Liston.

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