Best art books for Christmas

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Art books need to be useful, informative and visually ravishing. One of the most useful and delightful this autumn is a companionable new reference book from Thames & Hudson, Understanding Paintings: Bible Stories and Classical Myths in Art (£19.95). No one is equipped to understand paintings in the Western tradition without some grounding in scripture and classical mythology. This book takes apart, spread by spread, over 200 of the greatest Old Masters on classical or Christian themes by the likes of Titian, Raphael and Durer, quotes the relevant texts, and then explains their stories to us.

Generally speaking, museum guides do not merit special attention. An exception are the new titles in an excellent series, "A Closer Look at...", which guides us through the collections of the National Gallery. The latest additions are Faces and Saints and, given that they are so lavishly illustrated, they represent very good value for money indeed at £7.99 each from the National Gallery Company.

When it comes to autobiography, Charles Saatchi has never been much of a storyteller. Which is why My Name is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic (Phaidon, £5.95), though brief, comes in quite useful. It's not Charles in the confessional – in fact, it consists of some of the often quite robust answers that he has given to persistent journalists over the years, but it's informative, entertaining and quite spikily readable. Q. "I know very little about contemporary art, but I have £1,000 to invest. What do you suggest?" A. "Premium Bonds".

As ever, major exhibitions have been spawning a tonnage of catalogues. Some are too chic for their own good. The best this year come from the National Gallery and British Museum, and accompany shows devoted to Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler (British Museum Press, £25), still running at the BM, and the astonishing show of 17th-century Spanish wooden sculpture at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real (Yale, £35). These two books show us what catalogue-making should be all about: the texts are crisp and well-written; the superb photography helps to heighten the dramatic appeal of the objects on display; and the typography is clean, elegant and legible.

Peter Blake has created a delightful ABC for younger readers, published by the Tate Gallery at £7.99. It couldn't be simpler. He has set each letter beside an object from his vast personal collection of vintage toys and curios, from a frenzied wooden bicyclist to the most dolefully long-nosed dog imaginable. The book's a delight – and it will delight young readers.

It is difficult not to look - and look again - at a great self-portrait by Rembrandt or Courbet or Van Gogh. It seems to speak to the onlooker, to beckon us indoors, to be sharing intimacies. Laura Cumming examines the perennial allure of self-portraiture in A Face to the World (Harper Press, £30), and raises some interesting questions as she goes. Why, for example, have sculptors, generally speaking, failed to show the human face with the kind of subtle, alluring grace that painters have managed? Read on.

And so we come to a handful of books which require a great deal of scrutiny of the savings account. Do you enjoy occupying a high vantage-point and seeing far? A timely, well-written and lavishly illustrated new survey of what has been happening to painting over the past 40 years by Tony Godfrey, Painting Today (Phaidon, £45) could well be the book for you. A companion volume from Phaidon by Bob Nickas, at the same price and presented in a similar spirit of lively, unstuffy curiosity, examines abstraction in painting, with a not too finger-snapping title: Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting. The two books have a pleasing manner: curious, informal, thought-provoking.

The Manchester Art Gallery is showing work by women Surrealists, and the artist whose work really catches the eye is Trieste-born Leonor Fini. Vendome Press has published the first comprehensive monograph ever devoted to this neglected artist, by Peter Webb: Sphinx. Though expensive (£60), it represents a wonderful visual survey of an extraordinary career.

One of the year's great book projects – the culmination of 15 years of hard academic labour – is the multi-volume Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. All are newly translated, and the books illustrate every artwork he refers to in those letters. The six volumes are published by Thames & Hudson, complete with slipcase, and cost – aaaarghh! - £325 until 31 December, £395 thereafter, should anyone be fool enough to dally. And now the good news. There is also a website, with free access, which includes everything in these books – and much more. That is my Christmas gift to you, dear readers... www.vangoghletters.org

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