Books of the Year 2012: Art

From art to sport, poetry to nature, travel to food, history to music: our writers select the best of the year’s books in a comprehensive guide to the highlights in every shade of the literary spectrum – except grey

When faced with the enigma of contemporary art, fewer street cries are more familiar than: "my kid could have done better than that!" Susie Hodge tackles that charge in Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained (Thames & Hudson, £9.95), plucking out 100 works, from Jean Arp to Carl André, and explaining why the seemingly outrageous often deserves careful attention.

Artists' own words are given a great deal of attention in two new books of their opinions. In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today's Leading Artists (Thames & Hudson, £19.95; edited by Simon Grant) asks 78 living artists which work of art has been most influential in their lives, and in doing so throws interesting light on their own attitudes towards art-making. Sanctuary: Britain's Artists and their Studios (Thames & Hudson, £48) presents Hodgkin, Turk, Rego and 40-odd others in the creative squalor/order of their private sanctuaries, and asks some interesting questions. "Where do you find moments of peace?" the interviewer asks Michael Landy. "I should box, really, in a ring. Probably being hit by somebody would be good. But good boxers don't get hit."

Those who commission art often get hit – and sometimes very hard. All to the good, then, that there is a very readable new book by Louisa Buck and Daniel McClean called Commissioning Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, £18.95). What do artists think of the purchasers of their works? How easy is it to negotiate with the man with the flaming brush? This book is a very thought-provoking read.

How contemporary is contemporary art, though? Alexander Nagel's Medieval/Modern : Art out of Time (Thames & Hudson, £29.95) reminds us, throughout the skilful weave of his argument, that there is much more medievalism in the art of the present, and much more contemporaneity in the art of the distant past, than we often realise.

Much art of the past and present has simply disappeared as a result of war, theft, vandalism and much else. Céline Delvaux's The Impossible Museum: the Best Art You'll Never See (Prestel, £16.99) takes us on a journey through centuries, and presents, for our poignant delectation, images of great works that we can never hope to see, from the Buddhas of Bamiyan, blown up by the Taliban in 2001, to Rubens's "Bacchanal", which went up in smoke in May 1945 (when the Friedrichshain bunker in Berlin was mysteriously destroyed), along with more than 400 other masterworks from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin.

Those who might wish to get a little closer to Rubens by finding out exactly how he did what he did are advised to dip into Rubens Unveiled: Notes on the Master's Painting Technique (Ludion, £22.50). Various works from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp have been scrutinised with the aid of macrophotography, infrared reflectography and X-radiography. Take a peek over Rubens's shoulder.

There is a great deal of interesting close-scrutineering of artworks in The Unfinished Painting by Nico Van Hout (Ludion, £40), which analyses dozens of paintings from the 15th century to the present which, for one reason or another, never got finished. It argues what a profound influence this lack of closure has had upon modernity's thinking about the nature of the artistic enterprise. Art not only needs science. It increasingly seems to depend upon cutting-edge scientific endeavour for its subject matter, as we discover in Stephen Wilson's Art and Science Now (Thames & Hudson, £19.95). A clever technical device called the camera obscura radically changed the nature of painting hundreds of years ago. This is just one of 100 Ideas that Changed Art (Laurence King, £19.95), a lively, entertaining, loosely chronologically examination by Michael Bird of the ways that art-making has been re-shaped down the centuries.

No account of the most interesting art books of the season would be complete without one or two the best monographs. Though costly, Johannes Grave's presentation and elucidation of the works of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (Prestel, £80) is worth the investment. The text does the man justice, and the full-colour reproductions have the necessary panache. Also to be recommended for the deep-pocketed is The Book of Kells (Thames & Hudson, £60), ably interpreted by Bernard Meehan. With great cogency and clarity, this book unlocks, spread by full-colour spread, that glorious, Dublin-based treasure-house of symbolic mysteries from the way-back-when of the eighth century.

Further reading

Books of the year 2012: Fiction

Books of the year 2012: Crime and thrillers

Books of the year 2012: Music

Books of the year 2012: Celebrity

Books of the year 2012: Natural history

Books of the year 2012: Food

Books of the year 2012: Travel and place

Books of the year 2012: Sport

Books of the year 2012: Children's books

Books of the year 2012: Memoirs

Books of the year 2012: History

Books of the year 2012: Poetry

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