Books of the year 2013: Art


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The Independent Culture

We navigate our way through art's treacherous waters with difficulty. Good art books are useful aids to navigation. In How to Read an Impressionist Painting (Thames & Hudson, £24.95) James H Rubin guides us, key painting by key painting, through the subject matter of Impressionism, embedding each work in the social, political and intellectual circumstances from which it emerged.

Will what seizes us now be remembered in the future though? Getting to grips with the art of the present is the challenge that Kelly Grovier has set himself in 100 Works That Will Define Our Age (Thames & Hudson, £35). An entire series of anthologies from the Whitechapel Gallery collectively entitled Documents of Contemporary Art (£15.95), examines some of the major themes of the art of our day, from the revival of abstraction to the nature of time, bringing together artists and critics in what amounts to a series of vigorous debates.

Artists of the present are often busy reinventing the past, as we discover in Michael Petry's Nature Morte (Thames & Hudson, £35), which examines how contemporary artists such as Michael Craig-Martin and Ai Weiwei have breathed new life into the tradition of still-life painting. The Letters of Paul Cézanne (Thames & Hudson, £29.95), hard-headed, unfussy, and endlessly curious, rigorously scrutinise the nature of his own life-long commitment to still-life painting and much else.

At this same historical moment, and in this very same physical locality, Vincent van Gogh was fiercely examining a single motif – the sunflower – and the series of paintings he made in the course of that summer of 1888, are minutely examined in a remarkable book called The Sunflowers are Mine (Frances Lincoln, £25) by the critic Martin Bailey. We hear another great voice of French art in a book devoted to a long-lost conversation between Henri Matisse and the Swiss art critic Pierre Courthion which took place during the German occupation of France. Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview (Tate, £29.99) amounts to a fascinating reassessment of his entire career. Matisse lovers should also not be without a visually ravishing, book-length tour of The Chapel at Vence (Royal Academy Publications, £60) by Marie-Thérèse Pulvenis de Séligny.

Some of the best art books of the year are often exhibition catalogues, and so it is again with the books that accompany Lucian Freud's show currently running at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Lucian Freud (Prestel, £35), and Peter Doig's recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Edinburgh, No Foreign Lands (Hatje Cantz Verlag, £35).

For those with deep pockets this season, the best titles are undoubtedly Susan Weber and Pat Kirkham's magisterial History of Design – Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400-2000 (Yale, £50), which is both a stunning visual survey of 600 years of making, and an in-depth look at the evolution of the very idea of design itself, and William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, edited by Susan Weber (Yale, £60), the story of how a single man created a look for a new dynasty.

We are all children at heart, and Quentin Blake's tales of the world of his making are told over two delightfully illustrated volumes entitled Beyond the Page (Tate, £17.99) and Words and Pictures (Tate, £16.99).

Western art is unimaginable without the brooding presence of that vain, obsessive, jealous, headstrong genius, Michelangelo. You can read about him at length in a fine new biography by Martin Gayford called Michelangelo – His Epic Life (Penguin, £30), a scholarly account with a pleasing lightness of touch.