Books for Christmas: Arts and crafts

The ace caff comes up trumps at last
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The art event of the year is the opening of the new British Galleries at the V&A, surely the most successful of the lottery-funded re-displays. The museum's overnight transformation from zero ("ace caff", charges, etc) to hero puts David Beckham in the shade. The flak will start to fly again if they persist with their attempts to build Daniel Libeskind's "Spiral", but for the time being, the critics are holding fire. For those who want to read more about the V&A, the obvious starting point is Design and the Decorative Arts: Britain 1500-1900 (V&A, £45), a lavish doorstopper that both explains and supplements the displays. The "in focus" sections, ranging from individual designers to fashion magazines, are particularly useful.

One of those sections focuses on book production, and for this, Christopher de Hamel's The Book: a history of the Bible (Phaidon, £24.95) is essential further reading. It is a fascinating, abundantly illustrated history of the changing size, appearance and use of the Bible, from the age of illuminated manuscripts through to Johann Gutenberg and European missionaries.

Robert Adam looms large at the V&A, and Eileen Harris's The Genius of Robert Adam: his interiors (Yale UP, £65) offers a meticulous survey of 19 of his finest. Each one is visual caviar, so don't gulp this book down. Howard Coutts's The Art of Ceramics: European ceramic design 1500-1830 (Yale, £60) is the first overview of the subject, and puts British achievements in context. Anne Massey's Interior Design of the 20th Century (Thames & Hudson, £7.95) provides a useful coda to the V&A galleries, which throw in the towel at 1900.

The V&A ethos is becoming more prevalent, with many picture galleries now doing mixed-media displays. Luke Syson and Dillian Gordon's Pisanello (National Gallery, £19.95) is the catalogue to the current exhibition, which features coins, medals, armour, cutlery and tapestries as well as paintings and drawings. The catalogue features interesting essays on chivalry and leisure during the period. Luke Syson and Dora Thornton's Objects of Virtue (British Museum, £40) gives a stimulating account of the ways in which objets d'art projected the values of the ruling classes during the Renaissance. Virtue and Beauty (Princeton University Press, £36.50), the catalogue to an exhibition in Washington, DC, does something similar for Renaissance portraits of women.

Titian is perhaps the greatest painter of women, and Paul Joannides's Titian to 1518 (Yale, £50) is an ambitious attempt to redraw the blurred map of Titian's early career. Filled with penetrating insights, as well as vivid descriptions, the book provides a compelling introduction to Venetian painting. David Franklin's Painting in Renaissance Florence (Yale, £40) offers a brisk and forthright account of Florentine painting of the same period.

Monographs on a single artist still form the backbone of art publishers' lists. Among the most useful this year are Horst Ziermann's Matthias Grünewald (Prestel, £45) and Hieronymus Bosch (Abrams, £40), for not only do they have informative texts, but they illustrate every work of these hallucinatory artists. Vermeer (£17.95) and Delacroix (£16.95) are the first artists to be covered in a useful new series of Cambridge Companions, anthologies of old and new essays that examine each figure from a variety of perspectives. The Oxford Companion to Turner (£60) is a scholarly-to-the-point-of-nerdiness encyclopedia that starts with Abbotsford and ends with the Zurich Kunsthaus: a must for all Turner buffs. Martin Myrone has written a succinct introduction to Turner's contemporary Henry Fuseli (Tate, £8.99) that puts his fantastical, debauched imagery in context – where humanly possible.

Andrew Brighton's trenchant Francis Bacon (Tate, £8.99) is the best introduction to the artist I have read: he makes a strong case for the influence on Bacon of the irrationalist political theorist Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), who believed that life was a "savage battle at all levels". Talking of which, Van Gogh and Gauguin: the studio of the South by Douglas Druick et al (Thames & Hudson, £45) is the most substantial Impressionist offering. The catalogue of an exhibition to be held in Amsterdam, it explores the pair's failed attempt to live and work together, and the influence they exerted on each other's work. Ron M Brown's The Art of Suicide (Reaktion, £25) is a fascinating cultural history of images of self-murder from antiquity to the present, taking in Dido, Judas, Ophelia and Vincent along the way.

Picasso continues to bestride the 20th century and must currently be the artist with the most researchers on his tail. Picasso Erotique (Prestel, £45) is a series of 12 essays, many by leading authorities, on all aspects of eroticism in Picasso's art. They range from broad speculations on topics such as "Picasso's Gaze" to detailed studies of the Desmoiselles d'Avignon. Loving Picasso: the private journal of Fernande Olivier (Abrams, £24) is the most important and vivid account of early life with Picasso, written by the former artist's model, who lived with him during his most creative years. Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten's Cubism and Culture (Thames & Hudson, £9.95) puts Cubism in its political and intellectual context.

After Cubism, Surrealism is probably the most studied modern movement. Mary Ann Caws's Surrealist Painters and Poets: an anthology (MIT Press, £34.50) is a useful anthology of Surrealist ejaculations, though it does not include Breton's manifestos; the same author's Surrealist Love Poems (Tate, £12.99) is an attractively produced booklet suitable for the bathroom. Lewis Kachur's Displaying the Marvellous (MIT, £23.95) is an interesting account of the extraordinary installations devised by Duchamp and Dali.

Some of the Surrealists feature in John Richardson's chatty series of essays on the famous people he has known, Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters (Cape, £20). This is superior hack-work, with the brain on autopilot. Rather more substantial is David Sylvester's Interviews with American Artists (Chatto & Windus, £25), many done for BBC radio in the 1960s. They are laconic, minimalist classics of their kind. The book makes you realise that the 1960s was the golden age for articulate artists and for polite conversations about art.

Gordon Burn's interviews with Damien Hirst, On the Way to Work (Faber, £25), are repetitive, lazy, self-important, bloated and boorish ad nauseam – but that's probably the point.

Comments