Chistmas Books Special - Part Two: Who fooled Goering?

Part Two of our Christmas special: we recommend the most sumptuous and desirable art books (below). On other pages: John Tague tackles football, Ben Thompson gives U2 a wide berth, Nicholas Fearn on books for the military-minded and Charlie Courtauld on armchair gardening
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The Independent Culture

Yet again the art book pendulum is swinging in the direction of the museum catalogues for the big, international blockbuster exhibitions rather than the classic monograph on a particular artist or movement. For all that, there are some quite outstanding books of which by far the most beautiful is Florilegium Imperiale: Botanical Illustrations for Francis I of Austria by H Walter Lack (Prestel £89). The price is justifiably hefty; this masterpiece of modern book production, at the same cost as two West End theatre stalls, is excellent value. Each of the watercolours of exotic plants from the Austrian emperor's garden in the early 19th century is reproduced in frameable quality so that this is a treasure for botanists and gardeners as well as art connoisseurs.

Also from Prestel is another hybrid work, Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel by Olaf Breidbach (£55). Haeckel (1834-1919) was a kind of German Darwin. A biologist, traveller and taxonomist, he was also an international bestseller, being not only a trenchant writer but a scientific draughtsman and painter of the highest calibre. Plants, marine life, Asian jungles and developing foetuses are all depicted with a passion for minute accuracy and the sensual qualities of the true artist. Some British scientists such as D'Arcy Thompson disagreed with him but no one could reasonably challenge his art.

The best of the exhibition books is Modernism 1914-1939: Designing a New World, edited by Christopher Wilk (V&A £45). This celebrates the major spring exhibition at the V&A, and while it's too early yet to have a definitive study of Modernism, this is at least a superb illustrated and annotated international anthology of a much disputed period and movement - if movement it is. The pictures are terrific but the very long text, set in a minuscule sans serif type in two columns, is hard to read except in short bursts.

Franz Marc: The Retrospective, edited by Annegret Hoberg and Helmut Friedel (Prestel £35) a handsome volume devoted to the Lenbachhaus Museum exhibition in Munich to celebrate this year's 125th anniversary of his birth and the 90th of his death. I've always had a soft spot for Marc since reproductions of his paintings were the only modern works that hung in my German-born parents' house. To this day I am bewitched by his extraordinary Expressionist animal paintings, surely the best of the last century, even if his The Tiger of 1912, one of the many fine reproductions in this book, is eccentrically and resolutely unstriped.

For those who could not get to New York for the Frick show, Goya's Last Works by Jonathan Brown and Susan Grace Galassi (Yale £35) is an invaluable record of the mostly small but varied and intimate works done in his years of exile in Bordeaux. Some of the best of the late Goyas are his unflinching self-portraits, reminiscent of those done by the ageing Rembrandt, whose quatercentenary is celebrated by two good old-fashioned monographs for which we should be grateful. Rembrandt Images and Metaphors is a thoughtful study by Christian and Astrid Tümpel (Haus £30) while Gary Schwartz gives a comprehensive overview of his life and work in Rembrandt's Universe: His Art His Life His World (Thames & Hudson £40). Schwartz is the more agreeable writer and his book has some 650 illustrations, of which 600 are in colour, which makes it a formidable bargain.

Some of the best writing about art today is by novelists such as William Boyd or Julian Barnes, so that it's no surprise that John Updike should write so engagingly about the topic. He did, after all, spend a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. In Still Looking: Essays on American Art (Hamish Hamilton £25) he has collected 18 essays, most of which appeared in the New York Review of Books between 1990 and 2004. In book form, aided by copious good quality colour plates, he gets to the heart of many American artists with the same skill as he uses to dissect the American character in the Rabbit Angstrom novels. From the less well-known Arthur Dove to the voluminously studied Edward Hopper to the giants such as Eakins and Whistler, he always makes you look afresh at what you thought you knew. Updike does not tackle the German-born American artist Eva Hesse, who died tragically young aged 34 in 1970, since, I suspect, she would not interest him but, happily, there is a fine new book devoted to her, edited by Griselda Pollock and Vanessa Corby. Encountering Eva Hesse (Prestel £35) does much to explain both her art and her singularly appealing character.

Two books for readers: I Was Vermeer by Frank Wynne (Bloomsbury £14.99) is a racy account of the last century's most celebrated art forger, Han van Meegeren, who fooled Vermeer scholars and sold one of his "Vermeers" to Hermann Goering. Jerry Brotton's The Sale of the King's Goods: Charles I and his Art Collections (Macmillan £25) was deservedly short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize. It's an account of the formation of England's greatest ever art collection and Cromwell's terrible act of cultural vandalism in dispersing it.

Edward van Voolen's My Grandparents, My Parents and I: Jewish Art and Culture (Prestel £35) is, if not for Christmas, then a perfect Chanukah or Barmitzvah present. Although, rather curiously, it neglects several significant British Jewish artists, including Simeon Solomon, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, it's a brisk survey of an often neglected subject. Its title comes from the wonderful family portrait by Frida Kahlo, who had a Jewish father.

For the art-minded horse-lover there's the handsome The Horse: 30,000 Years of the Horse in Art by Tamsin Pickeral (Merrell £29.95). Inevitably it includes the egregious Alfred Munnings, but there are plenty of the greats, such as Delacroix, Géricault, Stubbs, Degas, Van Dyke, and so on, plus lots of relatively unfamiliar paintings. It will make a fine gift for the teenagers of the pony clubs.

A distinguished woman artist is celebrated on the centenary of her birth. Marie-Louise von Motesiczky by various authors (Prestel £35) is based on her Tate Liverpool posthumous retrospective this year. She came as a refugee to England from Austria in 1939 and lived quietly in Hampstead, painting a series of intense and powerful self-portraits and countless versions of her sometime lover Elias Canetti. This is a little known but utterly fascinating chapter in the history of Expressionism. Motesiczky was born in Vienna six years after 1900, the place and the year exhaustively recorded and analysed in Vienna 1900 and the Heroes of Modernism, edited by Christian Brandstätter (Thames & Hudson £24.95). Not a work of synthesis but a formidable work of reference, reinforced by over 700 illustrations, many in colour, it is excellent value and essential for those who admire the Vienna Secession, the work of Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and the army of significant musicians and writers who filled the city at that time.

All admirers of John Singer Sargent are indebted to Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray who, having completed the three volumes of their catalogue raisonné of his portraits, have now given us the equally distinguished and beautiful fourth volume, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes 1874-1882 (Yale £50). These range from copies of the Velázquez masterpieces he most admired to the ravishing Oyster Gatherers of Concale, to superb depictions of the Alhambra in Granada. A total contrast and a perfect complementary addition to the portraits. Andrew Wilton was the first Curator of the Clore Gallery which houses the Turner Collection at Tate Britain and has produced a finely illustrated survey of our greatest artist, Turner in his Time (Thames & Hudson £24.95).

Edward Wadsworth: Form, Feeling and Calculation by Jonathan Black (Philip Wilson £35) consists of the complete paintings and drawings of an important English artist whose reputation was recently enhanced by a fine exhibition at Osborne Samuel in London. Wadsworth (1889-1949) was a Vorticist alongside Wyndham Lewis, a founder member of Unit One and the Paris-based Abstraction-Création. The book catalogues and reproduces over 400 known works and is a major work of English art history.

Inevitably the magnificent Rodin exhibition at the RA (whose own catalogue, edited by Catherine Lampert and others, is a major contribution to Rodin studies and very reasonably priced at £19.95) has prompted several other books about him. The two best are both from Thames & Hudson. Since museum guards understandably don't let the humble viewer pat or stroke Rodin's most delectable sculptures, the next best thing is Apropos Rodin (£16.95), a dazzling collection of photographs by Jennifer Gough-Cooper, all of which are sensual and many deeply erotic, as are the originals in the Musée Rodin. Auguste Rodin Drawings & Watercolours, by Antoinette Le Normand-Romain and Christine Buley-Uribe is a marvellous selection of his works on paper, including some of his classic erotic sketches, with more than 300 high quality reproductions, many in colour. At £19.95 it is the best value in unsubsidised art books this year.

America's answer to Martin Rowson's acid word and image commentaries on the literary scene (see page 28) is Edward Sorel who, in Literary Lives (Bloomsbury £9.95) gives us a series of cartoon strips in colour with words, in prose rather than Rowson's verse, creating merciless put-downs of the lives rather than the works. Doubtless to the chagrin of the libel lawyers, all his victims, from Tolstoy to Lillian Hellman, are dead, with the notable exception of Norman Mailer who is skewered by Sorel's brush and pen with amazing venom. The funniest section is the marital life of George Eliot, alone worth the price of admission. Sorel at his best is a modern Gillray or Cruikshank. These two masters as well as Rowlandson and many more feature liberally and to wonderful effect in a book which is as much history as art, Vic Gatrell's City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth Century London (Atlantic £30). It is an epic work of scholarship, narrated in a limpid and dryly witty style, supported by nearly 300 cartoons, mostly printed in colour, of a splendidly scabrous nature. In terms of artistic satire Gatrell depicts a golden, lubricious age just beginning, by the 1820s, to fade away in the grotesque shadow of Victorian repression and prudery.

Ardent Freudians will want Freud at Work (Cape £30), which consists of photographs of the artist in his studio by Bruce Bernard and David Dawson. Some are familiar but, inevitably, the most interesting are of Freud with visitors such as John Richardson or the Duchess of Devonshire. Most striking are the nude models alongside their representations on canvas, and the Queen, serenely sitting for him next to that controversial picture of her tiara'd head. Lucien Freud's friendly peer and near contemporary Francis Bacon is the subject of Michael Peppiatt's Francis Bacon in the 1950s (Yale £29.99), a detailed and useful study of a key period in his development linked to the current Bacon exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich.

For Paula Rego aficionados and novices alike, there is the third, revised edition of John McEwen's invaluable survey Paula Rego (Phaidon £24.95), an update since 1997. It therefore includes the overpowering Abortion series of 1998-99, the 1999 reworking of Hogarth's Marriage à la Mode (now at Tate Britain), the subversive Jane Eyre paintings and lithographs and the dazzlingly inventive, seriously disturbing Pillowman paintings inspired by Martin McDonagh's haunting play, as well as many non-series, individual paintings to reinforce both her virtuosity and originality.

For those who don't know anything about art and know what they like, there's Stephen Farthing's 1,001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die (Cassell £20). All reproduced in colour with a long, informative caption, they are arranged chronologically and could easily stimulate furious argument for those still awake after the Christmas pudding. And, lastly, for the art lover who has not got everything, there's The Artist's Yearbook 2007 (Thames & Hudson £26.95) with over 2,700 entries on everything from art materials, via dealers, frames, art fairs and funding to art magazines and public relations.