Christmas Books Special: Art books reviewed

Portraits and parodies
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No sooner has the last firework turned to a damp squib than we are faced with the demands of the Christmas present list. Buying books at least means being able to shop for everyone under the same roof. And if it's art books you're after, these fall roughly into those that deal with ideas and movements, monographs and biographies, ones that are predominantly image-led and the simply quirky.

One of my favourites is The Modern Ideal: The rise and collapse of idealism in the visual arts from the enlightenment to postmodernism by Paul Greenhalgh, once head of Research at the V&A, and published by the V&A (£35). Written without a squeak of "art speak", in clear concise prose, it explores definitions of that slippery concept, modernity. Easy to define, it is very much harder to describe. Following the history of "progress", from the loosening of religion during the Enlightenment, through the rise of the humanistic and secular Utopian values that have become synonymous with Modernism to post-modernity, Greenhalgh argues that there has been a collapse of idealism that has lead to a crisis of direction in contemporary art.

For anyone who wants to get a handle on the big issues, this is an excellent starting point. It will help put into context other books on single issues and movements such as Eroticism & Art (OUP, £20), by the prodigiously productive Alyce Mahon, which explores debates surrounding art and the erotic during the last 150 years of western art, and her Surrealism and the Politics of Eros 1938-1968,(Thames & Hudson, £29.95). In this, she discusses the Surrealists' investigations into dreams, desire and sex, which aimed at shattering the repressions of bourgeois society. A lecturer at Cambridge, Mahon makes a strong case for Surrealism to be seen not simply as a pre-war movement but as a catalyst that inspired, with its iconoclastic imagery, the generation of May 1968.

As part of their Themes and Movements series, Phaidon has bought out Pop (£45) by Mark Francis and Hal Foster. Between 1956 and 1968 Pop shifted the boundaries, as never before, between popular culture and high art. This book looks at the movement, first defined in 1957 in this country by Richard Hamilton, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Also in the "ideas" category is the rather odd The Art of Wonder by Julian Spalding (Prestel, £18.99). With its children's encyclopaedia-style illustrations, it is hard to know who this is aimed at. It claims to be a "new way of looking at art" that "sets aside conventional art historical classification", but Spalding talks in lazy generalisations about the rhythms and forces of nature, the cycle of birth and death reflected in art, leaving aside any real debate about the complex philosophical and political issues that are mirrored in the art of each époque.

"My art", wrote Edvard Munch, "is self-confession." The Scream is one of the most famous images in contemporary art. Munch's early brushes with death, his fraught relationships with women, his illness, self-doubt and loneliness, all qualify him as the archetypal modern artist. In Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream (Yale University Press, £25), Sue Prideaux, who speaks fluent Norwegian and was able to read Munch's diaries first hand, extends the understanding of this complex man.

Continuing the theme of the angst-ridden painter, Ellen G Landau charts the short life of Jack the Dripper, as Time magazine sarcastically labelled Jackson Pollock. In her book from Thames & Hudson (£22.50) Landau explores Nigel Gosling's remark in the Observer in 1973 that, "If Pollock had not existed, surely Time-Life would have invented him." As famous for cutting off his ear as for his Sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh was one of the greatest draughtsmen of the 19th century. In this beautifully illustrated book, Van Gogh: The Master Draughtsman by Sjraar Van Heugten (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), we see how important drawing was within his oeuvre, even during his confinement in the clinic in Saint Rémy, when the overgrown garden of this former monastery was a constant source of inspiration.

Two other books well worth a mention are the second part of the biography of Matisse, Matisse, The Master: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954 (Hamish Hamilton, £25), by that excellent writer Hilary Spurling, who reveals a largely hitherto unknown artist, and Lucian Freud 1996-2005 (Jonathan Cape, £50), the second, beautifully illustrated volume on the recent work of our foremost figurative painter, whose astonishing creative energy, despite his advancing years, shows no sign of abating.

If sitting back with a box of Christmas chocolates and just looking is more your bag, then you could do very much worse than settle down with the beautiful Richard Long: Walking the Line (Thames & Hudson, £27.50). Long is a modern-day landscape artist who makes work about his walks through unspoilt regions of the world such as the Sahara, Mongolia and the forests of Japan. Using driftwood, clay and mud, along with other found materials, he makes ephemeral interventions of great sensitivity and beauty, which are then photographed. Often accompanied by texts as minimal as haikus, these result in works that are both transcendental and timeless.

Should you prefer something more quirky, then Art School (Thames & Hudson) by George Deem, a Chicago artist born in 1932, is a witty appropriation of the painting styles of 38 artists, including Vermeer, Rembrandt and Matisse, in which he has created a series of imaginary classrooms. Among my favourites is the School of Balthus, full of bored prepubescent girls lying lasciviously around on their desks.

Phaidon's The Art Book for Children (£12.95) is also a real gem. Next to an illustration of Gilbert and George's famous living sculpture, it asks, "would you be able to keep a straight face?" whilst demanding to know of Christo's Pont Neuf Wrapped, "who allowed Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap this famous Parisian bridge in fabric? Did they sneak up one night while no one was looking?" If only, one can't help thinking, all art books were so much fun!