Christmas Special: Art books reviewed

Tom Rosenthal picks the best art titles of 2005
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This has been a vintage year for art books, not least because so many of the best designed, printed and written books are now the catalogues of the blockbuster international exhibitions whose economies of scale, relatively huge print runs and texts produced by salaried curators working, legitimately, on subsidised office time, lead to better value for the consumer. A classic case in point is Gauguin and Impressionism by Richard R Brettell and Anne-Birgitte Fonsmak (Yale £40). This is the catalogue of the recent Copenhagen exhibition opening this month at Fort Worth, Texas. We all know that Gauguin was an astute collector of Impressionist paintings which he had to sell to feed his family, that he briefly dabbled in Impressionism but only really got going as a great painter first in Brittany and then in the South Seas where the masterpieces by which we instantly recognise him were produced through grinding poverty and chronic ill health. Yet this amazing bookshows that his failure as an Impressionist was not justified and the hundreds of colour reproductions reveal a painter already of the highest calibre and already a potter and decorative sculptor of great assurance. A truly original book.

Frank Zöllner's Botticelli (Prestel £89) is so weighty that it comes with a carrying case. The most spectacular of this year's output, it is a valuable record of the Renaissance master's oeuvre and is a seriously beautiful piece of book production. Close study goes a long way to re-enforce one's view that, when faced by Botticelli at his best, one can surely contain one's enthusiasm for much of what passes for art today. As for the price, when a novel on bog-standard paper sells for £18, this monumental book is excellent value.

The Royal Academy, whose previous art books have been restricted to the impeccable catalogues of its major exhibitions, is now expanding into original publications and its first two volumes could not be in greater contrast. For those who see the RA as the creation of the Reynolds-Gainsborough axis of the 18th century there is a truly magnificent volume, heftily but reasonably priced for what you get at £95, devoted to John Flaxman's The Illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy. Flaxman (1755-1826) friend of Blake and Romney, was the great neo-Classical sculptor of his day and a brilliant draughtsman who also illustrated Aeschylus and Homer. The Dante illustrations are published here for the first time with a fine essay by David Bindman. They are not remotely in the league of the almost miraculous Dante drawings by Botticelli - but then what is? - yet this luxurious volume is a significant contribution to English art history and a pleasure to peruse and handle.

The other RA title is about as different as could be imagined. Allen Jones Works is a fine tribute to the king of fetish art. Abandon all political correctness here and relish PVC-clad, stiletto-heeled, leather-booted, flawless plastic women turned into coffee tables, chairs, or leather-collared hat stands. Andrew Lambirth notes in his dryly witty and erudite text: "As has been observed rather gloomily, this is figurative art for an age obsessed with plastic surgery, fitness classes and instant makeover." Amen to that, and for £29.95 this is great fun and good value.

Vincent van Gogh is to art book publishing what Napoleon is to biography. This year is no exception with three titles. Van Gogh the Master Draughtsman by Sjraar van Heugten (Thames & Hudson £24.95) is a useful brief survey of his varied output, particularly the Arles drawings done with a Provençal reed pen and the later, coloured drawings at Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise. Yale has published the massive exhibition catalogue of the Amsterdam show Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings now on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (£35). The authoritative texts are by various scholarly hands, and there are nearly 400 illustrations with more than 200 in colour. Some of the coloured drawings are almost as overwhelming as the paintings. I, Van Gogh, with an essay by Isabel Kuhl and good quotations from the artist's letters (Prestel £37) is a handsome album of his best-known paintings.

For lovers of African art, Prestel has produced Spirits Speak: A Celebration of African Masks by Peter Stepan and Iris Hahner (£30). With a useful fold-out map and 256 fine coloured illustrations, this is a decent introduction for the amateur and a perfect answer to those who think Africa a primitive, barren continent. There are some truly astounding works here of quite haunting sophistication and power.

Since four teenagers stumbled in 1940 into the hole that revealed the Lascaux Caves at Montignac in France, there have been books and films by the dozen. In 1963 the French government had to close the caves to the public whose vast numbers had caused the miraculous wall paintings to deteriorate. Thus they have become part of what André Malraux called "the museum without walls", his evocative phrase for the study of art via art books rather than face to face with the originals. The Splendour of Lascaux by Norbert Ajoulat (Thames & Hudson £45), while a lot cheaper than a journey to France, is now the best substitute one can get for the experience of examining the dawn of art. We get a learned account, with maps and diagrams, of the geography, geology and archaeology of the caves and superb colour photographs of the twists and turns of their interiors, the rock samples and, above all, these near-mystical, earliest extant realistic works of art. This is pre-history brought to life and its contemplation is awesome.

One of the year's most interesting art books is also a superb history book, as perhaps befits its author, Kenneth Baker, former Tory Education Secretary and Home Secretary. It's difficult to imagine Ruth Kelly or Jack Straw producing so deeply researched and stylishly written a book. George IV: A Life in Caricature (Thames & Hudson £24.95) is full of recondite historical information and scurrilous political and Royal gossip focused on George's life and times as Regent to George III and then as monarch. In a period that took in the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Peterloo Massacre, as well a turbulent private life, the formal portraitists like Sir Thomas Lawrence (see below for Michael Levey's book) had rich pickings in endless renderings of one of the vainest, most consummate dandies of the era with a passion for dressing up in different costumes and uniforms. But it was the cartoonists who had the fun and the greatest political effect. The Prince and his mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert, were depicted with a merciless cruelty which would be unthinkable today and Baker always gives succinct, lucid backgrounds to the more lurid cartoons. This is the sort of book that should be on school history syllabuses.

Michael Levey's long-awaited study of Sir Thomas Lawrence (Yale £45) is a cogently argued and brilliantly written account of the greatest English portrait painter of the post-Reynolds Gainsborough generation. President of the Royal Academy when the RA encompassed only the best English artists and architects, he is a perfect example of the instinctive good taste of the Regent, later George IV, so splendidly mocked by Baker's volume. It is of course by Lawrence's portraits of George IV that we know this serious side of him so profitably neglected by the cartoonists. His society beauties were, of course, flattered but with tremendous style and his versions of Sir Walter Scott, the actor John Philip Kemble and other grandees have become icons of early 19th century intellectual life in England. Lawrence's Old Master drawings were, after his death, declined by both the monarch and the British Museum, a lapse still bitterly regretted by the current curators. Plus ça change...

Lovers of the English Romantic painter, Samuel Palmer, whether or not they have seen the wonderful current British Museum exhibition, will want the jewel-like facsimile of Samuel Palmer: The Sketchbook of 1824 (Thames & Hudson, in association with The Blake Trust, £35). With text by Martin Butlin this reproduces the mainly sepia sketches in 163 full colour, same-size reproductions on fine paper so that this is as close to handling the real thing, as created by a 19-year-old prodigy, as the general public can get. This is a small masterpiece of book production and quite irresistible.

Yale has three fascinating works of pure art history. Elizabeth Cropper in The Domenichino Affair (£30) analyses the charges, brought by his fellow pupil Lanfranco, that Domenichino plagiarised the work of his master, Agostino Carracci. Anne Middleton Wagner pursues in Mother Stone: The Vitality of Modern Sculpture (£30) the idea that the work of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and the American born (but London residing) Jacob Epstein was united and deeply immersed in the passionate bonding of mother and child. Janet Abramowicz in Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence (£40) gives a convincing account of the most philosophically conscious of the modern Italian artists and deals frankly and sensitively with his involvement in Fascism.

Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter: Letters and Reminiscences 1902-1914 by Annegret Hoberg (Prestel £8.99) documents the key artistic and sexual relationship of the Blaue Reiter movement in particular and German Expressionism in general. Münter was mistress and colleague to the married Kandinsky who, when finally divorced, ditched Münter and married someone else. Their correspondence and the skilful juxtaposition of their paintings, showing how each influenced the other, make this an important source book for all serious students of the movement.

For those who, like me, consider Matisse to be the most elegant draughtsman of the female nude in the last century there is Henri Matisse: Drawings 1936. Never previously available in English, they were first published by Christian Zervos (the founder of Cahiers d'Art) in Paris in 1936. His text, and that of a poem by Dadaist Tristan Tzara, is beautifully translated by Richard Howard and the quality of reproduction, paper and printing is such that each voluptuous celebration of the female form is ready for instant framing (Thames & Hudson £24.95).

Ten years ago Cape published a massive book on Lucian Freud's work with a text by Bruce Bernard. Now, in matching format and at £30, they have issued Lucian Freud: 1996-2005, a survey of his output in the last decade with an essay by Sebastian Smee. It includes his notorious small portrait of the Queen, Brigadier Parker-Bowles in undone dress uniform, a pensive David Hockney and some sexy nudes. Essential for all Freudians and of abiding interest to the rest of us.

Decent stocking-fillers are not common among art books, but this Christmas we have two interesting ones. Prestel have put together Gustav Klimt Erotic Sketches and Egon Schiele Erotic Sketches with exiguous bilingual English and German texts and superbly printed drawings and watercolours. The women display themselves, singly or in couples, play with themselves and are nearly all clearly enjoying life. The books are bound like miniature artists' portfolios, with red silk ties (£12.99 each).

While on this Viennese Secession territory, fans of Klimt can benefit from Gustav Klimt: Drawings and Watercolours with text by Rainer Metzger (Thames & Hudson £19.95). This has a remarkable collection of his works on paper, with nearly 300 colour plates and bears out my view that while Schiele was by far the more powerful erotic artist, Klimt at his best was the more revolutionary and truly sensual painter and colourist.

For the more conventional stocking there is an enchanting little book priced at only £4.95 which reproduces some of the finest pages from what is possibly England's most important medieval illuminated manuscript, The Macclesfield Psalter (Fitzwilliam Museum Publications). I have to declare an interest in that I am a trustee of the Museum but, at a price not much more than an expensive Christmas card, it is a steal.

Lastly, two impressive reference books. Thames & Hudson have just brought out The Artists' Yearbook 2006 with nearly 500 pages at £16.95. Edited by Ossian Ward, it contains solid essays by Iwona Blazwick, Sacha Craddock, Julian Spalding et al and thousands of entries on Suppliers and Services, Art Fairs and Festivals, Founding and Commissioning Organisations, etc. For the next edition the editors might wish, in the section on Competitions and Prizes, to include The Garrick Club which has a valuable competition for Theatrical Painting which, despite the emphasis on the Internet and Conceptualism, is still an art much practiced. Every art school should have this volume. The other title is Penguin's Britain's Best Museums and Galleries (£20) with more than 800 pages and with maps and hundreds of pictures in colour. The author is one of our better former Arts Ministers, Mark Fisher who, happily gives my favourite small museum, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, five stars. Fisher is an old Etonian and must have been a "wet bob" since he includes David Chipperfield's eccentric, but engaging, Rowing Museum at Henley as well as such delights as the Lowry Museum in Salford. However, he unaccountably neglects the cricketing fraternity by omitting the Museum at Lord's. Let's hope for another edition soon. In the meantime this book should live in the car of every civilised person.

To buy any of the books featured with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 and quote IBD12/05. 10% discount on all orders over £20