IoS Books of the Year 2012: Art

If you hate landscapes, try Cézanne's big apple

'A picture must not be invented, it must be felt," claimed the 19th-century Romantic painter Casper David Friedrich. Emotions were a particular strength of Friedrich's and in a new blockbuster of a retrospective hardback monograph he certainly makes his feelings known.

Casper David Friedrich by Johannes Grave (Prestel, £80) shows the German's oeuvre to be focused on the allegorical meeting of Man and Nature. This monumental slip-cased volume illustrates with beautiful reproductions all the drama and spiritual contemplation of his work. Grave follows Freidrich's journey from Greifswald to Dresden and from his Sturm und Drang origins to epic landscapes and on to the late melancholy oils completed in his reclusive old age. Along the way we discover that his brooding themes were a reaction to the slipping morality of his times, a call to reject growing materialism for a new spirituality. Could there be a more timely message for today?

Heaven only knows what Friedrich would have made of the changing face of artistic expression in the century to come. In Art of the 20th Century (£27.99) Taschen has produced an exceptional overview of the painting, sculpture, new media, and photography that defined an indefinable era. From Fauvism to formaldehyde via Minimalism, Conceptualism and Surrealism, this book gives you the theories, players and timelines, and lets you decide whether you think it's art or nonsense.

One of the few geniuses to bridge the two centuries and their disparate artistic approaches was Paul Cézanne, the Post-Impressionist from Provence. In Cézanne: A Life (Profile, £30), Alex Danchev has produced a new view of an old subject. A little like Cézanne accomplished. "I will astonish Paris with an apple," the artist declared. And he did. His innovative deconstructions bridged the gap between Impressionism and Modernism, an achievement made all the more impressive, as this book highlights, by Cezanne's outsider status and nagging self doubt.

In Search of Rex Whistler by Hugh and Mirabelle Cecil (Frances Lincoln, £40) treads the line between picture book and full-blown biography so well that it should be a template for art publishers everywhere. Whistler is a woefully neglected artist and this beautifully presented book does him a great service. He may have been a bright young thing of the inter-war years, but he diligently avoided squandering his youth. By the time he died in France in the wake of D-Day, aged 39, he had succeeded at book illustration, theatrical design, portraiture and had raised mural painting to new heights.

Eric Ravilious, another doomed Second World War artist, was in eerie mode as he explored the Allied underwater campaign though a series of 10 dream-like lithographs, now published in a handsome volume entitled Submarine (Mainstone, £35). With contextualising essays by James Russell, this series brings to the surface the very peculiar, tinned life of Royal Navy submariners.

Readers can take a less foreboding dip in Leanne Shapton's Swimming Studies (Particular Books, £20). Part swimming memoir, part art project, this is a big happy splash of a book. Long before becoming a New York Times art director, Shapton was a swimming protégé back home in Canada. Here, she catalogues the pleasures of the pool in prose that ripples with visual imagery, and punctuates the text with photographic portraits of vintage swimsuits, abstract studies of public baths and, best of all, inky-blue watercolours of people blissfully taking the plunge.

Adrian Tomine is another adoptive Manhattanite with a unique eye. In New York Drawings (Faber, £16.99) he has revisited "a decade of covers, comics, illustrations and sketches from The New Yorker". To call Tomine a cartoonist is like calling Yehudi Menuhin a fiddler. By Tomine's hand a single frame turns into a short story: in "Read-Handed", a book shop owner spots his neighbour accepting a delivery from Amazon; in "Winter Break", an ice cream van is snowed in by Central Park. Romantic, thoughtful, observant and emotionally involving, his images possess a distinctly American poetic aesthetic. Put another way, they are pictures that are felt, not invented.

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