Christmas books: Art - Sweet old saints and bitter lives

Tim Hilton recommends part-time Christians and sweetheartish themes for Christmas

More than 80 million visits each year are now made to UK museums, says the new report of the Museums and Galleries Commission, and we are also told that 80 per cent of museums have a shop. Obviously this means big business. On the whole I think we get a fair deal from art book publishers. They cater both for specialists and for the casual or occasional gallery visitor; and sometimes they produce books catering for both groups, such as Five Centuries of Sienese Painting (Thames and Hudson pounds 55), which is an enormous volume, magnificently illustrated, and still has a competitive price. Five visits to charging museums (48 per cent of them these days) can easily cost you just as much.

The really popular Sienese pictures are the earliest ones, especially the frescoes by Duccio and Simone Martini and those little panel pictures that came to the National Gallery and other museums in the 19th century. This book, a collaborative work by a number of Italian art historians, tells us a lot about the city's art in the baroque and mannerist periods. Perhaps it wasn't then as good. Certainly the sweet early saints may seem best for Christmas. But later artists such as Andrea del Brescianino, Beccafumi and Rutilio Manetti give us another legitimate feeling at the festive season - that of being benign, secular and grown-up - for I don't think these artists were genuine full-time Christians.

Another gift might be the boxed, six-paperback set of William Blake's The Illuminated Books: Collected Edition (Tate Gallery Publishing pounds 98), an edition which has a very serious look on the shelf and will be much consulted by the poet-painter's admirers. Some of us prefer sensuality in paint and brevity in verse. It would have been better for our pleasant land if Blake had written more of his hymn-like lyrics and not wasted so much energy on his ghastly epics. Then we might have had a truly interesting set of national anthems, which ought to be all-together-now miniature epics, just as Jerusalem is. All the coloured drawings from Blake's hand are well reproduced.

Colour reproduction in Chagall: the Lithographs (Verlag Gerd Hatje pounds 65) is equally a triumph of recent technology. I love this book. Chagall, especially in his later years, was a better colourist when he was making prints than when he was painting in oils. The attenuation of his palette in the lithographs makes Chagall's Russian, Jewish or sweetheartish themes all the more touching. Here is a work of reference as well as a book for lingering and reminiscent pleasures. All 1,050 of the artist's lithographs are reproduced and briefly catalogued. There are also (in French) revealing interviews with Chagall's artisanal printmaking colleagues.

In the Western world, Chagall is the best-known Russian artist of our century. The most obscure Russian art is the official work produced under the reactionary regimes after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Matthew Cullerne Bown's Socialist Realist Painting (Yale pounds 60) is an extraordinary work of dedicated scholarship in cold and inhospitable places. There are 550 illustrations. I knew only about a dozen of the paintings that are reproduced. After turning Bown's pages a few times one begins to hanker for capitalist modernism. Yet he makes a case for his belief that this sort of Soviet art "comprises our century's outstanding movement in realist painting". Bown deserves a prize for his researches, though the book displays a somewhat glacial attitude to life.

We examine Socialist Realism and one look is enough. Picasso's heated, elusive personality seems inexhaustible. I'm a serious collector of books about Picasso but only have about 200 of them. God knows how many titles would be listed in a full bibliography. Anyway, Picasso: the Development of a Genius (Lunwerg Editores pounds 28) is an essential guide to the master's early drawings which belong to the Museu Picasso in Barcelona. Jean Clair's Picasso: the Italian Journey (Thames and Hudson pounds 36) elucidates the classical, Mediterranean paintings of 1917-24, while Stephen Nash's Picasso and the War Years (Thames and Hudson pounds 32) is the best account yet of his life and work during the Occupation.

Biographies of artists are on the increase. They are often unsatisfactory because published by literary houses which don't give enough illustration. Bruce Arnold's Jack Yeats (Yale pounds 29.95) is a solid and probably definitive work. Helen Langdon's Caravaggio: a Life (Chatto pounds 25) is a poised resume of the little that is known about the artist's doings on earth. Probably this short book is an introduction to a fuller study of Caravaggio's work in the heaven and hell of his canvases. Two books about near-contemporary artists suffer from their proximity to the most common of artists' mental afflictions, which is embitterment. In his Elisabeth Frink (HarperCollins pounds 24.99) Stephen Gardiner agrees with his subject that the world short- changed her. The truth is that Frink was a bad sculptor who had plentiful success.

Nouritza Matossian's Black Angel (Chatto pounds 25) is a biography of the Armenian-American Arshile Gorky. She hasn't a clue about Gorky's art, so the best part of her book (also, of course, its most negative part) is her patient account of the painter's suicide in 1948.

Best educational and household tool for the future is Art 20 (Thames and Hudson pounds 69.95), a CD-Rom with 3,500 illustrations covering all of modern art together with videos, audios, etc. I can't work it very well but my son (age 12) knows the business. Apparently T&H are sending out flyers to all schools, so more information than I can give will be available to the millions of people who carry satchels. But let's not think about next term.

Nicest stocking filler is the tiny pop-up Van Gogh's House (National Gallery Publishing pounds 8.95). I can't work this one either, not being able to repack the bits into their cardboard packet, as so often is the way (this father finds) in life on the carpet under the Christmas tree.

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