Books: Christmas books

Modern Art: Art and wine, poetry and food, houses and humour, music and movies, books to consult, to contemplate - and to listen to: welcome to a seasonal feast of literary treats for mind and body
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The youth cult is getting on a bit. It's at least 235 years old, if you date its origin to Rousseau's Emile, the first child-centered educational treatise. Perhaps the biggest change since then is that whereas the Romantics were obsessed with spotless pre-teens - Shelley apparently lifted a child from its cradle and demanded "Tell me about pre-existence!" - the 20th century is fixated on fallen pre-adults.

Modern artists have routinely tried to achieve a child's vision of the world; mystified viewers have responded in kind, complaining that "a five- year-old could have done it". Oddly enough, no one ever seems to have given these cliches close consideration, and worked out what children's art modern artists actually saw. In The Innocent Eye: children's art and the modern artist (Princeton University Press, pounds 39), Jonathan Fineberg examines collections of children's art owned by leading modern artists, such as Picasso and Pollock, looking for similarities and possible influences. Fineberg's major coup is to have discovered a large cache of children's drawings in the archive of Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Munter. Many are reproduced in colour alongside Kandinsky's early work in which folksy motifs can be disentangled from maelstroms of vibrant line and colour. The parallels are fascinating and, in the case of Munter's pictures of houses, very close. Well illustrated and clearly written, The Innocent Eye makes an important contribution to the study of "primitivism" and modern art.

But the influence surely went both ways. Modern art affected art education for children, as well as vice versa. Moreover, one can't help noticing that drawings by the children of artists echo the parental style. They are not quite so innocent.

The complexity of this issue is demonstrated by Picasso's famous saying that when he was a child he could draw like Raphael, and ever since, he had been trying to learn to draw like a child. The earliest picture in Picasso: The Early Years (Yale University Press, pounds 40) - the sumptuous catalogue to an exhibition that continues in Boston until 4 January - was painted when he was 11. It is called The Little Picador, and at first sight looks like a classic example of artless child's art. But it's a deliberate caricature. The next exhibit is a slickly "Raphaelesque" study of an antique sculpture. Picasso was self-consciously switching styles at a very early age. This book is a must for anyone interested in Picasso's blue and pink periods, with interesting essays on the bohemian circles in which he moved in Barcelona and Paris.

It's a chastening thought that Andrew Lloyd Webber's blue period portrait is not in the show, and isn't even deemed worthy of illustration. How much did he pay for it? The second volume of John Richardson's enthralling A Life of Picasso (Pimlico, pounds 20), covering the cubist years of 1907-17, has just come out in paperback, while Brigitte Baer's elegant Picasso the Engraver (Thames and Hudson, pounds 16.95) draws attention to a relatively little-known aspect of his work.

It's been a good year for the two most self-consciously infantile movements of modern art, Dada and Surrealism. A pair of major biographies has appeared. Calvin Tomkins's Duchamp (Chatto & Windus, pounds 25) is a highly readable and well researched account of the life of this inscrutable agent provocateur; Ian Gibson, in The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali (Faber, pounds 30), manages to keep his head while everyone around is losing theirs.

Gibson is the author of an acclaimed biography of Lorca, and now he brings his profound understanding of Spanish culture to bear on The Great Masturbator. He sees Dali's incessant feelings of shame (an un-Spanish emotion, he argues) as the key to his character. Much of Gibson's material is new (he reveals, for example, that Dali slept with Lorca), and he has gained access to the major archives. This is the best biography to date of the man who is probably the quintessential modern artist.

Anyone who wants to get their bearings in Duchamp and Dali's art world should read Matthew Gale's Dada & Surrealism (Phaidon, pounds 14.99). You need more than the patience of Job to work out who desecrated what, when and where, particularly as so much to do with these movements is ephemeral and performance-based. Gale provides an extremely clear, up-to-date and thorough account of all the movements' different strands around the world. One of the main pleasures of his book is the quantity and range of colour illustrations; one of the main disappointments is the thinness of the paper on which they are printed. If it doesn't dissolve too quickly, Gale's book should become the standard general survey.

Fiona Bradley's Surrealism (Tate, pounds 8.95) is a brief but neat account of the movement. It is attractively produced on thickish paper, with the illustrations mostly drawn from the Tate's impressive holdings. Dario Gamboni's The Destruction of Art: iconoclasm and vandalism since the French Revolution (Reaktion, pounds 25) puts avant-garde aggro into a wider context. This is one of the year's most thought-provoking books, with some eerie illustrations of fallen idols. Minimalism ranks as one of the most iconoclastic and baffling of postwar movements, and for anyone who still wants the lowdown on those bricks, David's Batchelor's succinct Minimalism (Tate, pounds 8.95) is the best place to start.

This year's contemporary art lists feature exhaustive monographs on the self-portrait photographer Cindy Sherman (Thames & Hudson, pounds 22.50), and the installation artists Christian Boltanski (Phaidon, pounds 19.99) and Mona Hatoum (Phaidon, pounds 19.99). All of Sherman's work is reproduced, including the celebrated "Untitled Film Stills" series from the late 1970s in which she pastiched film-star poses, giving them an anxious edge. Both Boltanski and Hatoum are much possessed of death: the former creates shrine-like installations that incorporate photographs of murder victims; the latter excavates orifices. All their oeuvre is lavishly illustrated, accompanied by substantial texts and interviews.

Gilbert & George put their genius into their life, and only their talent into their work. The Words of Gilbert & George (Thames & Hudson, pounds 19.95) gathers some of their interviews and pronouncements from 1968 onwards, and over 200 portrait photographs. Here's an example: "We are as serious in exploring these feelings and thoughts around shit at least as much as local government have to be. Local government constantly have to monitor drainage systems." Sheer genius. As for Damien Hirst's soon-to-be-remaindered folie-de-grandeur I want to spend the rest of my life... (Booth-Clibborn Editions, pounds 59.95): it makes excellent if expensive stuffing when mixed with sage, flour and water.

Hirst and Hatoum are some of the bad boys and girls honoured with a mini- biography in Louisa Buck's Moving Targets: A User's Guide to British Art Now (Tate, pounds 9.99). It's an audit of the main movers and shakers in the Young British Art biz, ranging from artists, critics and curators to dealers, publicists and collectors. Buck is an independent critic who writes briskly and clearly, but basically this is an Arts Council view of the universe. It opens with a Panglossian half-truth: "More than at any other time in its history, British art is booming". Are you listening... Gordon Brown?