With one or two exciting exceptions, almost all art books fall into a very limited number of easily identified categories, such as the monograph and the exhibition catalogue. In some cases, of course, they cunningly manage to be both, not least since the authors of some exhibition catalogues seem to feel that the last thing they want to do is to provide a simple guide to the material for visitors to their show.
A case in point is The Early Dürer by Daniel Hess and Thomas Eser (Thames & Hudson, £40), which is brim-full of cutting-edge and often revisionist scholarship, but is written by specialists for specialists. Moreover, given that it weighs in at over 600 pages, even Arnold Schwarzenegger would probably prefer to read it in the comfort of his own home, rather than lug it round a gallery. As it happens, an altogether better bet for the general reader is Dürer by Jeffrey Chipps Smith (Phaidon, £17.95), in which an established authority provides an admirably lucid overview of the life and work of one of the greatest and most various of all renaissance artists. We may even forgive him for his coyness in translating the phrase ‘der erst puseran’ (the first bugger) inscribed on Dürer’s drawing of the ‘Death of Orpheus’ as ‘the first lover of boys’.
The subject of Gabriel Metsu, Life and Work: A Catalogue Raisonné by Adriaan E. Waiboer (Yale, £50) is not exactly a household name, and yet the finest of his works — such as ‘Man Writing a Letter’ and ‘Woman Reading a Letter’ — come within touching distance of the unsurpassable miracles of Vermeer. Like that pair of panels, the author of this once-in-a-generation study is at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, so has the good fortune to see them whenever he wishes. His book is divided into two sections: a substantial introductory text, which is for everyone, and the admirably open-minded catalogue section, which is more likely to appeal to experts.
Dublin is also the home of one of the most celebrated of all illuminated manuscripts, and The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan (Thames & Hudson, £60) is a gorgeous tribute to that extraordinary masterpiece. Given that the work in question comprises no fewer than 680 surviving pages (340 folios), it is inevitable that what we are offered here is a generous selection of highlights, accompanied by a learned and – pun most certainly intended — illuminating commentary.
John Everett Millais by Jason Rosenfeld (Phaidon, £39.95) tackles a major figure in a new way, by the simple expedient of seeking to see his achievement whole. Rosenfeld is one of the troika responsible for the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition currently at Tate Britain, but it is his emphatic defence of the artist’s subsequent career — all too often construed as a story of decline — that eloquently succeeds in balancing the books. As it happens, some of us have long preferred the drich — to employ the appropriate Scots word — late landscapes, often set north o’ the border, to all that PRB stuff.
The other dominant category of book, at least this time round, involves either a single — and highly personal — voice exploring a particular more or less loosely framed topic, or a shared theme seen from a multiplicity of angles. English Graphic by Tom Lubbock (Frances Lincoln, £20) does not conceal its origins in the late critic’s Independent columns, and is arguably all the better for it — deeply quirky but also endlessly stimulating, and above all determinedly visual. Lubbock really looked at art, and makes his readers look with him, which makes him a glorious antidote to the dominance of guide-dog and white-stick art history that all too often appears to rule the roost these days.
Medieval Modern: Art out of Time by Alexander Nagel (Thames & Hudson, £29.95) is altogether more thesis-driven, but is a wide-ranging bravura display of intellectual erudition and exemplary curiosity. Whether, for instance, one ultimately agrees that Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull is a medieval reliquary revisited or not, the idea can hardly fail to stimulate the little grey cells.
Both In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today’s Leading Artists edited by Simon Grant (Thames & Hudson, £19.95) and Sanctuary: Britain’s Artists and their Studios edited by Hossein Amirsadeghi (Thames & Hudson, £48) focus on practitioners, albeit in profoundly different ways. The former is a sort of ‘Desert Island Pictures’ — or more strictly works of art, where the choices are invariably fascinating, but the explanations are considerably more of a curate’s egg. The latter is a sort of update of Robertson, Russell, and Snowdon’s Private View of 1965 (and there are at least one or two artists who are in both), which did admittedly explore the art world in its entirety.
Here, in any event, there are armies of wonderful through the keyhole photographs, but once again the words — in the form of interviews — are not all equally gripping. Interestingly, in 1965 nobody seems to have refused to play ball, whereas in the 2012 manifestation both Hirst and Hockney are missing.
Overviews of periods and styles may look easy to pull off, but are not, so both Baroque and Rococo by Gauvin Alexander Bailey (Phaidon, £17.95) and Pop Art by Bradford R. Collins (Phaidon, £17.95) are to be commended for their artful balancing of the familiar with the less expected. The first does so by ranging both west and east, to Central and South America, but also to the Philippines, while the second looks beyond the narrow confines of Pop to include the likes of Richard Prince and Jeff Koons.
An even harder task is the presentation of a whole new artistic universe from a dangerously familiar period. Yet that is what Art of the Actual: Naturalism and Style in Early Third Republic France, 1880-1900 by Richard Thomson (Yale, £50) so magisterially accomplishes. By boldly stating at the outset that ‘Naturalism was the dominant aesthetic of late 19th-century France’, he paves the way for a revelatory exploration of the works of all sorts of more or less forgotten artists, who are seen alongside the likes of Monet and Degas. Even turning the pages and looking at the illustrations before reading the consistently compelling text is an education in itself.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 December 2012