Books for Christmas: Art

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FROM Vincent to Caravaggio, via James Ensor, Henry Darger and Dada – BRIAN SEWELL on a bumper year for visual art

VAN Gogh's letters, Grayson Perry's pots, a scholarly study of Caravaggio and a glimpse into the world of the insane Henry Darger are just a few of the treats guaranteed to give pleasure this Christmas.

Far the most important art book of the year – perhaps even of the decade – is Vincent van Gogh: The Letters (Thames and Hudson, 325 until 31 December, then 395), heroically edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker. The project, a fully annotated and illustrated text in English, with commentaries that set the letters in the context of their time, as well as in Van Gogh's hectic life, has taken 15 years of devoted scholarship and industry to complete. The most astonishing aspect of the task is the diligence with which every mentioned work of art by other artists has been identified and reproduced, no matter how obscure – even an anonymous illustration in an 1870 edition of The Pilgrim's Progress – a superhuman task for even an art historian specialising in the period of the painter's adult life.

Five volumes cover the 902 letters from 1872, when, at 19, Vincent began to write to his younger brother Theo, to 23 July 1890, seven days before his suicidal or accidental death; the sixth is devoted to formidably useful commentaries and academic apparatus. Interest is in every way immeasurably eased, encouraged and enhanced by the extraordinary range of illustrations that illuminate the text – Ingres, Velzquez and Raffalli on one pair of pages, Rubens, Rembrandt, Ingres and David on another, Bosboom, Millet, Hbert, Ruisdael and Rousseau on a third, and so on, constantly demonstrating Vincent's insight and perception, the pace and range extraordinary. This is not only a compendium of letters but the authoritative life and the sympathetic interpretation of a troubled soul: a century hence, it will still be the work of reference.

In spite of the impenetrable veils of treacle and molasses that mar a scattering of reproductions, Caravaggio by Sebastian Schtze (Taschen, 100) is a handsome, useful and even thrilling book. In plotting the painter's path from the provincial north to patronage and fame in Rome, and on to Naples, Sicily, Malta and a tragic early death, Schtze's long introduction to "the most modern of old masters" is a commendably neutral essay based on facts. There is, properly, some modest revision of his early life – Caravaggio, if neither a gentleman nor much educated, is documented as an heir to property, and his suspected homosexuality is set aside in favour of the women in his life, of whom there is some proof. This is steady, reliable scholarship. I would have liked some discussion of Caravaggio's repeated use of models and perhaps-imagined physical types, of gestures, stylistic mannerisms and other constants of his work, and it would have been comforting to feel that Schtze's evident care was not just the necessary paring away of the irrelevant emotional response that informs so many interpretations of the life and work, but was itself informed at least by liking. Does Schtze like Caravaggio, or was his essay only a responsibly executed job?

His catalogue raisonn is much more personal. He expresses opinions and makes judgments in matters of quality and primacy where a composition exists in several versions; on some secondary versions he is bravely damning, and his catalogue of attributed paintings is particularly useful. The thrill of this book lies, however, in illustrations that are of a size and quality that allow us to discern something of the condition of Caravaggio's paintings – overcleaned, undercleaned, ironed flat in the heat of relining, worn thin, distressed and cracked, and yet, in spite of this, quite wonderful. Not quite the last word on Caravaggio, it is far and away the best book on him since Walter Friedlaender's monograph of 1955.

Susan Siegfried's Ingres: Painting Reimagined (Yale, 40) is not for beginners but for readers almost as well-informed as she and as enthusiastic for the painter whom Delacroix dubbed "an incomplete intelligence". Ingres saw himself as "a conservator of sound doctrines", and that is indeed how most of us now see him, the deliberate provocateur of such hostile and hurtful modern-seeming criticism. Professor Siegfried, however, too often turning to her role as Professor of Women's Studies, comes to no discernible conclusion; instead, over 378 pages, she synthesises almost everything that has ever been made of Ingres by anybody (a tiresome characteristic of art history now) and rather buries her own ideas in a welter of acknowledgements. Dozens of stimulating observations, ideas and interpretations of narrative, colour, borrowing and subsidiary objects are hidden in her text, and it is for these that the enthusiast for Ingres must search the turbid prose and tiresome hints of feminism. This monograph is, as it were, a Cadillac that escaped the factory before power-steering and satellite navigation were installed.

Ulrike Mller's Bauhaus Women (Flammarion, 24.95) and Dada's Women by Ruth Hemus (Yale, 35) lend even more grist to the feminist's mill. Both follow the now stale line of Radclyffe Hall's Great Women Artists of the Quattrocento and ask why the women of these movements have been so neglected – men wrote their histories, the answer. Neither considers the possibility that women were perhaps not as inventive as men, always following, not leading; neither cares to recall that when Meret Oppenheim covered a teacup in fur, she made an object that is iconic in the history of Surrealism, invariably acknowledged; nor has either noticed that now, when women artists are as much thrust to the fore as men, they still do not attract the big public commissions that go to the meritless Gormley and Kapoor.

Both books accomplish their duty – to throw brief light on female figures lurking in the gloom. Mller's is the more readable, the less aggressive; Hemus offers the dense scholarship of the diligent but nothing she says (and we know) of Suzanne Duchamp can make her the equal of Marcel, her brother, and nothing compels "reconsideration of Dada as rather double-gendered". The paradox of such books is that they are published only because their subjects are women; books on their equals among men – that is, on the majority, the forgettable second rank – would never find a publisher.

Czanne and Beyond, by J J Richel and K Sachs (Yale, 40), is the discursive record of an exhibition in Philadelphia this year. Not a catalogue but an indulgent expansion of ideas raised by its confrontations, its 585 pages, 212 plates, 235 figures and a host of supporting illustrations are something of a bargain. At a glance the reader is informed that Czanne was significant, not only for Braque, Picasso and most of their contemporaries, but for Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden, Jasper Johns and the mundane photographer Jeff Wall. Alas, too much of this requires an act of faith far beyond the not unreasonable notion that Czanne was the unwitting father of Cubism. To the sane man many of the proposed links are naive or ludicrous, the claimed dependencies sheer imposture and impertinence, but the book so perfectly reflects the current wayward thinking of influential curators and art historians that the shrewd undergraduate student of 20th-century art history should be delighted to find it in his Christmas stocking. It illustrates an orthodoxy that he must follow to achieve a First.

One should not, perhaps, be influenced by the feel of a book but the catalogue of a MoMA exhibition devoted to James Ensor, edited by Anna Swinbourne (Thames and Hudson, 42), warms the hand and eye with decent paper and elegant font. At the illustrations I chuckled, for Ensor, if not downright mad, was engagingly potty. Born in 1860, dead in 1949, he spanned the fervid developments in art from Impressionism to the CoBrA group, yet, determinedly living in Ostend, his style, though various, was individually his before the end of the 19th century and scarcely developed thereafter. Strong hints of Turner, Constable, Gillray and Cruickshank are evident, with Dor, Rops and Kubin, Munch, Chagall and Klee, Bonnard and Vuillard, and German Expressionism is a lurking presence, but all are subverted into a personal idiom that in imagination is alarmingly ahead of them. The essays in the catalogue are sympathetic, their responses uncritical without being irresponsible, and even the sceptic must admit that he has enjoyed the book – the cover of the score in the Wagner rehearsal (plate 94) reads Wal qui ri ...

Peter Webb's Sphinx (Vendome Press, 60) is a major study of the life and work of Leonor Fini (1908-1996), a self-taught and self-discovering painter of obsessional themes informed by Symbolism, Surrealism and sex. Often wrongly claimed as a feminist – and even as a lesbian – she told Webb in 1993 that she liked "men who are intelligent, sensitive ... aware of their feminine side. I especially like homosexual and androgynous men"; and that is how she painted them, often achieving homo-erotic intensity of a gentler kind that eludes the male illustrator. Cocteau was her friend, and the difference in their drawings for Genet, to whom both were close, demonstrates the point. She became, inevitably, a gay heroine.

Her work ranges from Bcklin and von Stuck, Klimt, Beardsley and the Pre-Raphaelites, to profound Surrealism. Though she mixed with the group, she did not join it; at times she seems to run with Bellmer, Berman, De Chirico and Balthus, and the recollection of some quirky old master is often a sudden intervention in the development of otherwise consistent periods of work. She is for long periods hard-edged and metallic in colour, form and finish; then the edges soften and dissolve and the paint is painterly and daringly experimental; then ghastly pale and ice-cream hard; at the very end, it darkens. She evidently enjoyed turning herself into transitory works of art and the photographs of her self-presentations are as extraordinary as her imagined images. Webb, who knew her late in life, writes of her with great affection.

Never a year passes without a new book on Monet's Garden in Giverny, this time edited by Marina Ferretti Bocquillon (Five Continents, 28). In 1883, when Monet settled there in a rented property, he was 43; seven years later he bought it for 22,000 francs, the price of five paintings then; and only when he was 58 did it become the habitual subject of his canvases. Of these, 40 are reproduced, but the book's prime subject is Monet himself, the patriarch who grew old in this retreat, in the company of his family, friends and dealers, and the great and good of France. With photographs ranging over half a century, with Vanessa Lecomte's ingeniously directed chronology, and with Mme Bocquillon's long essay on the "invention" of the garden, we have an enchanting book that throws affectionate light on Giverny, revealing Monet's labour, passion and delight in it.

Henry Darger was a self-taught Outsider artist (1892-1973) who at age 12 was put into an asylum for feebleminded children, masturbation the diagnosis. As an adult his work was cleaning lavatories in Chicago hospitals, his private life a hidden world of fantasy in which he relieved his obsession with childhood sex and violence. Expressed in word and image, a vast quantity of these unbridled narratives were discovered on his death and much promoted and exhibited. In Henry Darger (Prestel, 50), the chief curator of MoMA, Klaus Biesenbach, presents a hefty sample of Darger's work as art of radical originality rather than the Outsider art of the insane. The sane man, however, may take a different view and find these illustrations technically as primitive as the children's comics they so closely resemble, and their narratives quite nauseating. They have, nevertheless, influenced artists far more sophisticated, among them Matthew Barney, Jeff Wall, Jake and Dinos Chapman and, particularly, Grayson Perry, who said of Darger: "I feel a strong kinship: the way he used his imagination bears close similarities to how I use my own."

Jacky Klein's Grayson Perry (Thames and Hudson, 35), meant to be looked at rather than read, is glossy, bland and wholly uncritical. A brief biographical introduction and even shorter chapters on class, gender and other subjects of Perry's pots are followed by the enthusiastic and benign commentaries of Perry himself – indeed, the text as a whole is more a series of artist's statements than the exegesis expected of an art historian. One consequence of these arbitrary chapters is that each has its own 30-year chronology and only by infinite page-flipping can we grasp Perry's development as a whole. Apart from a handful of "sculptures" that in 1983 he dubbed his Bilbo Baggins style (to which he returned as recently as 2007 with Our Father) and his coming-out dress as a transvestite, the book is devoted to Perry's meretricious pots – gaudy magpie stuff but subversive in crudely drawn imagery that is smutty, puerile, banal and ultimately sinister. Were these as cheap as they look, they might, by the purblind unwary, be converted into table lamps, introducing to the drawing room the thrills of the phallus, fellatio and, particularly, the sadistic paedophilia of Henry Darger.

Nikolaus Pevsner's An Outline of European Architecture (Thames and Hudson, 28) was my introduction to the subject 60 years ago, yet his narrative, flowing over two millennia and more, from ancient Greece to Gropius, still makes simple sense. Two significant changes bring it up to date: a postscript by the architect Michael Forsyth reaches from Bauhaus to Bilbao and Foster's unfortunate revisions at the British Museum, and this new edition is wonderfully illustrated in colour. The text has, of course, a British bias – Rococo is hardly to be found, Vienna is mentioned only for its Ringstrasse, Bavaria is all but forgotten, and the late Baroque wonders of Turin are reduced to one small illustration of the dome of San Lorenzo, its extreme ingenuity incomprehensible without the walls and floor. This is thus still a beginner's book, the safe architectural equivalent of Gombrich's Story of Art – safe but for one glaring error: the full-page picture of the West Front of Santiago da Compostella as it is now was built in 1738-47; it is not the portico of 1188 described in the text but contains and conceals it; what is visible from the great square in which the cathedral is set is full-blooded Spanish Baroque, not Romanesque. An erratum slip should help bewildered readers.

Douglas Hall's Art in Exile (Sansom & Co, 35) is an affectionate study of six Polish painters in exile here, the consequence of the Second World War, from one of whom I bought a painting for six weeks' pocket money when I was still at school. I bought it to prove to my art master that bad painting can be good.

To be frank, five of the six – and the several others included – were pretty bad, and Josef Herman, the odd one who was not, painted the same good picture at least a thousand times. It is thus only sentiment that compels me to draw attention to the book, for it is a scrupulous and well-written account of a moment in the history of British art that will be utterly forgotten when I and my contemporaries are dead.

It was a time when during and after that destructive war, in all the arts we came under the cultural influence of displaced Germans, Austrians and Poles, many of them Jewish, and we should treasure it; for, in urging us out of our aesthetic stagnation and complacency, they gave us a second Enlightenment.