Visions Of Gift Books Dance In Their Heads

December 16, 1990|By Lynn Williams

God rest ye merry, bibliophiles, let nothing you dismay.

The very unmerry economic upheavals of the past few months might have left you with a disposition like Scrooge's and a paycheck like Bob Cratchit's, but in the glittering realm of holiday gift-book publishing, every reader has not only a $100 book under the tree, but a leather-lined library in which to enjoy it. (When you run a finger over that linen binding, or check out that coffee table-busting size, you'll feel as if you do, anyway.)

There's a lot to choose from this year, from the sumptuous to the profound, the useful to the absolutely frivolous. So whether you're buying or only browsing, here's a selection of the season's best and brightest to thumb through:

Fine art One wonderful thing about the paintings of Frans Hals is their personality. Other great 17th century portraitists may have turned out iconic images whose subjects all looked alike, but not Hals; his prosperous Dutch burghers may have superficial resemblances in their white lace collars and little goatees (for the men) and demure white caps and ruffs (for the ladies), but each sitter has a character that still communicates 3 1/2 centuries later. (Women will swear that his famous laughing cavalier is undressing them with his eyes.) Another wonderful thing about Hals' portraits is their loose, vibrant brushwork, a precursor of impressionism. In Frans Hals: The Complete Work (Claus Grimm, Abrams, 296 pages, $95), Claus Grimm examines these wonders, then goes beyond, for a thorough analysis of the paintings' histories as well as their expressive qualities. Mr. Grimm has spent 25 years studying Hals' work, ferreting out alterations made to the originals and identifying copycat work and outright forgeries. His book is a definitive work not only on Hals, but on the work of the "art detective."

In his introduction to American Painting (Donald Goddard, Levin Associates/MacMillan, 320 pages, $85), art historian Robert Rosenbloom ponders the question "What is American about American art?" In the heydays of such early painters as Copley and West this was as pressing a question as in these days of McDonald's in Moscow and Disneyland in Japan. There are no definitive answers -- American and European art have always shared influences and themes -- but art lovers are welcome to find their own answers in this collection. This handsome oversized book spans the history of American painting from the "naive" portraitists of the 16th century to the scary street art of Jean Michael Basquiat (1960-1987), grouping the artists by theme, subject or style. It's an interesting stew, and demonstrates just how difficult it is to pigeonhole American art.

Most of us know impressionism as a French movement, exemplified by artists such as Monet and Renoir. But their contemporaries in other countries were also experimenting with revolutionary colors and brushstrokes, and attempting to capture the qualities of light. Some even influenced the French! World Impressionism (edited by Norma Broude, Abrams, 424 pages, $75) deals with the "Impressionist impulse and influence" as it was expressed in more than 20 countries (including Japan and China!) between 1860 and 1920. In 12 essays, Ms. Broude (an American University professor) and other art historians examine

aspects of an international movement whose breadth and vitality will surprise most readers. And in doing so, they turn a spotlight on the careers of dozens of superb but lesser-known artists, whose work has failed to garner the lasting fame -- not to mention the multimillion price tags -- of impressionism's most lionized French avatars.

Is it any wonder that art nouveau posters are so highly collectible these days? I'd bet good money that most of those prosperous middle-aged collectors of authentic 19th century posters had a reproduction of one of Mucha's Job rolling-paper posters on his wall back in the hippie era. Posters of the Belle Epoque (Jack Rennert, Rizzoli, 256 pages, $75) is a splendid showcase for more than 200 works from the poster's golden age, all from the collection of The Wine Spectator magazine. (And yes, many of them did advertise spirits in their time.) If this book did nothing more than show us a lot of gorgeous posters it would have earned its keep (the reproductions are superb), but this book is ++ also a good read. Mr. Rennert, an international poster dealer who has written widely on the subject, provides plenty of information on the artists, and discusses each work's design elements and symbolic subtext. Readers will be amused at how urbane and naughty many of these posters are; no Victorian prudery oppresses these Parisian poster girls, who flirt with us over brimming glasses of champagne and curls of cigarette smoke.

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