GREAT ART TREASURES OF THE HERMITAGE MUSEUM, ST. PETERBSERG (VOLS. I AND II) harry N. Abrams, 1571 pp. total, $195 boxed set. PAINTINGS IN THE UFFIZI AND PITTI GALLERIES Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 648 pp., $100. THE SISTINE CHAPEL: A GLORIOUS RESTORATION Edited by Pierluigi De Vecchi; Harry N. Abrams, 271 pp., $75. MICHELANGELO: THE MEDICI CHAPEL By James Beck, Antonio Paolucci, and Bruno Santi; Thames and Hudson, 213 pp., $65. THE VISCONTI HOURS Commentary by Millard Meiss and Edith W. Kirsch; George Braziller, 262 pp., $65. BONNARD By nicholas Watkins; Phaidon Press, 240 pp., $49.95. GUSTAV KLIMT: FROM DRAWING TO PAINTING By Christian M. Nebehay; Harry N. Abrams, 288 pp., $49.95. MAURICE PRENDERGAST By Richard J. Wattenmaker; Harry N. Abrams, 160 pp., $39.95. THE STORY OF PAINTING: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE HISTORY OF WESTERN ART By Sister Wendy Beckett; Doriing Kindersley, 400 pp., $39.95. TRANSFORMING VISION: WRITERS ON ART Selected by Edward Hirsch; The Art Institute of Chicago/Bullfinch Press, 143 pp., $27.95. GREAT WOMEN OF THE BIBLE IN ART AND LITERATURE By Dorothee Solle; William B. Eerdmans, 295 pp., $75. NATIVE AMERICA ART By David Penney and George C. Longfish; hugh Lauter Levin Assoc., 312 pp., $75. REVIVALS! DIVERSE TRADITIONS: THE HISTORY OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICAN CRAFT 1920-1945 Edited by Janet Kardon; Harry N. Abrams/American Craft Museum, 303 pp., $49.50.
SOME art books you buy - or are given almost make you feel you own all the works of a favorite artist, or have under your roof entire museum collections.
One recent book, for example, seems to make it possible for St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum to take up residence in your living room. Another could mean you have the Sistine Chapel sitting on your kitchen table: It is about Michelangelo's (cleaned) frescoes. A study of the paintings and drawings of Pierre Bonnard could be ideal for propping up among the face cloths and soap while you soak in the tub. (One of this French colorist's persistent subjects was his wife in the bath.) Or you transplant the entire Uffizi Museum from Florence, Italy, to your guest bedroom.
But few, if any, art books are actually as comprehensive as they seem. Great Art Treasures of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, for instance. While it illustrates in color more than 1,500 artifacts - the museum's ``finest treasures'' - these are still only the tip of the Hermitage iceberg. It owns in all some 3 million objects.
Books on the museum's vast collections have been published before, but none quite like this ponderable, expensively produced two volumes in a box. It takes us on a long remarkable tour, with factual and pertinent notes on every illustrated work - artifacts from early cultures, classical antiquities, oriental works, coins and medals, arms and armor, Western European and Russian art. It is a treat.
For size, the one-volume Paintings in the Uffizi and Pitti Galleries competes with the Hermitage book. An invaluable reference volume, it shows over 800 paintings from more than the two major Florence museums named. It includes famous and less familiar pictures; it is refreshing to see the latter reproduced in color. One small complaint: Some wide paintings are spread over two facing pages. But such a thick book cannot be flattened to show details in the ``gutter'' between. This is particularly awkward with Hugo van der Goes's Portinari altarpiece.
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes have been undergoing a radical cleaning. The ceiling was finished in 1990. Since then restoration has been carried forward on the ``Last Judgment'' wall. A book in tribute, The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration, has now been published in English. The photographs, many of remarkable details, by Takashi Okamura, bring home the dramatic freshness of the colors that have emerged from the grime. This is a book that delights the eye. But Michelangelo never intended his frescoes to be seen so closely. Professor John Shearman's essay on the functions of Michelangelo's color, now so surprisingly apparent, actually invalidates, to a degree, the strongly lit close-ups in this book.
To appreciate the purpose of Michelangelo's color, Shearman points out, it is necessary to look at the ceiling from the floor, and not from scaffolding where the photographs were taken. From the floor, he says, what he saw was not the ``strident color'' critics of the cleaning had been shocked by, but ``clarity of form ... and a harmonious cast of color....''
Perhaps the black and white photographs of another of Michelangelo's masterpieces (this time a combination of sculpture and architecture in Florence) in Michelangelo: The Medici Chapel involve the viewer in a more concentrated, unglamourized authenticity. The photographs are by Aurelio Amendola. They set up a dialogue between Renaissance art and 20th-century photography. They also investigate, with intensity, rough and polished surfaces, the interrelationships of sculpture with architecture and the dark and light contrasts in this architecture, without ever being untrue to the experience of actually visiting the chapel.
Having never seen the original manuscript of The Visconti Hours, which belongs to the National Library in Florence, I can only take on trust the reproduction in this book of its jewel-like, scintillating pages. This is color for all its bright worth. The manuscript is the work of two different artists. The book about it is modest in size, informative, and a pleasure.
Bonnard by Nicholas Watkins also offers color experiences. The plates in this book, however, sometimes seem rather hard, not always giving off the light that Bonnard's paintings do in the flesh. Watkins, to his credit, treats his subject as a serious and original early 20th-century artist, and not as some regressive hangover from Impressionism with a taste for bourgeois interiors. Bonnard (who lived until 1947) knew and watched Matisse (who in turn owed him more than a little) and was aware of Picasso, but pursued his own unpretentious inclinations with a venturesomeness not always instantly apparent. This study makes one look at Bonnard's work with renewed appreciation.
So, in a different way, does Christian M. Nebehay's new book on the turn-of-the-century Viennese painter Klimt: Gustav Klimt From Drawing to Painting. The author, who met the artist in the final year of his life, does not just look at Klimt's work (which is handsomely reproduced), but also at the whole milieu and context in which it made its striking appearance. Still strangely unsettling, Klimt's work is charged with a paradoxical mixture of elegant, brilliantly colorful decorativeness and sexuality.
The paintings and monoprints of American Maurice Prendergast, belonging to the same generation as Klimt, are at first sight tame by comparison. But tracing his development in Richard J. Wattenmaker's book Maurice Prendergast, which is scholarly and rescues the artist from the myths and anecdotes that have cluttered assessments of him, is to witness a persistently bold experimentalism. The artist's subject matter may be essentially Victorian; but the increasing modernity of his mosaic-like paintings puzzled and even outraged some critics. He has become popularly perceived as a charming artist. This book shows him to be tougher than his popularity suggests.
A popularizer in the realm of art appreciation who has achieved apparent ubiquity in recent years is British nun Wendy Beckett. She has now published The Story of Painting: The Essential Guide to the History of Western Art. Beckett is undeniably enthusiastic and energetic. Her profusely illustrated new guide to the story of art is in many ways informative. But, the simplifications that come with popularizing are pitfalls that only the most level-headed scholar can avoid. Beckett resorts frequently to phrases like ``the greatest,'' and ``triumphant vindication'' and ``unique sublimity.'' She is a mistress of hyperbole. Of the early Renaissance painter Masaccio she gushes: ``there never was a more massive, more dignified, more noble, and yet more human painter.'' But if you can take all the cheer and bubble in your stride, this book has a lot to recommend it.
Much more of a thinking person's book is Transforming Vision: Writers on Art. Here, works belonging to the Art Institute of Chicago are paired with prose and poetry, which are often challenging and unpredictable in their ways of responding to art. Particularly stimulating are John Updike's essay on Claes Oldenburg's giant ``Clothespin'' (``Irony is a way of having one's cake while appearing to eat it''); Mark Strand's poem on Giorgio de Chirico's painting ``The Philosopher's Conquest''; and Guy Davenport's geographically imaginative, staggeringly detailed reading of Grant Wood's ``American Gothic.'' This is a book to dip into over a long period.
So, too, is an unusual book called Great Women of the Bible in Art and Literature. From Eve to Mary, from Delilah to Ruth, from Bathsheba to Mary and Martha, this large-format book shows how powerfully some of the Biblical women have made their mark in subsequent paintings and writings. It's scholarly, thorough, and all told a moving and beautiful volume.
Two fine books on American crafts offer more purely visual delectation. Native American Art stretches from the Archaic period to 1993. Strikingly large photographs encourage a relish for this rich legacy of tradition, even now somewhat alive and kicking.
Revivals! Diverse Traditions: The History of Twentieth-Century American Crafts 1920-1945 has strict time boundaries as its subtitle indicates. Essays and images celebrate a persistence in the face of modernity and poverty that produced many beautiful objects. Connected with a current exhibition at the American Craft Museum in New York, the book highlights the wide cultural range of crafts in the United States.