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For Sophisticated Tastes Historical Art Books Make Great Holiday Gifts And Offer Enjoyment That Will Last For Years

Sat., Dec. 13, 1997

New art books are piling up alluringly in the bookstores just now, not at all by chance.

But as holiday season nears, shoppers may be afraid it’s goodbye to sybaritic browsing, hello to anxious appraisal, gift lists in hand.

Well, here’s a good-cheer alert. At least one volume holds promise of a glorious future. If it’s a hit with the recipient, gift decisions may be solved for years to come.

“Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting” (Yale University Press, $75) is the first in a 75-volume series that will be published over the next 15 to 20 years, said James Peck, series executive editor.

“The Culture and Civilization of China” is being co-published by the Yale University Press and the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing.

“There are dozens of scholars in China, the United States and throughout the rest of the world who are working on this project,” Peck said.

It will explore many aspects of China’s art, architecture, archaeology and literature to help Western readers understand the oldest continuous culture in existence, said John Dryden, Yale University Press director.

“The most distinctive characteristic of the venture is the collaboration on multiple levels, on a long-term basis,” Peck said. It involves publishers, editors and about 150 scholars, 75 from China and 75 from the rest of the world.

The first volume, published in English, Chinese and French editions, is the work of three American scholars and three Chinese. Its pages glow with fine reproductions of paintings, ranging from ancient cave petroglyphs and paintings on silk, to traditional handscrolls created in the 20th century.

Many works that came to light during research are being published here for the first time, Peck said. He gave an example: paintings by female artists, from Beijing’s Palace Museum collection, that open up the almost unknown area of women’s painting.

“It works the other way, too,” he said, citing another illustration from the book, a fragment of a 10th-century wall painting belonging to Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum that the Chinese scholars had not known about.

Definitely a grand investment for a long-term commitment.

As always, the European old masters are well-represented in volumes packed with new scholarship and lots of ravishing images:

“Giorgione” (Flammarion/Abbeville, $95), subtitled “The Painter of ‘Poetic Brevity,”’ is Jaynie Anderson’s re-evaluation of the short life (1478-1510) and relatively small body of work of this mysterious, enormously influential Italian Renaissance painter who broke new ground with personal easel paintings and atmospheric landscapes.

Reproductions of Giorgione’s works punctuate texts elaborating up-to-date research, with complete listings of everything known or believed to be related to him.

“Michelangelo: The Last Judgment” (Abrams, $60) is a celebration of what its subtitle calls “A Glorious Restoration.”

The artist’s great fresco was painted in 1534 on the rear wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Cleaning and restoration completed in 1994 left it radiant with newly revealed color that everyone had forgotten about and confirm Michelangelo’s mastery of form - shown here in 150 color photographs, including many closeups.

The photographs are by Takashi Okamura; text is by Loren Partridge and restoration specialists.

“Bernini” (Bulfinch, $75) is another monograph profusely illustrated with photographs whose details make an almost tactile impact, in this case of sculpted stone rather than of painted plaster. They show the work of Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), which graces monuments throughout Rome, from St. Peter’s to all those fountains. The book’s author is Charles Avery, the photographer is David Finn.

“Seurat and the Avant-Garde” ($60) and “Seurat and the Bathers” ($50), both from Yale University Press, respectively look at the artist in the context of his times, and focus on Seurat’s 1884 masterpiece, “Bathers at Asnieres,” owned by London’s National Gallery.

Thomas Hoving, former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes a characteristically provocative claim in the title of his book, “Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization” (Artisan, $50).

Michelangelo and Bernini are among artists represented in his personal choice of 111 works spanning at least 30,000 years, from paintings to sculpture, from gold ornaments to ancient monuments.

He also includes the unknown Egyptian artist who modeled the serenely elegant head of Nefertiti around 1365 B.C. - and Edvard Munch, who painted his nightmare vision, “The Scream,” in 1893.

American art

“Native Americans: A Portrait” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $60) is a visual treat among several handsome books celebrating American art. It’s subtitled “The Art and Travels of Charles Bird King, George Catlin and Karl Bodmer,” and it brims over with brilliant, large-format reproductions of the exotic, early 19th-century world of the West and its American Indian tribes so enthusiastically recorded by the three artists.

A much more familiar world is traced through the pages of “Norman Rockwell” (Abrams, $45) by Karal Ann Marling. She has produced a thoughtful account of Rockwell’s life and work with plenty of reproductions. He may be a nonperson to the art world, she said, but, “Today, I can say that Norman Rockwell is the most popular American artist of this century - an artist, that is: a real artist, a great artist.”

Equally enthusiastic about their subjects are Vincent Di Fate, author of “Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art” (Penguin Studio, $45) and Richard Marschall, author of “America’s Greatest Comic-Strip Artists” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $45).

The two books sparkle with evidence, generously illustrated with lively images, of the affectionate diligence with which the writers have explored their chosen genres.

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