When choosing a gift from among large art books with glorious illustrations and texts in rather large type faces, we often think the reproductions are compensation enough for any weaknesses of the text. But what if the book is read? Do you want to spend that much money on a book for Uncle Charles whose text he would find insultingly simple? (We seldom fear that such books will be too scholarly.) Don't worry, here are several beautiful books, some of great originality, and several with stimulating texts. The most wonderful of these is (and buy one for yourself) Van Gogh: A Retrospective, edited by Susan Alyson Stein (Macmillan: $75 ($60 through Dec. 31); 384 pp., 228 illustrations, 125 in color).
This is not an exhibition catalogue disguised as a book: It is a collection of truly splendid colored plates accompanied by a biography of Van Gogh told by documents. There are almost 150 eyewitness accounts of Vincent's life; excerpts from letters, memoirs, interviews, accompanied by official reports and news items; they constitute a running biography; discreet marginal commentaries keep us from getting lost. The plates spring out at you from the page and Vincent's personality bolts out at you from the text. And reading these documents together with the pictures is more vivid than any retelling of his life, scholarly or popular. For the reader becomes a scholar himself, looking at the evidence and forming his own conclusions. We have always felt close to Vincent because of his letters to his brother Theo (and many are included); here that closeness is modified by the views of those around him. Why was Vincent fired from his first job as a parson? The parish report is here. Why did Paul Gauguin leave Vincent? Read Gauguin's account and the newspaper report of the incident, and you'll forgive Gauguin. Such a volume replaces biographies, such reproductions replace all others. It will turn a love for Vincent into a passion.
A good gift for someone who already knows a lot about modern French art is Le Basque, by Lisa A. Banner and Peter M. Fairbanks (Bedford/University of Washington: $35; 125 pp., 82 illustrations, 65 in color). Henri-Joseph LeBasque, (1865-1937), is a fine early 20th- Century artist surveyed for the first time in this, a good exhibition catalogue disguised as a book. The authors in their short biography do not present all the information they must have gathered in preparing the show, and the comments on the plates are bland or obvious. Le Basque, a student of Leon Bonnat at the Ecole de Beaux Arts, was an early "Fauve," who lived long enough to show the influence of many fashions and styles on his half-Expressionist, half-Impressionist work. In the mid-'20s, after periods of association with Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, he produced a splendid series of nudes, the best feature of the book. The paintings are all cheerful, joyous, but we need a stronger sense of his personality to help us separate him from his more famous contemporaries, and the text does not provide it. Nonetheless, the book is the only introduction to a fine if neglected artist.
James Tissot is not, on the other hand, a neglected artist: We have had several publications recently on his work. Christopher Wood's short essay, Tissot (New York Graphic Society: $60; 160 pp., indexed, 160 illustrated, 80 in color) presents a good middle course between the scholarly catalogue for the London exhibition of 1984 and the lengthy biography by Michael Wentworth of the same year. Furthermore there are more good colored plates of more of his works in this book than in any other publication so far.
Wood somewhat irresponsibly brings up some of the popular questions about Tissot without answering them. Why is this Victorian narrative painter suddenly considered a great artist? Why is he more popular now than in his lifetime? The illustrations help us guess the answers. Tissot was an excellent draftsman (albeit he never mastered the jaw and cheek bones of the female face), a splendid arranger of props and lights, but above all, an inventor of narratives that are poignant and deep. A Frenchman working in Victorian England, he painted sentimental themes with psychological accuracy, cutting through the mustard, so to speak, and very often getting to the true drama of the situation. Like many novelists, he limited his attention to one social class, that of the nouveau riche middle classes, and consequently his pictures support each other in a dense depiction of that milieu.