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Gift Books 1987: Art : Coffee-Table Impressionists and More

November 15, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Christmas is a season for the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists--which is to say it's a season like all others in the art book business. Responding to popular interest with a notable lack of imagination, publishers have released yet another flood of pretty books on the usual subjects. One exception is Gustave Caillebotte by Kirk Varnedoe (Yale: $39.95; 220 pp.; 200 black-and-white illustrations, 73 colorplates).

Until quite recently, most Americans who knew him at all identified Caillebotte (1848-1894) with one painting: "Rue de Paris; Temps de pluie," acquired in 1964 by the Art Institute of Chicago. It's a strikingly composed street scene, sharply bisected by a lamp post, further divided according to the golden section and populated by smartly dressed Parisians who stroll under voluminous black umbrellas.

Visitors to the recently opened Musee d'Orsay in Paris have discovered another distinguished Caillebotte: "Raboteurs de parquet," a dramatic depiction of shirt-less workmen scraping paint off a floor. With its high horizon line, radically tilted perspective and working-class subject matter, the 1875 picture originally offended the same people who objected to Degas' washerwomen subjects and cropped compositions.

The exaggerated perspective of these wide-angled early works was considered bizarre by Caillebotte's critics because it abruptly departed from academic realism, but his manipulation of space and obsession with complex pictorial organization constitute his most original contribution to late 19th-Century painting. His later Impressionist works are more conventional, but they too have begun to find an eager audience--with the help of such recent traveling exhibitions as "A Day in the Country" and "The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886."

The time is right for a serious publication on "the forgotten Impressionist" and Varnedoe's treatment is exactly that. He takes a closely measured look at a Frenchman who was removed from his famous colleagues by youth but created a remarkable body of work during the few years he put his mind to it. Blessed with considerable wealth and excellent taste, he also collected Impressionist works now acknowledged as masterpieces and willed them to his country.

Varnedoe presents a brief biography of Caillebotte and an overview of his work, calls in Peter Galassi (a colleague at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) for fascinating discussions of the artist's space and method, and examines 62 paintings. Appendixes contain contemporary criticism as well as an account of the bureaucratic snafu that led to the dispersal of part of Caillebotte's collection.

Two bigger, glossier books confer additional honors upon a modernist who is already a legend. Paul Gauguin: Life and Work by Michel Hoog (Rizzoli: $85; 336 pp.; 67 black-and-white illustrations, 150 colorplates) justifies its existence as a new exploration of "the influences of the past that fed his innovative talent." Hoog takes his "challenge" seriously, ticking off details of Gauguin's life in large type and clear language

Gauguin: A Retrospective; edited by Marla Prather and Charles F. Stuckey (Hugh Lauter Levin, distributed by Macmillan: $60 until Dec. 31, $75 thereafter; 384 pp.; 120 black-and-white illustrations, 124 colorplates) continues a series of generously illustrated anthologies of writings by famous artists and their contemporaries. Dominated by Gauguin's own letters (including his correspondence with Van Gogh), the text revives a tired subject with the freshness of unfiltered, original material.

Another new arrival in the same series, Renoir: A Retrospective; edited by Nicholas Wadley (Hugh Lauter Levin, distributed by Macmillan: $60 until Dec. 31, $75 thereafter; 384 pp.; 120 black-and-white illustrations, 125 colorplates) also concentrates on writings done during the artist's life, then enlists today's critics to reconsider a reputation that has suffered. They defend the creator of spun sugar nudes if only because he was "the last great bourgeois artist" (John Berger, 1960) or a satisfying "illustrator of human interaction" (Lawrence Gowing, 1985).

Odilon Redon: Pastels by Roseline Bacou (Braziller: $65; 190 pp.; 15 black-and-white illustrations, 70 colorplates) is a lovely tribute to a visionary contemporary of the French Impressionists who never joined their movement. Presented with all the respect and delicacy that a publication can muster, each glowing portrait, bouquet, mythical vignette and religious theme is faced by a scholarly commentary and occasionally a line from the artist: "What have I put in my works to suggest to them so many subtleties? I have put in them a little door opening onto a mystery." His "Confessions of an Artist" and an introductory essay provide a fuller account of his professional development.

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