Gallery of Art To Give and Peruse

Whether the reader wants scholarly background or a lapful of glorious pictures, these titles offer a variety of delights

CAMILLE PISSARRO By Joachim Pissarro. Harry N. Abrams, 310 pp., $90

THE CHRONICLE OF IMPRESSIONISM: A TIMELINE OF IMPRESSIONIST ART By Bernard Denvir. Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown & Co. 288 pp., $40

RAPHAEL: THE STANZA DELLA SEGNATURA, ROME By James Beck. George Braziller, 96 pp., $22.50

THE BRANCACCI CHAPEL, FLORENCE By Andrew Ladis. George Braziller, 96 pp., $22.50

GIOTTO:THE SCROVEGNI CHAPEL, PADUA By Bruce Cole. George Braziller, 120 pp., $22.50

STUART DAVIS`S ABSTRACT ARGOT By William Wilson. Pomegranate,

unpaged, $21.95

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE By Georgia O'Keeffe. Penguin, unpaged, $29.95

PICTURING HISTORY: AMERICAN PAINTING 1770-1930 Edited by William Ayres. Rizzoli, 256 pp., $60

SUITING the gift to the receiver is quite an art. Even more so when the gift is an art book.

Art books can be pretentious or modest, scholarly or popular, expensive or very expensive. Some make more demands on the reader than others. Some have many pictures and little writing. Others have fewer pictures and a lot of text. Either way, an art book should be worth looking at and through over and over again. A real art book should be an exhibition between covers.

Like Camille Pissarro for example, with its sizable format and 354 illustrations, 205 of which are in particularly good color. The book is an eye feast, and a thing of beauty to enhance a shelf or table. But that is not all. It is also a thorough-going art-historical dissertation by a leading authority, Joachim Pissarro, the great-grandson of the Impressionist, whom the other Impressionists saw as a kind of father-figure.

``Pissarro was not a simple artist'' writes the author. This was partly because he continued to question the validity of his art throughout his life, to reinvent it with a rebellious disregard for convention and because he was always willing to learn from (and teach) others, whether they happened to be his close friend Paul Cezanne or the young Neo-Impressionists of the mid-1880s with whom he exhibited. The surprisingly wide range of Pissarro's subject-matter and changing styles is well illustrated in this fine book.

The revolutionary character of Impressionism was originally the butt of critical ridicule. But by the time its chief exponents had grown old, it became ``the art of the establishment,'' according to Bernard Denvir, author of The Chronicle of Impressionism: A Timeline of Impressionist Art. Spiced with fascinating details, this retrospective diary of the rise of Impressionism from 1863 on is likely to be as appealing to enthusiasts (whose numbers do not, apparently, decrease) as it is useful to scholars.

While almost everyone loves Impressionism, the Italian Renaissance summons intense devotion too. Travelers to Italy, in particular, will find three new books about ``the great fresco cycles of the Renaissance'' a source of information out of proportion to their modest dimensions (ideal for tucking in a suitcase) and reasonably priced. The first volumes in a series aimed at the unacademic reader, these books are simple and direct, but scholarly, and they comprehensively illustrate their subjects. For visitors to the Vatican, James Beck presents Raphael: The Stanza della Segnatura, Rome. This room (stanza) of frescoes, exactly contemporary with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, contributed no less than the more famous work to the consummate quality of the ``High Renaissance.''

Andrew Ladis writes about The Brancacci Chapel, Florence where Masaccio's masterpiece ``Tribute Money'' is to be seen on the walls of a small chapel also adorned with the frescoes of Masolino and Filippino Lippi.

Bruce Cole takes readers on a detailed visit to see Giotto: The Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Each book also describes the way frescoes were made. A gift of all three to a traveling friend would presumably not go amiss. And then they themselves could add the later books in the series as they come out next year.

That is unless the friend would prefer a book on a modern American artist. Stuart Davis's Abstract Argot, by William Wilson, is written in an engaging journalese that fits the ``combination of the pristine and the popular'' the author discovers in Davis's paintings. This book is aimed at a ``general audience,'' part of this publisher's ``Essential Paintings Series.''

While the reproductions are all in acceptable color, the text could have made more of the basically Cubist ground out of which Davis's art grew. At one point, Wilson oddly describes a Davis painting as a ``gloss on Matisse'' when it was undoubtedly influenced by Picasso or Gris.

BUT the book offers a quick insight into an artist who has not so much been forgotten by the art world until recently (as Wilson states) as taken for granted. His place in the history books has long been established. Yet whether, as the cover blurb suggests, he is in ``the pantheon of American artists who ... embodied their times and pushed history forward'' like Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, and Jackson Pollock remains, at the very least, an open question. Far more frequently written about is another classic of 20th-century American art, Georgia O'Keeffe. Also a great individualist, she was less obviously a modernist. She was a distiller of nature in a visual language simultaneously baroque and naive. Georgia O'Keeffe is an unusually large-format paperback. Its 108 big color plates - flowers, skyscrapers, New Mexico, skulls, shells, hills transformed by paint and brush into an art of crevice and fold, of cosmic minutiae, and intimate vastness - are accompanied by O'Keeffe's plain-speaking prose, an anecdotal style spiked with sudden poetry.

On art books, she says she was recommended by a teacher to get Jerome Eddy's ``Cubists and Post-Impressionism'' to ``look at the pictures,'' and to read Kandinsky's ``Concerning the Spiritual in Art,'' which is exactly what she did. In this book about and by her (first published in 1976), you do not want to miss any of the words or any of the images.

The same, for other reasons, is true of Picturing History: American Painting 1770-1930, edited by William Ayres, a book as much about history itself as about the art that records, represents, idealizes, or just plain misrepresents its people and events.

The book consists of a preface and 11 essays by reputable scholars in the field. Images illustrate the writing as much as the writing discusses the images.

Paintings of Washington and Lincoln, genre scenes of ordinary people, battle scenes and death scenes, scenes recording seminal political occasions: These are the paintings that were precursors of photography and television. One of the intriguing questions this book investigates is whether these historical images were reliable witnesses.

This might not be the gift for all art lovers - but for American history buffs, art historians, or anyone fascinated by the uses and abuses to which artists allow their art to be put, it could be just the thing. If this volume cannot quite be called ``an exhibition between covers,'' it is nevertheless a thought-provoking read. Ideal, perhaps, to fill more than a few absorbing hours over the post-Christmas lull.

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