There are books, and then there are books that double as doorstops. Think of a weighty tome like the New Columbia Encyclopedia, a 3,052-page blue-covered behemoth that contains detailed entries on anything worth knowing. A polymath's best friend, it contains a cosmos between its covers. This admirable impulse -- to put everything under the sun into one handy package -- lives on in the hearts of contemporary art book publishers.
It's no surprise that Sister Wendy Beckett's The Story of Painting (DK Publishing, New York, $40) weighs in at more than seven pounds -- it contains an awful lot of pictures within its 736 pages. The celebrated Carmelite nun -- or the 20-person editorial team listed in the credits -- is well aware of MTV generation dictates re a surfeit of illustrations and multiple entry points. From Egyptian art through the Renaissance, from Goya to the German Neo-Expressionists, Sister Wendy offers lively and bright vignettes on them all.
She ably mixes commentary on method ("Bacon developed a unique and inimitable technique, which included rubbing the canvas with various cloths, chosen for their different textures, to smudge and blur the paint") with her trademark blunt comments on sex and life (about Walter Sickert's 1906 nude, La Hollandaise, she writes, "Poor, unidealized creature that she is, she nevertheless has the whore's appeal"), remarks made slightly salacious, of course, thanks to her religious calling. The book also features dozens and dozens of two-page photo close-ups of paintings, a real treat (especially when the transparency is of adequate sharpness).
The focus is notched up a level in Gérard Durozoi's History of the Surrealist Movement (University of Chicago Press, $95). A French Surrealism scholar (the book was originally published in French in 1997 and is translated into English by Alison Anderson), Durozoi takes 806 pages to trace the triumphs and tragedies of the contentious movement, from its dawn after the First World War to its uncertain denouement after the death of Andre Breton in 1966.
Today, the romance of Surrealism is found as much in its photographs and graphic design as in the better-known imagery of the paintings, and this history is packed with plenty of both. From the transgressive (Man Ray's amazing 1929 close-up of oral sex -- of course that's Surreal) and the abject (Jacques-Andr Boiffard's 1929 photo of a big toe for George Bataille's Le Gros orteil) to the proto-formalist (Duchamp's use of a photo of Swiss cheese for the cover of a 1942 Surrealist exhibition catalogue) and mediagenic (handsome, brooding portraits of Max Ernst, Dal, even the fabulously adenoidal de Chirico), the pictures are an inspiration. And the tale Durozoi tells of the Surrealist struggles to insert the movement into progressive politics is one that is especially timely.
For the synthesizers among us, these efforts to create the ultimate reference have a special appeal -- and, one supposes, the possibility of becoming a survey-course standard, thereby staying in print and continuing to rack up the sales. The Neue Galerie, which opened its glorious new facility in Manhattan last year, made a parallel entry into the world of scholarly publishing with New Worlds: German and Austrian Art, 1890-1940 (Yale/Neue Galerie, $75), an oversized, 600-page romp through Vienna ca. 1900, die Brucke, the Blaue Reiter, Dada, Neue Sachlichkeit, the Bauhaus and the decorative arts and architecture in Vienna and Germany.
Another new reference, this one from Abrams, is Nineteenth-Century European Art ($75) by Seton Hall University art historian Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, which sections the century of Neo-Classicism, Romaticism, Revolution, Realism and Impressionism into 20 chapters spread over 546 pages.
Zooming in to depict in close detail a single subject is Elizabeth Cowling's masterful Picasso: Style and Meaning (Phaidon, $87.50), a 704-page volume billed as the first-ever study of style change in the artist's work. Cowling -- who worked on "Matisse Picasso," now wowing them at MoMA QNS -- notes that the precocious Spaniard delighted in his reputation as an artistic predator and thief, as well as in "his own irrepressible inventiveness." In fact, Cowling calls her introduction "A Painter without Style," pointing out Picasso's flexibility towards issues of authorial identity. As if the artist didn't already have enough protean accomplishments, we must credit him as a proto-Postmodernist.
Cowling's narrative of individual works should prove priceless for artists and students both. For instance, with Harlequin (1915), which happens to be one of the first pictures in the current MoMA exhibition, she notes that the artist painted it while his mistress, Eva Gouel, was in the sanatorium, dying. Cowling writes that the work seems "rudimentary" and "nave," with a skull-like "gaunt, masked head with its stupid, staring eyes and fixed, toothy grin." The "grotesquely uneven diamond pattern" in the costume signals "that everything is hopelessly out of joint."
Cowling also notes the canvas-within-the-canvas that bears what some have suggested is a brushy profile of the artist, making the painting a symbolic self-portrait in the act of mourning.
Monographs are often monsters -- a life contains infinite detail, after all -- and can be profusely illustrated, especially those produced with museums. The winning entry in this sweepstakes has got to be the 530-page Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle (Guggenheim Museum, $65) by Guggenheim Museum curator Nancy Spector. Thankfully, as those who caught the artist's recalcitrant recent interview on National Public Radio can attest -- it was a milestone of the negative sort -- the popular artist does way better with pictures than he does with words. What's more, the book is a design achievement, crafted by J. Abbott Miller and Roy Brooks of Pentagram Design and included in the "National Design Triennial" at the Cooper-Hewitt.