Best art books of 2012 – review

The lives and works of old masters and new

Grungy academics resent the elitist notion of genius, but the best writers on art struggle to explain a miracle – the capacity of human beings to perform the godlike task of creating new worlds, making familiar reality freshly radiant and transforming sight into vision.

Sometimes, however, the genius is a bewilderingly ordinary man. Sheila Hale's task in Titian: His Life (Harper Press £30) is complicated by the fact that although the greatest of painters had a long life, during which he was feted as a celebrity and deferred to by the potentates he painted, he left few personal traces. This Old Master didn't disport himself with mistresses or, like Leonardo and Michelangelo, with ephebic young men; most of his surviving correspondence chases unpaid bills. Hale calls Titian's portraiture "Shakespearean", but like Shakespeare the connoisseur of human individuality remains somehow anonymous, nondescript. The baffled biographer compensates by evoking the "tremendous times" in which Titian lived and the imperial excesses of Venice, a city so luxuriously decadent that nuns, in those benighted days before the invention of the vibrator, consoled themselves with dildos crafted from Murano glass.

Michael Hirst's Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, 1475-1534 (Yale £30) is less of a rowdy epic. Hirst's account of the Sistine Chapel fusses over pigments and scaffolding, and in the process misses the bigger picture that extends across the ceiling. Half the volume is footnotes; more agony and ecstasy would have been appreciated. Ross King has problems of his own in Leonardo and the Last Supper (Bloomsbury £20): how can we comprehend a mural that began to curdle and fester almost as soon as it was painted and is now a blotchy smear? But King draws attention to overlooked iconographic details such as the supper menu, and he profits from the mural's misfortunes in a brilliant history of its afterlife as restorers perform cosmetic surgery on it.

Hero worship, so critically unfashionable, triumphantly returns in Alex Danchev's Cézanne: A Life (Profile £30), which is as much a religious pilgrimage and a philosophical flight of fancy as a conventional biography. Hockney once said that before Cézanne no one looked at the world with both eyes; Danchev explains how he broke "the skin of things" and exposed their structure.

Danchev can be loftily obscure, but better this than the bluff populism of Will Gompertz in What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye (Viking £20), where Cézanne is described as "a DIY dad taking on a minor household chore only to find himself knee-deep in unforeseen complications". Gompertz began as a Tate curator, retrained as a standup comedian, and now presents arts programmes on the dumbed-down BBC; given this career path, it's unsurprising to find him calling Le Douanier Rousseau "the Susan Boyle of his day". Television has afflicted Gompertz with the agitated blink rate of a fibber: alas, those 150 modernist years can't be compressed into a few seconds of screen time and a string of gawky jokes.

Modern artists speak about one another in In My View, edited by Simon Grant (Thames & Hudson £19.95), a superb collection of testimonials recalling childhood epiphanies in museums or libraries, moments that now seem like the start of a new artistic vocation. Most of the encounters are brilliantly unexpected. Miroslaw Balka prefers his grubby, grainy reproduction of Michelangelo's Pietà to the original, which is "too clean and white"; Zhang Huan recreates The Last Supper by smearing incense ash on linen, replacing the Christian story with a Buddhist homage to "the souls of mankind". Chuck Close, whose own work dissects visible reality, admires Vermeer because his images can't be deconstructed: the pigment is "blown on to the canvas by a divine breath of air". Bill Viola is equally reverent in his essay on Bellini. Unashamed about the tears he shed when he discovered The Dead Christ Supported by Angels in the National Gallery, Viola even writes a letter to his long-dead predecessor asking: "Now that you are gone from this earth, what images are you seeing now?"

Finally, two sumptuous studies of the body as a work of art when clothed, or as a subject for art when unclothed – Nathalie Herschdorfer's Coming into Fashion (Thames & Hudson £42) and Frances Borzello's The Naked Nude (Thames & Hudson £28). Herschdorfer raids the Condé Nast archives for her account of the relations between models and the designers and photographers who tortured them into beauty, while Borzello brilliantly updates the evasively genteel distinction between naked and nude made by Kenneth Clark in 1956, exposing the new qualms of conscience that have emerged in our own franker but more scrupulous era. Borzello's illustrations are titillating, embarrassing and sometimes outright disgusting: here we find art holding a mirror up to our troublesome human nature and showing us who we are, genitals and all.


Peter Conrad

The GuardianTramp

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