Peter Conrad’s best art books of 2016

Studies of the disorderly life and work of Turner, Monet’s watery abstractions and the chaos of the YBAs were illuminating

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Painters are licensed mess-makers, and their private lives are often as messy as their studios. In The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of JMW Turner (Viking £25), Franny Moyle studies a prize specimen. Her biography emphasises Turner’s antisocial quirks, dubious business dealings and sexual irregularities. He was an astute self-promoter, driving hard bargains with aristocratic patrons and campaigning shamelessly for election to the Royal Academy; his seascapes made him an apologist for British imperial power, and an investor in the slave trade that sustained it. Yet he entered into liaisons with servants and, posing as an old tar named Puggy Booth, shacked up with a widow in what was then known as “squalid Chelsea”.

The impalpability of his later work, which painted the “particles of light” we see when we think we’re looking at people and places, led to accusations of insanity. As described by Moyle, his technique had a punk irreverence. On varnishing day at the Royal Academy, he scandalised his colleagues by smearing his canvases with a murky brown powder, then picked out highlights with gobbets of spit. Ignore the book’s puffed-up title: this is a fine account of the cranky, conflict-ridden man behind those radiant skies.

In Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies (Bloomsbury £20), Ross King lyrically explores the personal paradise that Monet constructed at Giverny. Like Turner, Monet lived through “momentous times”, and cultivated his garden as “an asylum of peaceful meditation” in which he could take refuge from war and social upheavals. Turner’s canvases were ridiculed as “pictures of nothing”, and Monet likewise defied the old routine of pictorial representation. The lilies trembling in the hidden depths of his ponds were “impossible things”, and in the attempt to paint them he pursued a vision “to the point of self‑annihilation”.

King’s title, like Moyle’s, sounds overexcited, but he justifies it. Monet’s mad obsession with those floating blooms produced an almost hypnotic enchantment: his circumambient canvases, now on view in a pavilion in the Tuileries, turn the world upside down and make us feel that we’re floating or pleasantly drowning in those dark, vegetation-clogged pools.

Timothy Hyman’s The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century (Thames & Hudson £32) begins in a Nietzschean void, which is then triumphantly repeopled. At the end of the 19th century, Hyman says, “the world of objects” seemed “spectral, weightless, dissolved”, as if deliquescing in Monet’s flooded garden. The book goes on to show how a succession of painters spurned abstraction and rehabilitated the human figure, recreating what Balthus called the “drama of the flesh”.

Nympheas by Claude Monet in the Orangerie Museum in the Tuileries garden in Paris.
Nympheas by Claude Monet in the Orangerie Museum in the Tuileries garden in Paris. Photograph: Remy de la Mauviniere/AP

Some modernists torment their subjects, turning them neurotically inside out or crucifying them as Bacon does. Pierre Bonnard, however, is praised for “redeeming” the beleaguered body in his bathroom scenes, and Hyman finds scenes of intimacy, either convivial or erotic, behind the “aerated blobs and splodges” that overlay the canvases of Howard Hodgkin. Magnificently illustrated, this is art history at its most eye-popping and also – thanks to philosophical forays in which Hyman explores identity and the friction between self and society – its most brain-tickling.

Mess-making is the subject of Elizabeth’s Fullerton’s riotous Artrage!: The Story of the BRITART Revolution (Thames & Hudson £24.95), which documents the antics of the upstart provocateurs who aimed, as the Chapman brothers declared, to unsettle civilisation and mock the notion that art has a moral purpose. Ordure and decay abound here: along with the pachyderm poo Chris Ofili smeared on the Madonna we have the maggots Damien Hirst sprinkled on a decomposing cow’s head, plus a ton of rotting oranges strewn in a dockland warehouse by Anya Gallacio. A smelly bed documents what Fullerton primly calls Tracey Emin’s “debauchery”: I’d say it was evidence of Emin’s untidiness, not her depravity.

With the connivance of Charles Saatchi and the Royal Academy, the young radicals aged into respectability and affluence. Hirst, who pocketed £111m after a Sotheby’s auction in 2008, is now the richest artist alive, and Emin’s work graces the walls of 10 Downing Street. The grungy London wastelands where they organised exhibitions that doubled as illegal raves have meanwhile become prime real estate. Fullerton concludes that the sensation-seeking of the Young British Artists established the country’s “place in the international pantheon”; now that Britain is imploding, it may be time for a fresh upsurgence of outrage.

The Prado Masterpieces (Thames & Hudson £75) is a guided tour of that grandiose museum – which, incidentally, is where Laura Cumming’s touching and thrilling quest for a lost Velázquez begins in The Vanishing Man (Chatto & Windus £18.99) – and at the same time, because those treasures are the spoils of monarchy and empire, a retraversal of Europe’s unstable and belligerent past. The Prado’s director calls the collection he oversees the “fertile alluvial deposit” of history: is it that, or wreckage salvaged from the battlefield?

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Peter Conrad

The GuardianTramp

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