Symbol, Art and Language From the Land of the Dragon: The Cultural History of 100 Chinese Characters by Ni Yibin (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 191 pages, $50) Even if you don't read Chinese, this unusually beautiful book -- it's bound in red satin -- offers a fascinating introduction to the language and its culture. The chosen characters refer to four elements of Chinese life: nature (heaven, Earth, cloud, fish), mankind (live, die, soul, speak), objects (palace, vehicle, rice, map) and qualities (yin, yang, luck, beauty). Elegant calligraphy, lush photos and illustrations complement explanations of the origins and meanings of each character.
The Artist's Eyes: Vision and the History of Art by Michael F. Marmor and James G. Ravin (Abrams, New York, 224 pages, 175 illustrations, $40) As ophthalmologists, the authors of this astonishing book address a daunting list of vision-related art topics from perspective to color "blindness," macular degeneration and cataracts. Their equally vast knowledge of art informs lively discussions about everything from Matisse's color, Rembrandt's age, impressionism and myopia to how Georgia O'Keeffe's refusal to wear sunglasses may have caused her late-life eye troubles.
Native American Clothing by Theodore Brasser (Firefly Books, Ontario, 368 pages, 300 illustrations, $65) Dividing North America into 12 regions, Brasser traces a 500-year history of American Indian clothing through maps, European drawings and paintings, and the beautiful beaded, embroidered and ornamented garments of dozens of tribes and cultures.
Music in Art by Alberto Ausoni (Getty, Los Angeles, 384 pages, 400 illustrations, $24.95) A perfect stocking stuffer for the aesthete, this sophisticated paperback annotates hundreds of gorgeous paintings, frescoes and even Greek vases that depict musicians and performances. Topics range from medieval hunting scenes and Renaissance paintings to contemporary sculpture with notes on symbols, allegories, mythology and instruments from trumpets and violins to such exotica as the kithara and the theorbo.
The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis by Michael Rush, et al. (Abrams, New York, 288 pages, 205 illustrations, $60) In January, the trustees of Brandeis University reacted to the economic crisis that had pummeled their endowment by voting, unanimously, to close the school's art museum and sell its 7,000-piece collection, valued at $350 million. The art world went nuts, and a lawsuit by museum donors has temporarily halted the sale. Bizarrely, none of that is mentioned in this handsome history of New England's largest collection of contemporary art. The publication and a companion exhibition may be the last chance to see the Rose collection intact. See them and weep.
Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini by Peter Webb (Vendome, New York, 304 pages, 300 illustrations, $95) Never heard of Leonor Fini? Well, you're in for a huge, sizzling treat. The Argentine firecracker of the Surrealist movement, Fini (1907-1996) was a flamboyant proto-feminist from Buenos Aires who came of age in Paris, where she knew everyone (Picasso, Dali, Man Ray) and bedded many. Over six decades, she exhibited everywhere from Milan, Italy, to Manhattan and produced furniture, sets and costumes for the Paris and the Metropolitan operas, choreographer George Balanchine and film directors Federico Fellini and John Huston. An imperious bohemian of extraordinary originality, she designed a torso-shaped perfume bottle for Elsa Schiaparelli, organized the first show at Leo Castelli's Paris gallery in 1939 and was photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray and Dora Maar. Her self-portraits as the Sphinx enhanced her cult status along with her jewel-like paintings on themes of love, death and metamorphosis. In this readable, exhaustively researched and eloquent book, she has found her ideal biographer.
The Glory of Angels by Edward Lucie-Smith (Collins Design, New York, 192 pages, $35) Considering how elusive they are, angels have gotten an awful lot of attention from top-flight artists over the centuries. London-based art historian Lucie-Smith has assembled a deliciously gilded compilation of angel art from medieval times right up to Delmas Howe's contemporary cowboy-angel. Lucie-Smith helpfully categorizes them by task (guardian, messenger, musician) and condition (arch, fallen). With glossy fold-outs and a cover that opens like double doors, this popularly priced 14-inch-tall book will entrance even angel doubters.
-- by Mary Abbe