Gift ideas: 12 books for looking

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2012 - 11:45 PM

Art and artists, architecture and interiors, fashion and rare birds are delicious diversions for the holidays. Here are a dozen coffee-table delights.

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Mary Abbe picks this year's best art books for holiday gift giving.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Forget the partridge in a pear tree and the aviary that goes with it.

Think of the maintenance.

Ditto the milk maids, drummers, pipers and leaping lords. Even a one-percenter would have trouble lodging that much staff.

What you want are 12 days of luxury books. All they need is a shelf and an occasional airing. Hey, you could even read them.

Art and artists, architecture and interiors, fashion and rare birds are delicious diversions for the holidays. Here are a dozen delights. Pursue them.

Monumental Venice (Vendome, $150): Jacques Boulay's panoramic photos of Venice unfold to nearly 6 feet wide in this glorious tribute to a luminous city of echoing plazas and shimmering canals. Taken in summer sun and winter mists, the images lovingly record sparkling canals, crumbling palazzos and gilded churches. He captures all of the iconic spots: the Doges palace: the wedding-cake interior of La Fenice opera house, rebuilt after a 1996 fire; the market stalls near the Rialto bridge, and the Gesuiti church whose marble pulpit is carved to resemble velvet brocade.

Artists in Love: A Century of Creative and Romantic Partnerships (Welcome Books, $65): In a fascinating mix of art and biography, Veronica Kavass smartly focuses on 29 of the 20th century's most famous artist partnerships at the moment of their greatest creative sizzle. Illustrated with wonderful art and photos, the book is rich in unexpected poetry and tender insights into the tangled lives of, among others, Picasso and Françoise Gilot, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Lee Miller (shown bathing in Hitler's tub!) and Man Ray, whose heart she broke.

The Art Book: New Edition (Phaidon Press, $60): From Abramovic to Zurbaran, this endlessly absorbing tome introduces one work each by 575 alphabetically arranged artists spanning 700 years of paintings, sculpture, photography, performance and video art. It's the unexpected juxtapositions that make the book so compulsively readable -- Bernini's St. Theresa swooning in religious ecstasy across from Joseph Beuys' felt suit. Fun!

Vogue: The Editor's Eye (Abrams, $75): Cleverly framed by eight trend-shaping stylists, "Vogue" successfully argues that these imperious, funny, willful women -- and the photographers they championed -- altered the way we looked, moved and thought about everything from clothes to work, sex, popular culture and our bodies for the past 50 years and more. And the photos are stunning.

The Iconic Interior: Private Spaces of Leading Artists, Architects and Designers (Abrams, $65): Encompassing 100 years and 100 interiors by as many designers, this handsome book offers a world of eye candy for armchair voyeurs. Organized chronologically with short bios of the owner/designers, the interiors are wonderfully eclectic, ranging from Eliel Saarinen's Finnish arts-and-crafts home to film star Dolores del Rio's art deco Los Angeles manse and the Barcelona cement factory that Ricardo Bofill converted into a surrealist retreat.

Houses of the Presidents (Little, Brown, $40): Some were born in mansions, but a surprising number of American presidents had humble origins, including wealthy John F. Kennedy, born in a modest frame house in Brookline, Mass., and George W. Bush, who grew up in a banal ranch house in Midland, Texas. An engaging mix of presidential history and biography, "Houses" is seasoned with architectural details, restoration discoveries and odd period details like the two Citgo gas pumps sitting by the driveway of Dwight Eisenhower's farm at Gettysburg, Pa.

Georgia O'Keeffe and Her Houses: Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu (Abrams, $50): When O'Keeffe bought her adobe home in Abiquiu, N.M., in 1941, it was a ruin that stole her heart. Over the next 40 years she restored its traditional character while injecting a modernist sensibility, plus electricity and plumbing. The spirit of the place infused her paintings and is reflected in these incisive images of her home, garden and self aging wisely.

Looking at Ansel Adams: The Photographs and the Man (Little, Brown, $40): Focusing on 20 of Adams' most iconic photos, including "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" and "Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake," his former assistant Andrea Stillman explains their origins, his many changes to their printing over the years, and how they fit into his passionate environmentalism and wilderness concerns. Insightful, affectionate and revealing.

Drawn From Paradise: The Natural History, Art and Discovery of the Birds of Paradise With Rare Archival Art (Harper Design, $45): Since they arrived in Europe from New Guinea in the 16th century, birds of paradise have driven artists gaga with their exotic plumage. Here is the story of 40 paradise species and the art they inspired.

The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection (Getty, $40): The rediscovery of Pompeii in the early 1700s launched three centuries of art, theater, exhibitions and eventually photos and films, many of them reproduced and annotated here. Mirroring the obsessions and anxieties of each succeeding generation, Pompeii remains an enduring metaphor for our own apocalyptic era of tsunamis and terrorism.

Nineteenth Century European Painting: From Barbizon to Belle Époque (Antique Collectors' Club, $249): In this eccentric doorstop of a book, perennially popular Impressionism merits a mere 37 pages while lavish attention goes to Orientalist, Romantic, Pre-Raphaelite and Academic art as well such lesser known stuff as the Newlyn School, named after an English fishing village, and "Cardinals," i.e. jolly pictures of Catholic clergymen at play. Elegantly boxed and impressively illustrated, the book accurately surveys the century's eccentric byways but overemphasizes second-tier pictures, many of them apparently for sale by its author, New Orleans art dealer William Rau.

Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance (Getty, $65): This beautiful and scholarly catalog accompanies a traveling show of Early Renaissance panel paintings, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass by Giotto and his contemporaries, whose statuesque figures seem suspended between familiar Earth and golden heaven.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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