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Audubon’s $11 Million Birds, Pot Lover Fill Holiday Art Books

The American flamingo, a plate from "The Birds of America" by John James Audubon. The original publications of 1827-38 have been photographed for a new edition by the Natural History Museum, London. Source: The Natural History Museum via Bloomberg

The old master exhibition of the year -- if not our lifetime -- is “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” at the National Gallery, London. And my favorite art book of the year is the catalog by Luke Syson (National Gallery/Yale $65, 40 pounds).

It’s beautifully produced, clearly and elegantly written and actually moves the debate about this endlessly fascinating artist. If you really want to find out about the painter of “The Last Supper” and “The Virgin of the Rocks,” this is a much better place to begin than Dan Brown.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a great American artist, but as the critic Robert Hughes has pointed out, he wasn’t “a nice guy.” One of the nasty things he did was shoot birds featured in his masterpiece, “The Birds of America,” one of the most renowned and sumptuously attractive of all illustrated books. He then wired them into place to pose for their portraits. If that macabre procedure is reminiscent of Damien Hirst, the taut elegance of Audubon’s images looks forward to such contemporary masters of abstraction as Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.

The Natural History Museum, London, has published a complete reproduction of the 435 plates in Audubon’s great work (75 pounds; published by Sterling in the U.S. for $80). This is somewhat reduced in scale -- Audubon had his plates printed on “double elephant” paper almost 40 inches high -- but is also considerably cheaper than the original, which sold for about $1,000 even when first published in the 19th century. The last copy to come to auction went for 7.3 million pounds ($11.3 million) last year.

‘The Art Museum’

Like Audubon, the publishers of art books today don’t believe small is beautiful. “Gigantic is gorgeous” could be their credo. The most colossal and ambitious publication in the field is probably “The Art Museum” (Phaidon, $200, 125 pounds). Its aim is no less than to encompass the entire artistic achievement of mankind.

To a surprising extent, it succeeds. Arranged in “galleries” and “rooms,” rather than chapters and subsections, this is the paper equivalent of an encyclopedic museum such as the Metropolitan in New York, covering the achievements of every time and place from prehistoric caves to contemporary art.

Indeed, it has some of the characteristics of a real museum, among them an invitation to wander on and on. You open it to look at, say, Etruscan tomb sculpture and end up an hour later contemplating Jackson Pollock and feeling a little bemused. Recommended, but for comfortable browsing you’d better buy that old-fashioned accessory, a lectern, too.

‘The Pot Book’

Ceramics are one of those media that could be thought of as major or minor. “The Pot Book” by Edmund de Waal (Phaidon, $49.95, 29.95 pounds) begins by quoting Gauguin -- pottery is a “central art” -- and goes on to try to prove the point with 300 examples of clay shaped and fired from the stone age to Ai Weiwei and Grayson Perry. This is a distinctly personal, even quirky selection -- which is part of its appeal.

The author is not only a celebrated potter but a best-selling writer (of the off-beat family memoir, “The Hare With Amber Eyes”). He has strong and individual taste, which comes through in the selection: He is enthusiastic about modern studio ceramics, which personally I find neither beautiful nor useful, but I’m willing to be converted.

With illustrations, bigger really is best. Tiny images of large objects are not much use. Sometimes that’s a problem with “The Art Museum,” and “The Louvre: All the Paintings” (Black Dog & Leventhal, $75, 50 pounds) runs into it, too. This illustrates every single one of the 3,022 pictures currently on display in one of the world’s greatest old master collections.

That’s the good news, but less thrilling is that most of them come out a good deal smaller than a postcard. To an extent, that is overcome by the inclusion of a DVD, which also has images of all those pictures on it -- some, but not all, of which allow you to zoom in and look in more detail.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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