Holiday Art Books: Van Gogh in the Asylum, Ireland’s Masterwork

'The Book of Kells'
A page from "The Book of Kells," given over to elaborate, fantastic decoration of the first letters of Christ's name in Greek, Chi Rho. It is unsure where the book was made, perhaps at Kells on the mainland of Ireland or on the island of Iona. Photographer: Johansen Krause/The Board of Trinity College Dublin/Thames and Hudson via Bloomberg

“The Book of Kells” is without much question the greatest Irish work of visual art. It’s fitting that the culture that produced James Joyce’s “Ulysses’’ should also boast a masterpiece consisting largely of luxuriant, sometimes irrelevant, decoration of a text, in this case the four Gospels of the New Testament.

The original “Book of Kells” is housed at Trinity College Dublin. A new volume simply called “The Book of Kells” by Bernard Meehan (Thames & Hudson, $95, 60 pounds) is a fine introduction to this extraordinarily beautiful work.

Its pages may appear strange to a modern eye. The ornamentation is often abstract, in the manner of an Islamic carpet, but also full of words unexpectedly metamorphosed into animal form. Thus, in one passage the word “et’’ -- meaning “and’’ in Latin -- sprouts a lion’s head. In another, describing St. Peter’s denial of Christ, the same two letters are transformed into the body of a timorous hare.

The sumptuously illustrated “Caspar David Friedrich’’ by Johannes Grave (Prestel, $120, 80 pounds) is a good guide to one of the major artists of the Romantic era.

Friedrich (1774-1840) was born in Greifswald on the Baltic coast of Germany, a contemporary of the British painters Turner and Constable. Like them, he tried to make landscape a way of expressing feelings.

In Friedrich’s case, the typical mood is of solitude: A lonely figure or little group confronts the infinite expanse of mountain, sea and sky with just a hint that there may be a transcendent, divine presence in the universe.

‘Art Book’

Like almost everyone with a place in the history of art, Friedrich rates one page -- no more, no less -- in “The Art Book’’ (Phaidon, $59.95, 39.95 pounds). This newly revised, expanded version of one of the most popular introductions to the subject contains more women, more 21st-century movers-and-shakers and more non-Europeans.

Thus, in the first few pages we encounter new entries on the performance artist Marina Abramovic, the abstract painter Tomma Abts and the Chinese art superstar and dissident Ai Weiwei. If you want a concise description and a characteristic image by any of these -- or hundreds of others from A to Z -- this is an accessible, user-friendly way to get it.

But the format has its limitations. To qualify for an entry, what you need is a name with an initial letter: No anonymity tolerated, which excludes a large part of the world’s art (“The Book of Kells,” for instance).

‘English Graphic’

The late, much-lamented Tom Lubbock was among the most thoughtful and engaging writers on art. “English Graphic’’ (Frances Lincoln, $29.95, 20 pounds) is mainly selected from his weekly column in the Independent newspaper and takes us on an extremely unexpected trajectory through what might seem a familiar subject: British art.

Alongside well-known works by famous artists, Lubbock discusses such unexpected but fascinating images as Robert Hooke’s depiction of “A Flea’’ (1665), George Stubbs’s illustrations for a treatise on midwifery (1751) and “Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes’’ (1789), produced by the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Another unexpected angle is opened up by “The Healing Presence of Art: A History of Western Art in Hospitals’’ by Richard Cork (Yale, $90, 50 pounds). You might think the combination of art and medicine would make for a small, slightly depressing subject.

Not at all, as Cork demonstrates in this erudite and ground-breaking book. Perhaps more Western art has been connected with hospitals than any other institutions apart from palaces and churches: 15th-century frescoes, pictures of anatomy lectures, altarpieces and even Van Gogh’s wonderful paintings done in the asylum at St. Remy. This is one of those subjects that get bigger the more you explore.

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

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining and Katya Kazakina on art.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE