Coffee table books aren’t merely pretty faces anymore.
There was a time when such oversized books served more as props, indicators of one’s cosmopolitan breeding that were dusted and meticulously strewn about to simulate that “just-read” look.
While the books selected here first and foremost live up to their reputations as alluring beauties, readers will be pleased to find many also offer content, insight and a sense of humor.
A word of warning: Some of these verge on being ponderously heavy, so if they are destined to be wrapped and thudded heavily under a tree, you might consider having the bookseller send it directly to those on your holiday shopping list. Oh, and you might want to check the stability of their coffee table too or have a convenient stack of Ikea gift certificate bookmarks on hand.
* “The Annotated Wizard of Oz” Frank L. Baum, annotated by Michael Patrick Hearn (W.W. Norton & Company, $39.95): An odd phenomenon occurs when the centennial edition of this book catches the attention of an adult, regardless of gender, race and age. The eyes mist over, an expression of faraway thoughtfulness settles on their features and they make “Awwww” sounds as they look at the vivid reproductions of Baum’s original covers interspersed throughout Hearn’s introduction. Now these are just the adults, so imagine the children who have not yet made their way to Oz. Plan on buying multiple copies of this beautiful anniversary tribute.
* “Art Nouveau, 1890-1914,” edited by Paul Greenhalgh (Harry N. Abrams, $75): Art nouveau transformed the decorative arts at a time when western culture believed itself to be on the brink of enormous change. The style moved away from classical beauty to a sophisticated blend of art and nature, embracing everything from architecture to jewelry. Authoritatively written essays by 22 specialists and 507 sumptuous photographs make the 496-page volume one of the finest art books in recent memory, illuminating the full range of art nouveau and its complex connections scientific, literary, mystical, mythological, psychological, industrial and nationalistic.
* “Fashion Today,” Colin McDowell (Phaidon Press, $69.95): Clad in a neon orange-and-white jacket, this blinding coffee table book might require sunglasses. Inside, though, fashion historian McDowell also chairman of the Costume Society of Great Britain and the London Sunday Times’ senior fashion writer traces an absorbing history of 20th century Western fashion beginning with Christian Dior’s 1947 collection. The hefty 512-page volume goes beyond a spectacular photo lineup, although the assemblage of images captures the mad, mod grace of creative style. With frank but beautiful brutality, McDowell strips away the social, political and aesthetic philosophy of dress. “Fashion at the end of the 20th century is a broad parish,” he writes in one passage. “Shock tactics have become the norm.”
* Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings,” by Pietro C. Marani (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., $95): In this spectacular new release, Pietro Marani, director of the restoration of da Vinci’s’ “Last Supper,” analyzes all of the artists’ known paintings. Marani’s exhaustive research combines beauty with the high-tech tools of art history, such as X-rays of the artist’s underdrawings. The text is fully footnoted, with references to lost paintings and known documents relating to the artist’s life. The 384-page book, with its exquisite cover portrait of Ginevra de Benci, is extravagantly produced: double foldouts show frescoes in their entirety, with small areas enlarged for detail.
* “Local Heroes Changing America,” edited by Tom Rankin with the Indivisible Project staff (Lyndhurst Books, $29.95): A documentary partnership set out to find community-based democracy that’s the impetus for the book. The impetus for the people and their missions featured in the book cannot be summed up so easily. In Long Island, women help mothers-to-be with the birthing process. In Navajo Nation, a tribal people sustains biology and cultural history with the reintroduction of Churro sheep. In San Francisco, young people man a helpline to listen, advise and save lives. This look at people in their own words making real neighborhoods is a look into real America, not the glamorous celebrities, bickering politicians or Silicon pirates so frequently in the public eye. Inspirational, yes it is certainly a blueprint of the possible and the underlying spirit that makes it so.
* “Nude Sculptures: 5,000 Years,” by David Finn and Vicki Goldberg (Harry N. Abrams, $39.95): The paradox Finn presents is how photography presents a more nuanced appreciation of nude sculpture, better than the visual eye. Part of it, Goldberg explains in the introductory text to Finn’s images, arises from “the details present(ing) views available solely to a camera, the human visual field not being rectangular.” The intense close-up whittles the statues down to their details, eliciting hitherto invisible lines, patterns and shadings. One sees how “Bandinelli’s Adam admittedly not renowned for his strength, is all sheen and sway and silk,” and an endowed Indian goddess expresses fertility, not sexuality, with her “head like an egg, breasts like melons, a waist like a dameru (hour-glassed shaped drum.”). The unabashed inspections might fuel a desire to see the real thing the sculptures, of course.
* “Photos That Changed the World: 20th Century” edited by Peter Stepan (Prestel, $29.95): Strictly speaking, the title is a misnomer. Some images included did instigate changes, like Lewis W. Hines’ 48-inch high Sadie Pfeifer working the cotton mill (1908) or Hung Cong (Nick) Ut’s screaming children fleeing a sickening cloud of napalm (1972). The others capture a moment but embody a time, whether World War II atrocities, a walk on the moon or a fairy-tale British wedding. Skipping Stepan’s essay, “Image and Power,” would be a great disservice: It examines the complex notion that “images are a privilege,” and how their absence, staging, manipulation, overabundance and raw power can influence a world.
* “Sugimoto Portraits,” by Tracey Bashkoff, Nancy Spector, Norman Bryson (Harry N. Abrams, $60): The thought-provoking contemporary photographer whose work was featured in a recent retrospective exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is known for his elegant photographic series of seascapes, theaters, museum dioramas and Buddhist statuary. However, this 170-page book contains the 75 black-and-white waxwork portraits he created. A commission from New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the portraits depict historical figures such as Henry VIII and each of his wives with the idea that he could photograph people who existed before cameras were invented. Sugimoto notes that during the 18th century, wax figures preserved a human likeness similar to today’s photography.
* “The Ultimate Picasso,” by Brigitte Lal, Marie-Laure Bernadac, Christine Piot (Harry N. Abrams, $105): This extravagant, 506-page volume stands out as the “ultimate” book about the man many call the greatest genius of 20th-century art. Not only does it cover of nearly every significant work he ever created but the scholarship is impeccable: Each of the three authors is a leading authority on a particular period of Picasso’s artistic evolution.
* “Women Photographers at National Geographic,” edited by Cathy Newman (National Geographic, $40): The magazine has become a photography-book factory, with each compilation as splendid as the last. The point of this lustrous still-life documentary shouldn’t be whether the selection of images is uniquely female. Rather, it challenges the clinging vision of the intrepid, globe-trotting male photographer snapping up history. Camerawomen, despite continuing real-world obstacles, have long contributed to the pages of the renowned magazine and helped its readers make sense of the world.
* “World Encyclopedia of Christmas” by Gerry Bowler (McClelland & Stewart, $39.95): A few encyclopedic works make it to coffee-table status. This season, appropriately enough, brings Bowler’s compendium of international customs, celebrations, films and more. “Ho Ho Ho!” for instance may have pagan origins, and was supposedly uttered as the “devil’s entry line in medieval murder mysteries.” The entry “Toys and Christmas” contains a year-by-year listing (1867-2000) of leading playthings. (Parcheesi ruled in 1867; Tinkertoys and Raggedy Ann were popular in 1914; the Jane Russell paper doll, Gilbert chemistry set and Buddy L. fire truck sold well in 1943; and 1997 was dominated by the Teletubbies, Share A Smile Becky and Sing’N’Snore Ernie.)