The heavy white volumes Phaidon publishes in their Art and Ideas series are, physically, among my favorite books. The pages are stiff, thick, and unusually white, as if they were enamelled. The font (Bitstream Amerigo) is solid and plump, and the standard type is a sort of half boldface, while quotations are in regular type. Pagination and chapter titles are along the right and left edges of the page, not on top. The images are numbered and clearly labeled; captions always include date, dimensions, and location. Margins and line spacing are generous. A very appealing design.
The images - they are the real attraction. I would add "obviously," but art monographs are usually stingier than I want. Not this series - the Phaidon Chagall has 228 images in 330 pages, mostly the artist's paintings, but with some photographs and works by other artists mixed in:
I clipped off the right edge when I scanned the page, but you get the idea. The photo is of Marc Chagall with the legendary Yiddish actor Shlomo Mikhoels, who is also in the painting, doing the splits while playing his fiddle for the appreciative green cow. He was such a great threat to the Soviet state that Stalin, in 1948, personally ordered his murder. I've wandered from my point.
Looking at the catalog page, I see that I have now read 12 of the 32 volumes published so far. I'll rank them, most interesting to least.
Early Christian and Byzantine Art, John Lowden, page after page of marvels
Neoclassicism, David Irwin
David, Simon Lee
Rembrandt, Mariët Westerman
Jacques-Louis David is actually one of my least favorite painters, but this account of his work and life, tangled up with the French Revolution, is close to thrilling. His paintings, technical facility aside, are all context, so this is the way to see them. Rembrandt's life, by contrast, is almost event-free; the book is rather a gentle investigation of a supremely creative mind.
Romanticism, David Blayney Brown
Goya, Sarah Symmons
Egyptian Art, Jaromir Malek
Friedrich, William Vaughan
Turner, Barry Venning
Chagall, Monica Bohm-Duchen
Islamic Art, Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair
Hogarth, Mark Hallett
The problems with the last two are essentially conceptual. Islamic Art is strained by its need for coverage, while Hogarth treats Hogarth's work more as sociological and historical evidence than as art. In both cases, the approach is understandable, but these books aren't as much fun as some of the others. You would be justified in not believing how much fun Neoclassicism or Early Christian and Byzanine Art is, I understand, but I insist, they're great stuff.
As collections of images, though, they're all amazing. One sample from Islamic Art:
Note the attractive use of white space around the 8th century ewer.
There may well be better-written or better-argued books on every one of these subjects, but I've never found such an impressive combination of images and text. And then there are the pages, and the font, and so on. They don't make such good public transit books - a bit too heavy.
This was plenty gushy. Phaidon should send me some free books. Just post them to the address at the bottom of the site. Hmm, it doesn't seem to be there. Off to the right somewhere? No? I seem to have misplaced my address. Well, if it were the case that Wuthering Expectations had an address, Phaidon should send books to it.