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FROM THIS EPISODE

Holidays are upon us. We hardly finished digesting Thanksgiving turkey but Santa Clause's bells are ringing louder and louder. Have you already made up your list and decided how much you can spend on all the gifts? So, ladies and gentlemen, let me make it easier for you and, as in previous years, suggest that instead of the torture of shopping in the crowded malls, you might want to escape into an old-fashioned heaven of a bookstore. Of course, if you are lucky enough to still have one of those in your neighborhood…

Let's start with three deliciously heavy page-turners, biographies of bigger-than-life personalities -- cultural icons -- each of whom looms larger and larger as years and centuries go by.

at111129Catherinegreat.jpg I. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie. Little German princess who became Empress of all Russia. Terribly mistreated by her teenage husband and the rest of the Imperial Court, young Catherine staged a coup d'état which ended the reign of her demented husband and made her an Empress, or as she liked to call herself, Mother of all Russia. And if that is not enough, how about befriending French philosophers, Voltaire and Diderot, and starting the famous art collection of my beloved Hermitage Museum?

at111129Vangogh.jpgII. Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith. Can anyone think of a life more tortured, more accomplished, and more suited for a Hollywood biopic? Even his mother, long before the fatal shot, thought of him as a little touched in the head. Was it suicide? Or was he killed, as this book argues, by a teenage boy taunting him in the days preceding his death?

at111129joan_mitchell.jpgIII. Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter by Patricia Albers. Hers is the story of one of those proverbial sacred monsters but an immensely talented artist. Good upbringing and family wealth be damned. She chose to be one of the “bad boys” of the art world, smoking and drinking herself to death, but along the way, giving birth to the most joyful, life-affirming paintings of our time.

And how about coffee table art books to show your friends, cousins, aunts and uncles how cool, smart and adventurous you are?

at111129steins_collect.jpgI. Did you like Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen, with legendary Gertrude Stein reigning over the Parisian avant-garde? In that case, you definitely want to grab the catalogue of the crowd-pleasing, traveling exhibition, The Steins Collect. If you missed this exhibition in San Francisco, jump on the plane and see it right now in Paris or wait for February when it opens at the Met in New York.

at111129Gaugin.jpgII. The catalogue of this stunning traveling exhibition doesn't even have a title on its cover. But one look at the naked, young, slightly scared Tahitian girl on the cover of this book, and you know that you have entered the world of Gaugin: Maker of Myth. Poor us, who missed this exhibition in London and then in Washington. But at least the catalogue is here to console us.

at111129MarkBradford.jpgIII. Of the many talented artists whose stars shine over the Los Angeles art scene, Mark Bradford is among the brightest and definitely the tallest of them all. His monumental, almost operatic in scale paintings, stand in welcome contrast to the sweet, low-key persona of their creator. The irony is that the catalogue of his traveling exhibition lists five host cities in the U.S., with the exception of L.A.

at111129Lari_Pittman.jpgIV. Have you met any art lover who hasn't succumbed to the temptation of Lari Pittman's mysterious, colorful, multi-layered fantasies, executed by the artist with intimidating precision on sprawling canvases? It's only fitting that the prestigious Skira Rizzoli chose to publish this sumptuous monograph celebrating this Angelino whose fame has spread far and wide.

Happy Holidays my friends.

To see images discussed in Art Talk, go to KCRW.com/ArtTalk.


Banner image: (L-R) Catherine The Great: Portrait of a Lady by Robert Massie, published by Random House; Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, published by Knopf; Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, published by Random House

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