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ART'S GREATEST HITS, AND OTHER TRIBUTES TO CREATIVITY

Those who consider art books an ideal holiday gift can breathe a collective sigh of relief -- at least for this year. Many publishers are avoiding those really massive, coffee table-straining productions of former seasons. All the books reviewed below are midsize affairs -- heavy by ordinary book standards, but hardly the gravity-bound sort that can't be held on the lap without fear of cutting off circulation to the lower extremities.

But the move to more practical-size art books isn't like going from a Caddy to a Taurus. There is no corresponding step-down in appointments. That absolute requisite of good art books -- high-quality illustrations -- is still there in abundance in the better of these books.

The size of a book of course doesn't -- or shouldn't -- affect the bigness or smallness of ideas contained therein. One of the biggest (and most beautifully produced) books under consideration, "Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization" by Thomas Hoving (Artisan/Workman, 272 pages, 124 color illustrations, $50), is not much on critical content. Hoving is strong on facts and enthusiasm, but his commentary is mostly of the rah-rah variety.

Hoving, former director of Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes no bones about the fact that this is a personal selection by someone with the credentials to rummage through 50,000 years of art and come up with the top 111 artworks. It's an excellent selection, but I suspect that everyone will long for his or her favorite piece that didn't make the cut, anyway. Future historians may not complain about the predictables -- melting watches by Dali, starry nights by Van Gogh -- but they may wonder why, to pick one example, Balthus makes it and Willem De Kooning doesn't.

Another greatest-hits book, "Icons of Art: The 20th Century" (Jurgen Tesch and Eckhard Hollmann, editors; Prestel, 216 pages, 300 color illustrations, no price listed), offers a good, if conventional, survey of this century's art. Predictably, the survey falls away as it nears the present, where it is more difficult to tell fluff from substance. Balthus must have infinite appeal: Once again he's there -- and with the same work that Hoving chose, "The Street." At least De Kooning is anointed an "icon" in his own century.

The commentaries by 54 contributors range from insightful to barely adequate. With its helpful artist biographies summarized along the outer edge of the left-hand page and its chronological arrangement, "Icons" makes a convenient sourcebook. But the reproductions are often coarse and the color oversaturated.

For those looking to fill any void in radical contemporary art left by the above, see "Contemporary Art: The Collection of the ZJM/Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe" by Heinrich Klotz. (Prestel, 340 pages, 390 color illustrations and 37 black-and-white, $65). This German collection contains a wide range of media-based art, from Jean-Louis Schoelkopf's startling cibachromes of raw meat to video and sound installations by such artists as Volker Schreiner and Nam June Paik (including his wonderful "Buddha" mesmerized by an emptied TV set housing a lighted candle). These on-the-move works are nestled in among the work of more familiar figures like Robert Rauschenberg, Sean Scully and Donald Judd.

In his essay Klotz offers a cogent argument for a "second modernism" that defines original modernism as not a style but a rough outline that is filled in by experimental works over time.

It's a long way from video art to the paintings of Giorgione, one of the great masters of 16th century Venetian painting. "Big George" -- as he might be called in English -- is a double mystery who still has historians scratching their heads. His brief life -- he might have made 30 -- left hardly a trace. To this day nobody is sure exactly what he painted, and some of those works we're sure of present their own conundrums of style and content. ("The Tempest," for example, might as well be titled "Feelings" for all the woolly commentaries it has generated.)

In "Giorgione, the Painter of 'Poetic Brevity' " by Jaynie Anderson (Flammarion, 390 pages, no price listed), the author, an art historian at the University of Melbourne and a Getty scholar, attempts to set the record straight -- or as straight as it is going to get in this case.

She draws on alternate areas of research -- provenances, collection and restoration history and recent scientific analyses -- that allow her to set forth a catalogue raisonne that confidently asserts what is by Giorgione's hand and what isn't. The last time I heard, the wondrous "Concert Champetre" was in Titian's court. With the assurance of a scientist with all the facts on hand, Anderson forcefully claims it for Giorgione. Such pronouncements may not always be of particular interest to the general reader, but it is an awesome art historical performance nonetheless.

Anderson lets the 16th century writer Paolo Pino explain the book's subtitle: In the manner of the poets, Pino writes, painters "should observe the rule of brevity. Painters should not wish to crush all the facts of this world into a single picture."

Though Giorgione was no fact-crusher, Hans Holbein surely was. "Hans Holbein" by Oskar Batschmann and Pascal Griener (Princeton University Press, 255 pages, $55) shows the German artist to be the near polar opposite of Giorgione. In Holbein all the facts are presented within a precise and delicate order, every detail revealed in a measured light. If Holbein was a poet he was a poet of the real.

Swiss art historians Batschmann and Griener neatly situate Holbein in his time. They offer close looks at the portraits the artist produced as court painter for Henry VIII and detail his position in relationship to his mighty contemporaries, Albrecht Durer and Andrea Mantegna -- who themselves had a thing or two to say about how much detail a picture can sustain.

After Holbein's cool detachment, the artists represented in "The Body of Christ in the Art of Europe and New Sapin 1150-1800" by James Clifton (Prestel, 208 pages, 50 color and 60 black-and-white illustrations, $65) may seem like a violent lot. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus' flesh was the physical link between God and man, and for flesh to be spirit it must be mortified. Hence the bloody pieta by a School of Picardy artist (c. 1460), who shows Christ propped up, as Clifton writes, as "a sacramental body." Blood streams down his face and rushes out the wound in his side, flowing under his garment and down his legs.

Even more gory is Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz's "Christ Consoled by Angels" (1760), a post-flagellation scene highlighting Christ's bloodied back as angels gather up pieces of his torn flesh and sop up the blood. I won't even mention the anatomically correct Secret Heart.

Luckily, this book -- a catalog for an exhibition currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston -- has ample quieter moments as well: a sweet Carlo Dolci, a lovely ivory of the Virgin and child, the serene "Christ Blessing" by Giovanni Bellini. Fine-honed essays by David Nirenberg and Linda Elaine Neagley help keep this from becoming another sentimental "Christmas book."

Fragonard, Watteau and Boucher were not about to even hint at mortification of the flesh. In the wonderfully paradoxical "Intimate Encounters: Love and Domesticity in 18th Century France" by Richard Rand (Princeton University Press, 220 pages, $65 cloth, $35 paper), flesh is for coy or brazen display. Or -- and here comes the paradox -- in the case of an artist like Chardin, flesh is primly dressed and made to sit calm as a jug.

These intimate encounters may take place on an artificial rococo stage -- at fetes galantes and pastorals and in bedrooms -- where even the paint seems to take part in the seductive atmosphere. Or they may take place in a humble kitchen where a mother and her children reprovingly meet the drunken father.

The book -- a catalog for a touring exhibition curated by Rand -- impressively tracks the immense changes in attitudes toward the family and private life in France during the 18th century -- a journey that rather miraculously compresses the distance between Chardin's calm domestic beings and Fragonard sexy, cavorting figures.