Graphics paint the right image

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
William Feaver looks at children's arts booksthat make companions to gallery visits. Explaining how in art is easier, generally, then explaining why. Which is one reason why printmaking techniques keep getting explained: there are so many of them, and they tend to be used as substitutes for actual ideas. Hence The Story of Printmaking, a dossier in the Kingfisher Kaleidoscopes Living Encyclopaedia series (Pounds 12.99 each). There are glossy pages, matt pages, double spreads that turn into triple spreads, flaps to unfold, an intaglio sample and a tiny portfolio to open.

The virtue of all this is that it isn't precious. Woodcuts give way to Tintin artwork and Magic Eye printing to see-for-yourself. All that, spiral-bound, as CD-Rom-ready as a book can be. Plus stickers. Stickers, we know, prove irresistible. The only problem is that the first person to get hold of the book will use them up, to the despair of librarians.

What the Painter Sees, in the same series, has anamorphosis as its chief gimmick. (Bend a metallic sheet to the right diameter and - hey - that sprawling nonsense turns into a cute wee picture.) It goes through genres and formats and basic rules of perception, using a Vermeer as an Advent calendar and zipping with astounding ease through an A-Z of Famous Painters that tell the potential GCSE student next to nothing. Example: "Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). This German painter led a quiet rural life [did he indeed?]. He is famous for his haunting landscapes."

Less elaborately engaging, and the better for that, Marie Sellier's Cezanne from A to Z and Matisse from A to Z (Peter BedrickRagged Bears Pounds 8.99 each) run through life and themes, using the artists' works as illustrations. One snag arises: being alphabetical, yet translated (clumsily) from the French, the running order has to remain as in the original text: F for Fenetre, Y for Yeux. A slight boost to the French vocab is no hardship.

The First Discovery titles Sculpture and Van Gogh (Moonlight Pounds 6.99 each) are for eight-year-olds and upwards, ingeniously designed so that, for example, a Van Gogh cafe lamp shines through a hole in a page to become a Van Gogh harvest sun. Some of the cleverness is misleading, though. The image of Giacometti in CA leisure wear working on a skinny sculpture in a room furnished by Ikea could put people off Giacometti for life.

The graphics pepping up Michelangelo and Van Gogh in the Masters of Art series (MacDonald Pounds 10.99 each) range from the instructive (how to manoeuvre Michelangelo's "David" into the Piazza della Signoria using logs only) to the irrelevant (how the Eiffel Tower happened to be built not all that long after Van Gogh arrived in Paris). Much information and a lively sense of "compare and contrast" surrounds the works themselves, and even though Gauguin puts in an appearance in the scene-setting drawings as more Anthony Quinn than himself, the dramatisations are helpful.

More conventional, succinct and generally sensible, though with less arresting graphics, are An Introduction to Pieter Breugel and An Introduction to Edgar Degas (MacDonald Pounds 8.99 each). Bruegel, particularly, needs explanations. Every detail in the paintings is significant and, unused as we are to pictures composed to be read slowly, inch by inch, we tend to find the process of acclimatising ourselves to a 16th-century pace exasperating.

These books are full of pointers and well-chosen asides. It hardly seems worthwhile, though, to linger over the spelling of BruegelBrueghelBreughel. And it isn't true that Degas spent his last years "wandering around the streets of Paris", but the exaggeration ties in nicely.

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