Edifying, yes. But also just really cool.


The Daumier exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. (Rob Shelley)

Oy, it’s been a year. We’re beleaguered. Beaten up. Depressed by the economy, distressed by political dithering, swirled by tornadoes, slammed by hurricanes, shaken by earthquakes. Things must have been better, once — when we were blithely pre-supercommittee, pre-Sandusky, pre-Occupied. Right now we’re on our way to a blue Christmas even Elvis wouldn’t want to sing about.

But there’s unsurpassing joy in giving — and this year, more than ever, the best thing to give is joy itself. Where better to find it than in music, art, books and movies that transport us to sublime heights the real world can’t?We asked our critics for suggestions of bonbons from the worlds of pop culture and art, and they responded with gift ideas guaranteed to provide a flush of sensory pleasure, a glow of humanistic compassion — heck, maybe just an honest laugh.

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Daumier’s caricatures

Feel like you’ve been getting a little pompous of late? Not aging so gracefully? Worried about your legacy in the long hereafter? The best free schadenfreude in town is at the National Gallery of Art, where a collection of 36 cast brass caricatures of idiot politicians and other leaders is on permanent display. If you know someone who hasn’t seen it, take them. It’s a lasting gift.

Honore Daumier’s rogues gallery of French celebrities, made originally of clay in the early 1830s, will make almost anyone feel better about him- or herself. It functioned as a kind of private zoo, providing caricaturists with models from which to create two-dimensional drawings. They have more chins than Jabba the Hut, noses that would defy even the most radical rhinoplasty, and a general air of stupidity, arrogance, smugness and conceit. You’d need a heart of stone not to feel joyfully superior to these repellent men.

The National Gallery has a complete set, cast between 1929 and 1951. Although the men depicted were all prominent figures in France during the 1830s and 1840s, they are now mostly forgotten while Daumier’s brutal caricatures live on.

Haydn’s joyous masterpiece

Franz Josef Haydn, a deeply religious man, put a year and a half into the creation of “The Creation,” his joyous late masterpiece, which recounts the Judeo-Christian origins of the world. Only the irredeemably wicked deserve to be without a recording of this bubbly work of genius.

It is relentlessly high-spirited, delicious and full of imaginative orchestration and infectious melody. Just as the dark clouds of its opening pages, a musical picture of the chaos that reigned before God said “Let there be light,” are dispelled by a burst of sunny C major splendor, so too “The Creation” is a balm for any dark mood, no matter how distressed, distracted or depressed.

The tone painting is laugh-out-loud funny; birds, bees and slithery things are represented in sounds that still reduce audiences to giggles. The palpable joy in the newly made world is present in every word, and its prelapsarian perfection is an early foray into the aesthetics of things green, uncorrupted and environmental.

It’s been well represented on recordings. If you want sonic grandeur and spectacle, go for Herbert Von Karajan’s 1966 version with Fritz Wunderlich, or Sir Georg Solti’s recording from 1995 with a young Rene Pape. Fans of historically alert performances will enjoy versions by the Gabrieli Consort or Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music.

A classic work of history

The great art historian Ernst Gombrich is remembered by most people for his “Story of Art,” a classic young-adult introduction to the subject. But before he immigrated to London in 1936, he wrote another children’s book, a history of the world in one volume. First published in English in 2005, it has now been reissued in a small but sumptuously illustrated volume from Yale University Press.

“A Little History of the World” is perfect for reading to alert and curious children, but it’s even better as a secret pleasure, read alone, with no children in sight. The author addresses the reader directly in simple, crystalline prose. It’s a bit singsong sometimes, but it is strangely comforting.

It’s a fantasy, of course, that one can encompass the world in one volume, and Gombrich knew that. But the author was surprisingly wide-ranging in his efforts, and while the book would need serious tweaking to pass muster as an approved school text today — it could be more inclusive, and the scholarship is sometimes out of date — it gives one a pleasantly synoptic view of several thousand years of human striving, conflict and accomplishment. It’s not often, in our wired, cluttered and fast-paced world, that we feel we have a comprehensive view of anything. Gombrich offers you just that illusion, and it’s no sin to enjoy it.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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