MALLARME talked about The Book, a phantom object that would epitomize all the delectation a book can afford, that would speak to the eye, to the mind, to the senses. Most of us share his idealism when it comes to art books. All too often we are disappointed by mere research tools -- dry compendia of details bereft of interpretive intelligence. Intelligence and sensibility, however, radiate from the weighty splendor of Jean Leymarie's book, Balthus (Skira/Rizzoli, $100). Lemarie, one of the most graceful writers on art, presents this aristocratic painter in a format matching the ceremonial style that has gained Balthus a solitary but high positin in the world of modern art. With superb plates to engage the eye, Leymarie places Balthus in the great Western figurative tradition while emphasizing the mysterious contemporary character of Balthus' landscapes and studies of young women in interiors.
Balthus has always been able to bestir high poetic minds: Rilke wrote for him, as did Antonin Artaud. Now Leymarie himself undertakes to show how a modern artist can assimilate tradition and still confound his contemporaries. He discerns Balthus' unique character but wisely says that there is, above historical periods and geographical areas, "a universal and permanent convergence of forms on which mankind bases the principle of harmony and great artists their imperious classicism." Balthus, he reminds us, is mor than a painter of vaguely disturbing scenes of adolescent girls. He is, for instance, a remarkable portraitist who "went back to the magic origin of the human effigy, to its function as a double and a celebration." By touching remote origins, Balthus has been able to establish a style that withstands the pressure of time, even his own. Leymarie's vivid writing always enhances a book. In an introduction to another highly satisfying book -- Drawing: History of an Art, by Genevieve Monnier and Bernice Rose (Skira/Rizzoli, $75) -- Leymarie speaks of Giacometti, who dreamed of a code as strict as the Egyptian or the Byzantine, "but the torment and wonder of line by which he was possessed held him chained, in existential solitude, in the unbridgeable gulf between the eye and its object, to the Ixion's wheel of the unfinished . The fiery wheel revolved, and reality flashed by, in a burst of sparks and cinders."
Like Leymarie, Edward A. Snow in his book, A Study of Vermeer (University of California, $27.50) seeks to evoke the mystery of his subject and to illuminate it with a deeply felt response. Snow breaks with the deadly monographic tradition in which the reader is deluged with facts, and turns back to the belles-lettres tradition, marshalling all his emotional energy for the task. The result is a beautiful essay in which Vermeer emerges as a painter to the eye and mind, but above all, to the deepest sources of emotion. In a discussion of certain of Vermeer's mature works, where he seeks to isolate the "immanence of value," Snow synopsizes his approach, and courageously takes issue with the increasingly pedantic scholarship of Vermeer:
"'Epiphany' may be too violent a term for the gentle stillness of these paintings, yet, here if anywhere, the meaning of life, its affirmative core, is surely revealed. To perceive them as embodying puerile moral lessons that warn against the enticements of worldly pleasure is to mistake the essence of Vermeer."
Still another brilliant interpretive book is Fred Licht's Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art (Universe Books, $16.50) -- a book that fully exposess its subtitle. Licht offers a well-rounded account of Goya's life's work, but concentrates on the deeper issues, confronting problems that other art historians have all too often obscured. He speaks of the strange "black" paintings as characteristic of a modern yearning toward the primitive, "an unshrinking desire to look at everything afresh no matter what the consequences." Goya established the right of the artist to turn away from the false illusions of beauty and truth the market demanded. "To do this," Licht explains, "Goya evolved a new style, a new technique, a new vision, which cannot be measured any longer in accordance with esthetic programs or academic standards but which can be judged only in relation to the high goal that the artist sets himself." After Goya, painters of the modern era consistently rejected given standards, often drawing directly upon Goya's exceptional example. Licht's encompassing study of the sources of Goya's disaffection is an admirable contribution to the understanding of the "modern temper."
On a lesser scale is George Levitine's The Dawn of Bohemianism (Penn State, $18.50), an examination of early-19th-century artists' cults, especially the Barbus, a group of exalted young painters emerging from David's studio with a host of impossible ideals, not the least of which was the same yearning toward the primitive Licht discerned in Goya. Levitine sketches his history of artist stereotypes with a light hand, offering valuable insights into the formation of the modern "alienated" artist. For instance, we learn that long before Rimbaud spoke of the value of such primitive things as singboards (as Apollinaire and Picasso did after him), the writers of the first decade of the 19th century were extolling their value and raising singboard artisans above the painters of the academy. Other modern ideals emerge in the fevered rhetoric of the Barbus, and Levitine is adept at making helpful allusions and setting the stage for the philosophical bohemianism that marked the character of the future modern movements.
Another extremely enlightening study of early modernism is undertaken by Peg Weiss in Kandinsky in Munich (Princeton, $18.50). Kandinsky spent some 18 years in Munich during the most exciting period when Jugendstil emerged and Munich seemed a germinal center for all progressive tendencies in the arts. Weiss explores the cultural milieu in which Kandinsky's pledge to the spirit in art was formed, bringing to light many previously ignored influences and giving a clear exposition of the early theories of abstraction to which he was exposed. As early as 1898, she points out, the architect August Endell was writing tht "there is a art that no one seems to know about: Formart, which bubbles up out of the human soul only through forms, which are like nothing known, that represent nothing and symbolize nothing . . ." She also points to the significance of Stefan George's circle for Kandinsky's early symbolist tendencies, and sketches other movements that almost certainly fed into Kandinsky's final decision to abandon representational art.
Another handsome and effective book clarifying early modern art is German Karginov's Rodchenko (Thames & Hudson, $24.95). The author provides a much-needed service by writing a clear account of the myriad groups and proclamations of the Russian revoluationary period. In the midst of the post-Revolutionary turmoil, Rodchenko emerges as a strong figure, resolutely determined to work in the mode Endell had envisioned. His subsequent turn to cinema, photomontage and propaganda posters is excellently documented.
There is a category of book that addresses only the eye, in which the plates speak for themselves. They must of necessity be well-made and sensitively designed. Such is the case with the modest but elegant album of the strange graphic works and paintings by Hercules Segers, (Braziller, $30), with an introduction by John Rowlands, In it Segers, a contemporary of Rembrandt, emerges as a man of extraordinary artistic vision whose experimental techniques provided a body of exquisite work quite unlike anyone else's.
Among other books in which the plates speak for themselves is a new Abrams series made by the artists themselves. Of these, Arakawa's The Mechanism of Meaning ( $20), in which his wife, Madeline H. Gins, collaborates, is certainly the most piqueing, with its pages of riddles to be unriddled yielding meanings that can hardly be fathomed.
Finally, an invaluable book of the poems and paintings of Isaac Rosenberg -- The Complete Works of Isaac Rosenberg (Oxford, $25) -- a British genius who perished in the First World War, is a model of rectitude. The introduction and notes by Ian Parsons illuminate not only Rosenberg's brief but intense life and work, but the entire cultural spectrum in Britain just before and during the Great War.