The Easel

21st November 2017

Why Would Anyone Pay $450 Million for the ‘Salvator Mundi’? Because They’re Not Buying the Painting

Before reading the story, watch this video clip of the auction (7 min). It really is something! One expert hailed the sale as vindication of the Old Masters market. True, but surely it’s a bigger deal than that. “It’s like taking your dog out for its regular morning walk only for it to be snatched off the street by a pterodactyl. This was not just an acquisition. This was arguably the greatest socioeconomic flex the arts have ever seen”.

What You’ll See in the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Billion-Dollar Art Collection

Some Middle Eastern countries are looking to a future beyond oil. Abu Dhabi plans to create a cultural hub with several major art museums. Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first to open, houses a decade’s worth of aggressive buying.  Controversy lingers over use of the Louvre brand and treatment of construction workers, though there is no argument over the gorgeous architecture or the art. More images are here.

How Modigliani’s Jewishness Informed His Art

An exhibition of Modigliani’s drawings focuses on the issue of identity. When he moved to Paris, Modigliani encountered anti-Semitism for the first time. This experience changed his art. Subsequent portraits of friends “conveyed … a degree of masklike opacity. In the artist’s late paintings, there are those who see, those who do not see, and those who cannot be seen or known.” More images are here.

Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline

Meiselas has earned a stellar reputation for her coverage of strife-torn countries, especially in Central America. At times this has put her in risky situations – “the camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong.” On the occasion of a new book about her career one critic enthuses “news raised to the level of art, and art transformed into elements of history”. More images and background is here.

Vision Quest: The Berkshire Museum Will Stop at Nothing to Sell Its Art, Including a Masterpiece by Norman Rockwell

Plans by the Berkshire Museum to sell the cream of its art collection (covered in an August newsletter) has been halted by the courts. Everyone agrees, in principle, that deaccessioning can occur – but should this apply to the best works in a collection? What if a museum faces a “donor drought”? As this admirably balanced writer observes “deaccessioning … cuts to core issues about the public trust and nonprofit stewardship”.

Carolee Schneemann Finally Gets Her Due

Carolee Schneemann is not your average painter. Often referred to as a “first generation feminist artist”, she has long focused on how men and women view their bodies differently. She commonly appeared nude in her early works in order to present the female body as other than the object of male desire. After decades of critical disapproval, this year’s Venice Biennale recognized her with its lifetime achievement award.

Face to face with Murillo at the Frick

Just over a dozen of Murillo’s portraits survive, a handful of which are on show in New York. They are celebrated for their lively, naturalistic style. Included are two self-portraits – intended as advertisements of artistic prowess. One shows him young and in his pomp; the second as a weary single parent. Technical virtuosity is evident in both but the older image has a rarer quality – truthfulness. An excellent video is here.

31st October 2017

EASEL ESSAY Alexander Calder and the Optimism of Modernism: Jed Perl in Conversation with Morgan Meis

In the view of renowned US author and critic Jed Perl, Alexander Calder remains America’s greatest sculptor. Easel Contributing Editor Morgan Meis recently talked to Perl about his biography of Calder (“Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940″) the first volume of which has just been published.

“When so many emigres arrived from Europe – artists, writers – the Calders were the go-to people even for those they didn’t already know… In a larger metaphoric sense that is part of what mobiles are about. The Calders loved dancing. On New Year’s Eve, the Calders would entertain their friends at their house in Roxbury, Connecticut, and they would all still be dancing wildly in the early hours. You can see the connection between that social dancing and the idea of a mobile. Mobiles are about a sense of community, a sense of connectedness, the relations between people, the way parts go together.”

Image: Alexander Calder Vertical Foliage, 1941 © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

How Cezanne rescued the portrait: the UK’s exhibition of the year

Isolated in Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne struggled to express in paint what he truly saw. This quest impacted his portraits just as much as his famed landscapes. Early youthful romanticism give way to later exuberant use of colour. And then came his multiple portraits of his wife, “by turns casual and straightforward, stylised into flattened shapes … complex and dissonant”. Beyond this “painterly evolution” lay the path to modern art.

Sleeping By The Mississippi

As a young photographer with “nothing to lose” Soth did a road trip down the Mississippi. The resultant book, just re-printed, is regarded as one of the “great representations of the United States”.  “Charles – with his aviation gear and model airplanes – represents a “humble search for creative exploration”. Sleeping by the Mississippi, [is] a lyrical way of moving through the world that hints at sleep and dreams.”

Murakami Deftly Modernizes Japanese Art in MFA Exhibit

A new perspective on the puzzle that is Murakami. Eccentric humour is a long standing tradition in Japanese art. Boston’s MFA is using its collection of historic Japanese masterpieces to place Murakami squarely within this tradition. Criticism of Murakami – that his art is too decorative – perhaps fails to take account of these foundations. The curator notes “He said to me, ‘There’s a need for play. It’s just fun.’” A video (2 min) is here.

Saul Steinberg’s View of the World

Steinberg aimed to draw like a child. Easier said than done over a decades-long career. Magazine drawings, which brought fame, ran in parallel with a diverse artistic career that ignored boundaries. Steinberg was aware of the category confusion – his self-description was “a writer who draws”. And his description of his work also had a certain innocence: “[my hand explains] to myself what goes on in my mind.” More images are here.

Image: Saul Steinberg Foundation

Body shock: the intense art and anguish of sculptor Alina Szapocznikow

An interesting bio piece. Having somehow survived both ghetto and concentration camp Szapocznikow abruptly trained as a sculptor. The works that eventuated focused on the “fragile and abject” human body – frequently using casts of her own body. Despite being a notable art world figure in Paris and Warsaw, Szapocznikow faded from memory outside her native Poland. Now sustained resurgence in interest is underway.

The meaty essence of humanity – Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys review

Some critics think Soutine’s portraits of hospitality staff reflect a concern for others. This writer is unconvinced. Soutine was indifferent to anything outside his own emotions – “these people are meat for his artistic vision.”  What is not in doubt is that his extraordinary, raw, portraits have been highly influential among artists, acclaimed by Willem de Kooning, Lucien Freud and more. More images are here.