The Easel

4th December 2018

French art dealers angry after report urges African treasures be returned

Incredibly, “over 90% of the material cultural legacy” of sub-Saharan Africa is held outside Africa, notably in Paris’s Quai Branly Museum. Restitution seems an obvious step but not everyone can see a moral imperative. Some fret about lack of proper care, others think it doesn’t matter where these objects reside: African bronzes, like European art, “are part of the world’s cultural patrimony”.

Who was Su Shi, and why is he so revered within Chinese culture?

China’s Song dynasty was a period of great artistic achievement and some think Su Shi was its “pre-eminent personality of the 11th century”. A master of poetry, painting and calligraphy, he was also a senior scholar in the imperial court – a “proto Renaissance man”. His “gift to art history — the sense of an artist’s inner psychology being appropriate subject matter for art.”

Corot’s Immortal Women

We celebrate Corot for his landscapes. In later life, and more or less in secret, he pursued a sideline – portraits of women. Why he was so reticent is unknown. “Among the most beautiful and underappreciated of the 19th century” says one critic. Degas commented: ““I believe Corot painted a tree better than any of us but still I find him superior in his figures.” More images are here.

Robert Morris, Sculptor and Writer Who Helped Define Postwar Art, Dies at 87

Morris long resisted the idea of living life according to a single narrative. Building dance props led to his famous grey painted plywood sculptures – the start of minimalism. His later work was diverse – felt, music, land art and more. “‘Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience” he commented. An excellent background interview is here.

Fernand Léger: The French artist whose abstract mechanical paintings were called Tubism

The ghastly experiences of WW1 did not dim Léger’s optimism. He expected technology would improve the quality of life. His art perfectly captures this outlook – ‘cylinder figures’, advertising iconography, forward thrust. Not the greatest show, critics think, but one that nonetheless reveals a “trail blazing artist fully engaged with the world around him”. More images are here.

How to Be an Artist

Ostensibly aimed at artists, much of this piece is also interesting to those who only look. Five of Saltz’s tips for being an artist: “Proficiency and dexterity are only as good as what you do with them.” “An object should express ideas [that] should be easy to understand.” “Learn the difference between subject matter and content.” “Find your own voice.” “All art is subjective.”


Nadar was a flamboyant character in 1850’s Paris. Amidst his various antics he focused enough to become photography’s first great portraitist. This exulted reputation is based less on technical innovation than on the psychological dimension of his portraits. The philosopher Roland Barthes called Nadar’s portrait of his wife “one of the loveliest photographs in the world”.

27th November 2018

Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again, Whitney Museum, New York

Its easy to lose sight of Warhol, simply because he is so ubiquitous. This widely praised show focuses on the duality of his life – a gay from macho Pittsburgh; an active Catholic in secular New York; sincere artist and cynical businessman.  He uniquely understood, says the curator, “America’s defining twin desires for innovation and conformity, public visibility and absolute privacy”.

Paul Gauguin, self-conscious outsider, at de Young Museum

Gauguin’s move to Polynesia still puzzles. Was he escaping wife and family, or embracing the primitivism becoming evident in his art? Little in his art indicates much knowledge of the Polynesian culture. If his was a spiritual journey, as a San Francisco show suggests, surely it was more about the fantasy in his middle-aged head than the reality of his tropical destination.

Has the Art Market Reached a Stage of End-Game Nihilism? Kenny Schachter on New York’s $2 Billion Auctions

New York’s November art auctions raised a phenomenal $2bn. This knowledgeable writer details some goings-on. He admits that the huge numbers, the high octane gossip, the sheer excess, can be depressing. “The spiritual content of art is veering to the calibre of profundity of the local brand of toilet paper. Maybe a backlash will soon be underway—I can only hope.”

Balthus: Beyeler honors Klossowski the younger

Is it possible to view Balthus’ paintings without revisiting the recent uproar? A Swiss museum is having a try but it’s a big ask. Balthus protested his innocent motivations, a claim supported by his widow. From his perspective, his dreaming, pre-pubescent girls “dwell forever in a realm secure from the rude intrusion of common mortals”. Still, to look at his works and not wonder is indeed a big ask.

Lorenzo Lotto Portraits review: National Gallery show uncovers a forgotten Renaissance master

To be blunt, Lotto was out-competed in Venice by Titian. Consequently, he mostly worked in Italy’s lesser towns. There, the talent that may have rankled Venice’s great and good could be fully revealed – portraits with great psychological depth. As one critic has noted, “One of the most interesting painters of the Renaissance rather than one of the best.”

20 Years On, It’s Time to Admit Our Rules for Handling Nazi-Looted Art Have Failed

A noble idea – returning artworks stolen by the Nazis – has become “a failure”. Claimants need to establish provenance which can be a “toxic” task. They then face resistant museums keen to hang on to prized works. Even governments are uncooperative because restitution involves “looking into the often unseemly past of nations, and sometimes their heroes”.

Gainsborough’s Family Album review – the powerfully affecting work of a lifetime

Gainsborough liked landscapes but only did society portraits for the money. Portraits of his family were another matter. Advertisements of his capabilities they may have been, but “what is so compelling about these family portraits, seen en masse, is the paradoxical combination of light touch and deep emotion.” More images are here.