The Easel

26th February 2019

Don McCullin talks war and peace

Few exhibitions get called ‘magnificent’. McCullin modestly doesn’t think himself an artist, even though Henri Cartier-Bresson likened his work to Goya.  The curator has no doubt. “[McCullin] was always doing things that you wouldn’t consider photojournalism. If you take the most historic notion of genres in art, [portraiture, landscapes] he was always engaged in that”. A good video (4 min) is here.

Sarah Lucas discusses the work of revolutionary sculptor Franz West

West’s art might look simple but explanations don’t come easily. He grew up in fraught, post-war Austria and saw the nihilistic work of the Viennese Actionists. So serious! In contrast his work is “ludicrously playful”, joyous, the antithesis of pompous. Still, it does convey a serious endeavor – perhaps to capture “where clumsiness becomes elegance”. A short intro video (3 min) here.

What Ghosts Haunt Jasper Johns’s New Skeleton Paintings? We May Never Know (and That’s the Point)

Reviewers of Johns’ new show approach it as a puzzle to be solved, undeterred by his long-standing reluctance to help with interpretation. Mortality seems a preoccupation of the octogenarian artist (no surprise) but is that it? “What is the meaning of all this meaning? You mainly end up finding symbols that are symbols of other symbols.”  A good bio piece is here.

Bauhaus designers changed the way the world looks. But did they make it better?

An interesting companion piece to the item on British design. Some think Bauhaus the most important design aesthetic ever. Perhaps so, given how it oriented design around functional need. It is now accused of giving us “buildings of unparalleled ugliness, blighting urban environments worldwide. Behind the Bauhaus’s admirable idealism, you sense a kind of disgust with difference”.

Is Modernity Destined To Destroy Beauty?

Britain’s Building Commission wants developments that foster a sense of community. Modernist design, says the Commission’s head, gives us “structures [that] remake somewhere as anywhere, and therefore as nowhere.” Although this might be viewed as “nostalgia” we seem to have “completely forgotten the merits of aesthetics. [T]he vast majority of us are living in the midst of the non-beautiful.”

How Laurie Simmons’ Photographs Opened Our Eyes

How much of what we see is real, how much cultural myth? Throughout her career Simmons has used props, dolls and makeup to create images of domestic tableaux. “I knew that I wanted to stay in my studio and tell a certain kind of lie, to create a kind of ambiguity”. The linked piece covers her career highlights while a piece that delves into Simmons’ outlook is here.

Painstakingly perfect and utterly peculiar – the drawings of Jean-Jacques Lequeu

If your building designs verge on the madcap, are you an architect? That is the conundrum that is Lequeu. Contemporary tags (“proto-Surrealist”) seem ill-fitting yet so too is the descriptor French classicism. Are his drawings any more than a “psychotic mélange”. Are they “knowing pastiches of architectural culture, or the expression of obscure private obsessions?”

19th February 2019

All the Rembrandts review – human chaos made glorious

The self as uniquely human, rather than a divine creation, was a Renaissance idea. Rembrandt seized on it with gusto. His iconic The Night Watch is not a dignified civic portrait but a “celebration of the mixed stuff of humanity“. His self-portraits, displaying plainly the impact of bereavement and misfortune, show “incomparable emotional intelligence … his lust for life sings across the centuries.”

Joan Semmel

A career recapitulation, of sorts. Early on, Semmel decided to paint “images that were erotic for women … reimagining the nude without objectifying the person”. For decades she has done just that, mostly painting herself, undaunted by the visible impact of ageing. She is a “rapturous colourist”, adept at showing “the carnal nature of paint. She is the anti-muse.”

Robert Ryman, Relentlessly Inventive Abstract Painter, Is Dead at 88

What interested Ryman was the physical reality of an artwork – materials, surface, surroundings. His characteristic use of white paint was simply a way to minimize distractions. Reviewing his prodigious and influential output is like “taking the same commuter train over and over again but never having the same experience twice—and never actually reaching a destination.”

Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion

Don’t expect Attia’s “post-colonial” art to fixate on power politics. He is more interested in the emotional differences between cultures. One of his preoccupations is with what it means to repair. The Western ideal is to erase all signs of injury whereas traditional cultures make no attempt at concealment. “One acknowledges the passing of time, and the other one aims to deny the effects of time.”

The Duel: Has modern architecture ruined Britain?

Can modern architecture improve the aesthetics of heritage-rich towns? No, says one writer; modern design “reduce[s] the infinitely adaptable languages of real architecture to an impoverished vocabulary of monosyllabic grunts.” Protests another – “skyscrapers change the skyline, as … did Victorian town halls. Any language sounds like “grunts” until you listen.”

Florence Knoll Bassett, designer of the modern American office, dies

Orphaned at age 12 Knoll Bassett was then “practically adopted” by Finnish architect Eriel Saarinen. After training in architecture she transformed Knoll, the furniture company, by introducing architectural ideas into office design. Knoll became a “global powerhouse” of modernist design. She often stated “I am not a decorator”. More images are here.

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, Hayward Gallery

Is Arbus’s photography sympathetic or voyeuristic? Her friends thought her “hugely empathetic”, an impression also conveyed by a show of her early work. Sentimental, though, she was not. Just like her celebrated later work, her early images support the view that Arbus is among the greatest of twentieth century photographers, “prescient [for her] acceptance of difference.”