The Easel

21st December 2021


Few, I imagine, will be sad to see the end of 2021. Signs that the pandemic is behind us have mostly come to nothing. The lifeblood of the art world – innovative displays of thought-provoking art – is far from back to normal. Producing a weekly newsletter has, to put it mildly, been challenging.

This is the year’s last regular newsletter. Next Tuesday, and the Tuesday after, we will highlight the year’s most popular stories among Easel subscribers. After a break of a few weeks, the Easel will resume on Tuesday January 25, 2022.

I hope you have enjoyed the year’s reading.

Season’s greetings,

What Will Art Look Like in the Metaverse?

A call to action. Facebook’s promotional videos for its new corporate entity, Meta, use famous art images extensively. Why use art? Perhaps Facebook/Meta wants to be “a platform for creative self-expression” and thus define the coming ‘metaverse’ – whatever that will turn out to be. Artists have long expressed new ways of seeing the world. They should more actively exploit current technologies to do this for the metaverse, rather than leaving it to “technologists.”

Life Between Islands, Tate Britain, review: an exhilarating, ambitious look at the British Caribbean story

Immigrants from the Caribbean arrived in a post-war Britain that was reluctant to accept them. A show of British-Caribbean art belatedly acknowledges their “massive” impact on British culture. Whatever “British-Caribbean” means, it covers a diverse group of artists, making the show “baggy, rowdy … full of competing voices”. Socio-political overtones do not drown out a “celebratory Caribbean aesthetic”. Says one writer “it makes you damn grateful for immigration.”

Pritzker Prize winner Richard Rogers dies at 88

When their plan for the Pompidou Centre was announced, Rodgers (and co-designer Renzo Piano) were booed. Once built, its radical design proved massively popular and showed how cultural architecture could spearhead urban regeneration. A pioneer of hi-tech, “inside out” buildings, Rodgers was also a “a tireless supporter of the compact, sustainable, pedestrian-friendly city”. Rodgers discusses two of his buildings here.

Conservative Backlash Erupts Over Notre Dame’s Restoration

Restoration of Notre Dame cathedral is a flashpoint for ‘modernists’ and ‘conservatives’. Conservatives won the first battle – the exterior will replicate what was there before. Now, proposed modern interior lighting and better space usage have produced claims of a “woke Disney revamp” that poses a “crisis of personality” for the building. Sighs one writer, it’s a case of “performative outrage” versus a “benign reality”. The interior design was approved last week.

Hélène Binet’s architectural photography celebrated in Royal Academy show

Architectural photography worries architects, because images may define a building in a way inconsistent with their vision.  In Binet’s case, she has the eye to define “the place where the building is made” and let that imply the rest of the structure.  That’s more easily said than done, as it requires striking a balance between one detail and the complexity of the whole structure. Says one architect, Binet shows the “luminosity of texture … and the enigma of presence”. Images are here.

By Her Hand: Personal Thoughts and Reflections on an Exhibition

A new book about early art history shows how including female artists enriches the story. Up to about 1800, women artists were not as rare as is often thought. However, one has to look in different places to find their output – more miniature portraits, few grand “history” paintings. Their output was somewhat more sporadic as they toggled between part time and full time painting. Artemisia Gentilischi is the star of a current exhibition but the whole lineage, says one critic, calls for a re-think of what it means to be great.

14th December 2021

The Neglected Afterlife of the Great Georges Braque

Braque co-invented cubism and was the first modern artist given a show at the Louvre. Why is his profile so low? He was “a swimmer against the currents”, someone without the gift of self-promotion. Notes one critic he “”did not paint “look at me” but “here it is””. For a profile of this artist, none is better than the beautiful essay by Picasso’s biographer. Braque had a “zenlike spirituality … [on visiting his studio] I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting.”

Van Gogh Experiences: Immersive Art in the COVID Era

“Immersive Van Gogh” is a multimedia extravaganza of “projected visuals, animation, music [and] sound.” Such productions “are not art”, protests one museum director, “they are entertainment”, reflecting a view that beauty should not be judged on the basis of “primitive physical pleasure”. This logic has contributed to the elitism and “inhospitable gatekeeping” many associate with museums. The writer’s verdict – “It was … ideologically suspect in numerous ways, and — I won’t lie — I loved it.”

Francesca Woodman: The eerie images of a teenage genius

Genius can announce itself early. In Woodman’s case, even as a teenager she was creating images of “sophistication and deliberation”. Critical discussion of her work has tended to obsess over her early death. Work newly released from her estate shows “just the right balance between control and improvisational freedom. Whatever Woodman’s photographs evoke … it’s not remotely straightforward”. A backgrounder by a former classmate is here.

In Moscow, a new arts centre to brush up Russia’s image

Hot on the heels of Hong Kong’s M+ museum comes the opening of the huge GES-2 contemporary art centre in Moscow. It has the glamour location – a former power station renovated at vast expense – and financial backing to be a major international art venue. Such an institution may burnish Russia’s reputation, but this report states the obvious – the potential conflict between a vibrant art sector and censorship. Says one local, “It looks like schizophrenia.” Images are here.

Lubaina Himid, Tate Modern, review: Rich, involving works with a political kick

This retrospective is, everyone agrees, well overdue. Why then is there a tone of expectations unfulfilled? The themes of Himid’s career emerge clearly – colonialism, our unequal present. Her painterly skills, wit and clever use of materials – the things that have made her so influential – make many works “great”. As a show, though, it is “rather baggy and lacks focus”. Or, as one critic says, the show “is about as dangerous as a painting of a hammer. It doesn’t escape from art into life.”

The Hot Market for Toppled Confederate Statues

Last year, US cities removed over 90 Confederate statues. It turns out that they are in considerable demand. Some become accoutrement – golf course decorations – or are melted down. Others, more interestingly, are wanted by curators precisely because of their odious symbolism – the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. They are being sought for use in juxtaposition to black contemporary art. Even after demolishing the object work is still needed to demolish the idea.

Best art books of 2021

An offering for those desperate for Xmas gift ideas. A partial list of lists is: Bookforum, Five Books, The Guardian, and Christie’s. No single book predominates, not even John Richardson’s Picasso biography, perhaps reflecting how that artist’s once exalted status is deflating. Besides books covering specific exhibitions, there are multiple publications covering women and artists of colour who have previously been ignored. A listing of coffee table-type books is here.