The Easel

20th February 2024

He toiled in obscurity – but now Saul Leiter is recognised as a true photography pioneer

Leiter was exploring colour photography decades before William Eggleston came along. Alongside the occasional fashion assignment, the unambitious Leiter devoted decades to taking images of his New York neighbourhood, They reveal a slightly abstract and oddly tranquil view of its streets, says one writer, “less social commentary and more about the beauty of urban life”. Leiter admitted that he “aspired to be unimportant”. Says this writer “poignantly beautiful work …a great photographer”. Images are here.

Choose Your Own Adventure

It’s hard to see past Ono’s fame and mythology and look dispassionately at her decades-long work.  Prior to the “John-and-Yoko” years, she produced deceptively simple but engaging ideas. Her Cut Piece performance and 200 bottoms video are but two examples of her conceptual and ‘participation’ art that one critic says “combine poetry, whimsy, humour and razor-sharp intelligence”. Said she, “By actively inserting a useless act … into everyday life, perhaps I can delay culture.” Images are here.

‘Africa & Byzantium’ at the MET: A Stunning Look at One of History’s Overlooked Stories

The last configuration of the Roman empire – the Byzantine empire –  ruled the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Scholars debate much of its complicated history but all agree it should be less Euro-centric. In particular, art produced in northern Africa was distinguished and influential. One critic, whose review is somewhat more sceptical than the linked piece, calls the show “a fantastic achievement”. The writer agrees – this show “is incredibly important to art history”.

Meet the Mannerists — a forgotten movement that gave us wild, sexy art

The Renaissance represented the triumph of reason. But Michelangelo, for one, has such “pictorial energy” that he started forgetting Renaissance good manners – think sexy angels and bright colours on the Sistene ceiling. His Mannerist followers explored zingy colours and distorted perspective, producing great, psychologically intense portraiture. Mannerism faded by 1590, when Europe’s monarchs decided they wanted flattery in their portraits, not therapy. Its legacy was the makings of baroque excitableness.

Who painted the first still life?

Still life paintings go back millennia – the ancient Romans painted fruit, and Tang dynasty artists painted bird-and-flower scrolls. Europe joined in in the early part of the Northern Renaissance. Flowers started appearing in paintings on canvas, as opposed to being wall or door decorations. Further, they started being the main subject matter, instead of merely lesser details in architectural settings. These still life works finally assumed a recognisably modern form around 1560.

13th February 2024

Emily Kam Kngwarray

Kngwarray’s back story is the stuff of legend. Living in a remote community, she was introduced to painting on canvas in her late 70’s. Despite being unaware of the Western art canon, her work instantly bore a resemblance to abstract expressionism. This poses many difficulties for artistic analysis, not the least of which is that Kngwarray’s work makes the concept of “outsider art” seem ridiculous. “The sheer beauty and spiritual power of the works that is so difficult to describe [is] consistently incredible.

Frank Auerbach, The Charcoal Heads: there’s a raw, vital power behind these haunted faces

Auerbach famously paints by repeatedly scraping off each day’s efforts and starting again. Likewise, his postwar charcoal drawings were drawn and erased so often that he sometimes wore through the paper. The images are intense – “unsmiling, stoic troglodytes, with downcast eyes”. Says one writer “We carry the marks of our experience in the flesh, and that’s what’s on these sheets of ripped paper: the battered, bruised and broken signs that somehow, despite it all, we’re still here.”

Barbara Kruger Is Still Flipping the Bird

Kruger’s work was once described as a “long exercise in preaching to the choir”. Whether or not that was true, no-one is saying it about this show. Her aphorisms are as sharp as ever and the show “pummels” viewers with words and images. Says one writer, “if you could package social media into a room, this would be it”. This is twentieth century art, “over-explaining and oversharing [reflecting the] desperate urge to be understood in a clamorous, look-at-me-please world.” A backgrounder is here.

Elephants, Gods, and Kings of India Claim a Corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hodgkin, the acclaimed abstract British artist, assembled a world class collection of Indian court paintings. Specialists delight in their portrayal of the subtleties of Indian life in the Mughal court, painted around the same time Vermeer was active. They are products of “one of the world’s great pictorial traditions”. And for non-specialist viewers? Well, there are the elephants. They are spectacular, “painted with the nuances that Europeans applied to ladies and landscapes”. Images are here.

Entangled Pasts 1978-Now, Royal Academy, review: An extraordinary achievement

London’s Royal Academy carefully admits in a show that slavery is a part of its history. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is pleased. One critic calls it an “act of public self-flagellation … [showing] old paintings the RA is so clearly ashamed of”. The writer differs. The show in parts is “unexpectedly magnificent” and the “historic picture that emerges melds horror and hope. It lets the art have its own voice: this is very strong stuff” An excellent essay on power and clothing is here.

Between Risk and Control: How Mark Rothko Discovered His Signature Style

A Washington show has renewed interest in Rothko’s watercolours that preceded his colour field works in oils. Although having an “obvious facility” with this medium, these early works hint at his future abstractions – faces are reduced to blank masks while background details are “more confident”. In one show where he included both watercolours and oils, the former received greater praise. Rothko, though, had his sights set on oils and, for the next decade, exhibited nothing else.

National Gallery should scrap 1900 cut-off date, says art expert

London’s National Gallery collects works pre-1900 while later works go to the Tate. This arrangement should be scrapped, says a curator. Many contemporary artists take inspiration from long-dead artists. How can museumgoers understand their work if it cannot be seen next to the works that inspired it? That argument also works in reverse – today’s art helps explain the relevance of old work. New York’s Met is gradually making such a change.