The Easel

5th December 2023

A chance to be involved!

Earlier this year The Browser published a letter by its founder, Robert Cottrell, riffing on views expressed by its readers. It was such a good idea that Morgan Meis and I have decided to borrow it. A click on the title above will take you to a page on the Easel website that lists some arty topics on which we would like to hear from you. Please email your comments/questions/views to me, the editor, at Morgan will take your thoughts and comments and, together with his musings on 2023, write a not-too-serious essay that will appear at the start of 2024. Enjoy!

How Paris’s Once-in-a-Lifetime Mark Rothko Exhibition Changes the Way We See His Revered Paintings

Naomi Rea, Artnet news: November 1, 2023

Before WW2 Rothko was a figurative painter, but the carnage of war led him to dabble with surrealism. Finally, in 1949 he produced his spiritually inspired “multi-forms”. At the time, one writer felt they had “a yearning vacancy, a sense of waiting for an epiphany that never comes.” A blockbuster Paris show includes 70 of these popular works, “chromatic harmonies of saturated yellows and reds, but also pinks, purples, and blues”. Yes, they have an immersive beauty but are also “perforated with existential angst”.

The DMA presents a must-see retrospective of groundbreaking Mexican artist Abraham Ángel

Are Rivera and Kahlo the sum total of post-revolution Mexican art? It seems not. A decade after the 1910 revolution, Mexican art was trying to articulate a modern national identity. A country boy who then moved to Mexico City, Ángel produced just 24 paintings yet is now acclaimed as an important voice of that generation. Ángel’s unusually assured portraits are a contemporary answer to that question of identity. Says a curator “he should be seen as important as Rivera, Orozco, or Kahlo.” Images are here.

Nan Goldin has been named number one in the Art Review Power 100 – quite right too

You should take ArtReview’s annual Power100 list with a pinch of salt. About 40 “secret” panellists opine on who most influences the art world’s choices about what is made and seen. Both subjective and of its moment, it includes familiar movers-and-shakers as well as new names from outside the “European – North American axis”. Nan Goldin wins the gold star for her activism against tainted philanthropy. Social activism and money seem the key common denominators. Art critics – nowhere!

On Frans Hals

Unlike a recent piece on Hals (September 19) this one has a more intimate focus on the artist and his work. Hals had a happy, “devil-may-care” attitude and was given to painting “louder and more flamboyant” works that his Delft contemporaries. He had a “quickfire” style of working but “his comprehension of heads and hands … was consummate”. And those rumours about boozing? “It feels unmistakable to me: beer and chasers, this exhibition fairly reeks of them”.

Elliott Erwitt: Legendary photographer dies aged 95

Erwitt loved photographing dogs and lovers – rather quirky tastes for a fine art photographer. Yet he brought such wit and charm to those images that he was still invited into the fabled Magnum collective. He didn’t have an intellectual approach to photography, just an ability to see rigorous compositions in the passing parade of life. So, why dogs? “Dogs are people with more hair.” Images are here.

Impressionists on Paper: Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec @ the Royal Academy

Impressionist drawings – just another Impressionist crowd pleaser? Surprisingly, this London show offers more.  Art materials technology developed greatly in the 1860’s – better paper, more colours in tubes and crayons. These innovations brought artists outdoors and elevated drawing’s status as a medium. Inevitably, the critics also roll out familiar Impressionist critiques. One notes that Renoir on paper is still “bland” and Degas is still “an old perv”. Yet, even on paper, the magic of that group is still there.

Why a Caspar David Friedrich sketchbook cannot leave Germany

The German Romantics, prominent from about 1800, were a fervent lot. Friedrich’s landscapes are full of their allegories about Nature and the Sublime. Still, it’s all a bit vague. For example, do trees in his landscapes represent Germany or are they an embodiment of God? Goethe, sitting on the fence, called his work “religiously patriotic”. From about 1830, Friedrich’s popularity waned but his minimal, evocative compositions are still influential. Rothko apparently shared his desire for a “view of the infinite”.

28th November 2023

Drip Painting Was Actually Invented by a Ukrainian Grandmother… Not Jackson Pollock

There are multiple angles to this story. It sets the record straight that the first person to use drip painting was Janet Sobel. Jackson Pollock saw her work and copied it. It acknowledges that the person who comes up with an idea isn’t always the person who best exploits it. What it doesn’t mention is Pollock’s supporting cast, notably his artist wife Lee Krasner, and Clement Greenberg the pre-eminent critic of the day. They helped carry Pollock’s self-doubt, especially when he painted duds. Sobel had no-one.

Botticelli Drawings offers visitors a new look at an Old Master

Paintings such as The Birth of Venus make Botticelli one of the great humanist painters of the Renaissance. His drawings get less attention because they are few and fragile. Yet it seems that drawing – especially of the figure – was “central” to all his works. It was where he worked out “new ideals of male and female beauty … how to convincingly model the face.” And that matters because, as one writer puts it,  “the face is the central focus of Western painting, and its central challenge.”

Larry Fink, photographer of the American Society, dies at 82

Fink’s mother, a partygoer, raised him as a communist. What endured from that upbringing was a non-hierarchical view of the world. Early photography of families drawn from hardscrabble America was notable, but greater acclaim came as a celebrity photographer. His images of the famous partying showed a knack for revealing portraits that tell a story. He observed “you wouldn’t think of fashion as a world full of violence, but it is … the violence of obsolescence”. More images are here.

History’s most famous pot: the Meidias hydria

This hydria – a Greek water jar – arrived in Enlightenment London when the locals were potty over ancient Greece aesthetics. Its decorations depict Athenian gods and heroes enjoying the company of the young and beautiful. When it was manufactured (around 420BC), Athens was in a long war with Sparta. The decorations, although an escapist fantasy, are notable because they extolled concepts like love and health. Most likely the pot was exported to Italy where it became a burial object.

El Greco dialogues with Picasso: The new life of the European Paintings collection at the Met in New York

The New York Met has re-opened its 45 European Galleries. With over 700 artworks, it is one of the world’s most complete collections of Western art from 1300 to 1800. So, what’s changed? More female artists are present. The lines of influence between artists are clearer. Several Picassos are seen in a room dedicated to El Greco. A Francis Bacon work is placed near Renaissance-era Madonnas. And Dali can be found next to Spanish religious art. It adds up to a big, new-ish story: Europe as “a cultural concept”.

Benjamin Moser on What We Can Learn from Failed Dutch Painters

Moser, having written a book on Dutch ‘golden age’ art, considers why artworks are often not successful. Some artists have no foresight of what others will like. Sometimes fashions change. Some transgress the fine line between frankness and the distasteful. Perhaps good art needs “the expression of excited passion”? Perhaps artists are simply trying to create one great work that will endure. If they do, perhaps inadequacies such as these are forgiven.

Picasso on Stein

An elegant essay. Gertrude Stein’s Saturday salons attracted avant garde Paris, including Picasso. He offered to paint Stein’s portrait and 80 sittings later, it was done. Its fame rests partly on Stein’s literary reputation and her attachment to the painting. As an artwork, its mask-like face marks Picasso’s turn away from his ‘rose period’ and towards cubism. Ambitiously, Stein saw the work as embodying efforts by each of them “to kill the nineteenth century”.