The Easel

3rd December 2019

Anselm Kiefer, White Cube, review: not quite touching the void.

Kiefer’s art has long reflected his struggle with Germany’s Nazi past. His latest show refers to physics’ string theory. Perhaps he has moved on? Some critics discuss his new “frightening”, “genuinely exciting” works from this new perspective. This writer reasons otherwise. Were these paintings about physics “they would be energetic but confused. But they are too potent … These, I think, are still pictures of history, pictures of guilt.”

André Kertész : Walking in the picture

Even ahead of Cartier-Bresson, Kertész was the pioneer of modern photography.  His innovations included street photography, photo essays and photojournalism. After becoming prominent in Paris, a 1936 move to New York led to career doldrums until “rediscovery” in 1964. Kertész’ revered work was uniformly brilliant, “a very personal and gentle curiosity about the moment.” Video (5 min) and images are here.

Why Video Is the Art Form of the Moment

Calling video the “art form of the moment” is probably over-stating it. Still, something is happening. Critical recognition is getting easier for video artists, judging by recent Turner Prize nominees. Collectors are still cautious – that may well change now that museums are more actively collecting.  New digital technologies are allowing the creation of immersive, interactive environments, a possible future competitor to the cinema.

At the deCordova, unearthing a connection with the “beautiful and frightening flow of water”

Land art doesn’t get much attention. The classic work of the genre is probably Robert Smithson’s 1970 Spiral Jetty, a meditation on man’s relationship to the environment. Andy Goldsworthy is an eminent current land artist. His latest piece focuses on the relentless power of water. “[His] work, to me, has always been about letting go – accepting that for all our hallmarks of progress, we’re both temporary and vulnerable”.

Putting the Art Back in Art History

Art history provides context. The Renaissance writer Giorgio Vasari assessed artworks against absolute standards of quality. By the nineteenth century assessments became relative – how well an artwork expressed the culture of its day. What about today’s wildly varied art? “Impossible for art history to grasp”, says one art historian. The above writer is phlegmatic – our times are “more ordinary” than we might think.

Venice is flooding — what lies ahead for its cultural and historical sites?

Bleak reading. Recent flooding significantly damaged Venice’s cultural treasures and portends a parlous future. Salt, when it crystallizes, is a major threat to all masonry materials. Frescoes, in particular, are almost impossible to protect. Climate change is expected to make things progressively worse. To top it off, there is a view that what inundation does not destroy, massive tourist numbers will.

“John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal” at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Sargent’s oil portraits brought him fame and fortune, but they took work. By 1907, after more than a thousand of them, he had had enough. Charcoal drawings were a compromise – single sitting pieces that would mollify insistent clients. Quick these pieces may have been, but they are portraiture “at its finest … [that] discloses and elaborates upon the human spirit.” More images are here.

26th November 2019

Troy: Will Gompertz reviews the British Museum’s new blockbuster show

Why do stories about Troy have such enduring resonance? The ancient city of Troy probably existed. Fictional Paris abducted possibly fictional Helen (antiquity’s hottest babe), leading to the (unlikely) 10 year Trojan War. All this is recorded by the mysterious Homer in The Iliad. What gives the tale its enduring appeal are its powerful personalities, epic emotions and, above all, the futility of war.

Grave hopping with Gilbert & George

Gilbert and George revel in the confrontational. Dressed in immaculate tweed suits, they started as a living sculpture (“two people, one artist”) straight out of art school. Since then their art has become “more extreme” – difficult subjects, brash images, profanities. They feel unloved by the art world, perhaps happily so. “If we saw more art, more artists, we’d become normal. We don’t want to be normal like them”.

Annie Leibovitz: “I’m just a photographer”

Leibovitz is one of the eminent photographers of our age. How does she describe her own work? Her first work was effectively street photography, followed by portrait photography, “rock-and-roll”, then celebrity portraits. Nowadays? “I have a point of view … I think of myself as a conceptual artist using photography.” Reflections on her career’s work? “It’s hard to put what you see into a rectangle.” Her survey show is reviewed here.

Shirin Neshat: a stare that challenges us to look away

The art of Iranian-born Neshat looks like it might be a critique of religious Iran. Not exactly. Stranded in the US by the 1979 Iranian revolution, her art comes from the experience of being an outsider – in Iran and elsewhere. She expresses the immigrant experience as “foreigners inside a country we call home”. An interview with Neshat, more accessible than the above review, is here.

The Ambiguous Colors of Nanotechnology

Pigments create colour by reflecting light of a particular wavelength. Nanoparticles have both this and a second property, “structural colour”, that is created by the shape of the particles themselves. This accounts for iridescence in butterfly wings, for example. So what colour is a nanomaterial? “There is no simple answer … You understand, then you don’t. It’s almost mystical.” A TED talk is here.

The art of attribution and the attribution of art

When is an Old Master not an Old Master? When an “expert” says so. Technical evidence of authenticity is sometimes very helpful. Often, though, the key question is who wielded the paint brush – the master or their helpers. Therein lies temptation. The professional kudos of making a big discovery “is often more than enough to make people suspend their disbelief.”