The Easel

18th June 2024

Zanele Muholi at Tate Modern review: delightful but devastating show by one of today’s supreme photographic artists

Muholi’s photography show was cut short in 2020 by Covid 19. Now returned, it amply justifies the writer’s comment that they are “one of the supreme purveyors of photographic art today”. They have recently branched into bronze sculpture, not with complete success. Their photography, which focuses on Black queer life in South Africa “by turns delightful and devastating, is one of the greatest exercises in self-portraiture of this, or any, age.” Wow!

Goya gave Frankenstein’s monster his Hollywood face. Now this museum shows the artist’s larger power

Goya was the real deal. A key artist to the Spanish royal court, he painted the elite culture of Bourbon Spain. Notwithstanding this lofty position, his imagination stayed rooted in the culture of the common folk from whence he came. In four major series of prints he “took the gloves off” and expressed what he really felt about Spain’s aristocracy. It is from these works that comes the adage that still resonates today – “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”

Shahzia Sikander’s Luminous Art Explores East and West, Past and Present, Order and Chaos

Sikander started her career by revitalising the languishing tradition of Asian miniature painting. Since then, her art has explored “the rich precolonial history of Central and South Asian cultures” that art history has marginalised. At her recent show in Venice, she observed that Venice itself is an “in between space …  the traces of cultural trade and connection are evident on every facade in Venice and integrated throughout Venetian [art]”. An interview with the artist is here.

Claire Bishop’s New Book Argues Technology Changed Attention Spans—and Shows How Artists Have Adapted

Interesting ideas. Research-based art usually takes the form of vitrines displaying text documents, and video. It is one example of what an author calls “a distributed model of knowledge” – we understand by sharing what others think. Sounds like social media reality! The author further wonders if viewing art has become “social spectatorship”, that is, something one no longer does alone. As she puts it, “our phones have become “a kind of prosthesis for viewing”. A book excerpt is here.

Advertising as Art: How Literary Magazines Pioneered a New Kind of Graphic Design

In 1890 the typical poster was crammed with text, often promoting a circus or a theatre production. Then came literary posters. Minimalist in design, they eliminated text in favour of visuals that instantly created an impression. And, they targeted a specific audience, often the independent-minded “new woman”. Although lasting only a decade they brought about a radical change in visual culture, “an advertisement that looked and functioned like a work of art, an image … in which commercialism and culture coalesce”.

On Being “Printerly”

Printmaking seems a world unto itself. The medium can create multiple copies – perhaps an infinite number – of an image, giving it a democratic ethos but “cheapening” it as art. Because it takes so many forms – woodblock, etching, silk screen and many more, – it is often encumbered with technical details. However, as Warhol and others have shown, prints vary subtly from one to the next. As the reviewer muses, we talk about aspects of painting as “painterly”. But “has anyone ever used the term “printerly?”

11th June 2024

Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520-1920, Tate Britain review – a triumph

Major museums are giving more exhibitions to contemporary female artists. Now, past female artists are also getting attention.  This London show demonstrates the huge revisions still needed to art history. Talented female artists were numerous, not an “exotic anomaly”. Most still await recognition – one critic notes that “for every celebrated [artist] … there are at least 10 unfamiliar names”. And these ambitious women had the agency to skilfully navigate a male-heavy art world and create great work.

Enzo Mari: Design for the people

Mari was a giant of Italian design whose work spanned new products, graphics and art. Trained in design-intensive Milan in the 1950’s, his focus on simplifying form yielded elegant products somewhat at odds with post-war consumerism. He was also a design theorist who published widely and wasn’t afraid to express his opinion, once calling Ikea “genocide”. Among Mari’s best-known works are a calendar, a children’s puzzle and a fruit bowl made from a piece of steel I-beam.

“In my experience there is no precedence for a work like the Madrid Ecce Homo”

Following its sensational discovery, a previously unknown Caravaggio work has been restored and put on display at Madrid’s Prado. Christiansen, an expert consulted on the work’s authenticity, can scarcely hide his enthusiasm for the work, or for the “revolutionary and persistently experimenting” artist. The painting, says one writer, makes Caravaggio “the precursor of the greatest minds of the European seventeenth century: from Franz Hals and Rembrandt to … Velázquez.” (Google translate)

Mickalene Thomas is “All About Love” in her new retrospective

Kehinde Wiley is renowned for his portraits of black male subjects in classical poses. Thomas, a contemporary art “luminary”, is doing likewise with black female subjects. Her paintings and collages show female subjects in provocative poses, surrounded by bold prints. Sometimes rhinestones are embedded in these pictures to emphasise their “libidinous content”. Says Thomas, “By portraying real women with their own unique history … I’m [diversifying] the representations of black women in art”.

Still life, still going

It was Dutch flower painting that established still life as a genre. Later, the French decided that it was the least prestigious genre – women’s art in other words. Despite its lowly status, the narrative capability of still life painting has proven to be substantial, because objects can speak eloquently to human themes like mortality, status and love. Like all great art, it has the capacity to “leave the viewer space to imagine themselves in the painting, in a different world.”

Breathtaking: Mary Cassatt at Work, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Cassatt’s many portraits of mothers and children have seen her tagged as a sentimental painter. A new show suggests otherwise. Despite family wealth, she was actually a hard worker. Reflecting this, curators now think her paintings intended to show the hard work of raising a family. Further, Cassatt was technically innovative, especially in printmaking. Perhaps she was not as innovative as her fellow Impressionists, one critic observes. Yet, Degas was a life long supporter and he knew a thing or two about art.

What the NFT Phenomenon Tells Us About the Monetary and Creative Value of Art

A post-mortem on the NFT bubble and its art connections. The 17th century Dutch tulip mania is nicely outlined here but the linked piece better captures how NFT’s became an “inscrutable religion”. At the heart of the craze was a “fundamental lie: merit equals money. [One artist admitted] digital art was usually a sentence of poverty, It seemed obvious that the cartoons of bored apes and pixelated punks that were being traded for millions of dollars would soon wilt like the Dutch flower.”