The Easel

5th January 2021

Lucas Cranach’s Gothic Carnality

Centuries after his life in stern Northern Europe, Cranach remains influential. Central to this are his luminous female nudes. To promote Protestant morals, he made his women dangerous – slim, pale, erotic. They are timeless images of temptation and its consequences. Add his shimmering depiction of furs and jewelery and you have a “precursor to Klimt’s Viennese fantasies.” A virtual tour (17 min) is here.

The fine line between art and pornography

What a quagmire! Female nudes were surely often intended as “soft porn for the [male] elite”. If not, why so few male nudes? Does that matter if the work has artistic merit? Where does that leave female viewers? Is the offence nudity or rather the stereotyping of women? Should dubious works be removed from museum walls, or is that censorship? “Compare Goya’s Naked Maja to a Playboy centrefold and tell me the line [with pornography] is not blurred.”

One of the greatest of all outsider artists: Alfred Wallis at Kettle’s Yard reviewed

Wallis was oblivious to any modest artistic reputation he had. He painted just for companionship, using a limited palette – “shiny blacks, fierce greys, strange whites” and paying little regard to perspective. Two London artists discovered him by chance. Dissatisfied by art’s “decadence”, they saw in Wallis not an eccentric but an authentic modernist. What is it that gives his paintings their directness and subtlety? “More was going on in his mind than we’ll ever know.”

This $22,000 Book Gives You An Extraordinary Look Inside The Sistine Chapel

Advanced digital photography has been used to reproduce the Sistine Chapel’s glorious art in a book at 1:1 scale. Project details are impressive – five years’ work, 270,000 images, almost perfect colour fidelity, three large format volumes, each weighing 25lbs. Says the publisher “The idea is that the Sistine Chapel is one of the masterworks of western art [but] we can’t see it—because it’s 68 feet up”. It makes sense … if you ignore the price tag. A video is here.

Li Zhengsheng : The Genius who photographed the Cultural Revolution

Li was a photographer on the main provincial newspaper during the Cultural Revolution. While covering political events he also recorded, secretly, mob hysteria and communal violence. This body of work constitutes a unique documentation of “the “loss of mind” of a whole nation”. Says one critic, the “most important Chinese documentary photographer of the twentieth century.” More images are here.

The meteoric rise of Angelica Kauffman RA

This show calls Kauffmann a “superwoman and influencer”. Quite! Swiss born, she trained in Rome before moving to London. There, her insightful portraiture chimed with the new interest in “the ‘self’, in the gap between … face and heart”. Made a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, she subsequently returned to Rome wealthy and “the most famous female artist in the age of Enlightenment”. Images are here.

Interiors: hello from the living room

Interiors are a genre with enduring appeal. Images of a simple room with sparse adornments offer “the chaste harmony of geometry “. More often, we get entangled in a painting’s “psychology”. When everything is as it should be, do we infer a sense of security. When things seem a little odd, is it normal messiness or evidence of a crime? And, especially when darkness falls, “looking out or looking in … is charged with voyeurism.” More images are here.

30th December 2020

Shiva the Inscrutable

Appreciation of an 11th century devotional statue of the great Hindu god Shiva. Here, he takes the form of Nataraja, the cosmic dancer. “His right foot crushes a demon. In his right hand he holds a drum — its boom represents the resonance of creation itself — and in his left, fire, which ravishes the world. His dance feels like an act of gymnastic brilliance … with nothing but his own miraculous powers of balance to stop him falling away into nothingness.”

The radical quilting of Rosie Lee Tompkins

A collector stumbled across Tompkins’ quilts at a Berkeley flea market. After decades of collecting her work he bequeathed his collection in 2018 to a museum. The writer’s glee at this first show is palpable. “I left in a state of shock. The sheer joy of her best quilts cannot be overstated. They come at us with the force and sophistication of so-called high art … with the power of painting. Tompkins seems to have been an artist of singular greatness.”

Who Was Giorgio Morandi, Master Painter and Perfecter of the Meditative Stare?

Morandi lived in a modest Bologna apartment, for decades painting pale still-lifes of bottles and tins. No bright colours or brand names, no dramatic shapes, yet these works stand out. Explaining this, Robert Hughes referenced the Japanese aesthetic of wabi – “the clarity of ordinary substance seen for itself, in its true quality.” John Berger, in an old but excellent piece, thought similarly – “precise and sharp observation … monastic”.

David Hockney’s Paintings Are World Renowned, But He Never Lost His Desire to Draw

While there may be some unevenness in Hockney’s overall output, when it comes to drawing he is a “master”. What jumps out from this current New York show is his variety – pencil, charcoal, Polaroid, iPad – the emotion he is able to convey about those he sketches, and an allegiance to the truth.  Enthuses one writer “the intensity of Hockney’s self-inspection, fag in mouth, bears comparison with Rembrandt.” Images are here.

Newly restored Ghent Altarpiece reveals humanoid ‘mystic lamb’

Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece is hugely famous. Painted in 1432, it is regarded as the first great oil painting and the first significant Renaissance work. Both Napoleon and Hitler tried to steal it. Unexpectedly, restoration has found extensive over-painting. Now cleaned, the original reinforces Van Eyck’s genius – as well as revealing, in the centre panel, a lamb with a human-like face. “We are all shocked” says the restorer.

Commoner with the divine touch

Raphael was a terrifyingly brilliant teenager. In Florence fame came quickly and, moving on to Rome, a certain reverence. For centuries he was seen as the pinnacle of the High Renaissance, combining da Vinci’s emotion and Michelangelo’s buff bodies. Impressionism diminished his allure somewhat by showing that representation is not the only thing in art. Still, a huge show in Rome reminds us that Raphael was “a genius beyond all measure”.

The Provocations of Kent Monkman

Kent Monkman, a Cree Nation / Canadian citizen, has had two of his paintings hung in New York’s Met. Good, one might think – recognition of an artist and of the terrible treatment of indigenous peoples. Some think otherwise, worrying that mainstream artworld success compromises art advocacy of indigenous causes. Frets this writer, can indigenous art avoid being “overwhelmed by the historical context”?