The Easel

11th June 2019

Easel Essay: Bauhaus: A Failed Utopia? Part 1: The Manifesto

The Bauhaus was probably the single most influential modernist art school of the 20th century. To mark the centenary of its founding, Morgan Meis is writing an essay – in three parts – on its history and impact.

“Bauhaus’ founding manifesto [by Walter Gropius] is a document wild with utopian ideals. It is not a utopianism wishing to abolish the past in the name of a glorious future filled with glass and concrete. There is nothing in it that comes anywhere close to the idea that form should follow function, that ornament is an enemy, or that formal simplicity is a goal in and of itself. The biggest question … is whether the movement lost – or found – its way through the course of the 20th century.”

Why is African American art having a moment? The reasons are as varied as the art itself

The art world, it seems, is getting woke. There has always been a market for the work of African American artists. It’s just that the leading museums are now involved, with changed curatorial appointments and museum acquisitions. Conspicuously, auction room results have also upshifted. Says one curator “there has been a whole parallel universe … that people had not tapped into”

Francis Bacon: Couplings review – a taboo-busting opus of sizzling flesh

Superb, museum-quality shows like this are rarely seen in private galleries. On top of this, the reviewer thinks Bacon’s already lofty reputation warrants further elevation. Works portraying sexual battle showcase his style of being both “precise and ungraspable”. “This exhibition makes a great case for Bacon as [Picasso’s] true heir: the only artist who could add to Picasso’s metamorphic lexicon of the human figure.”

Natalia Goncharova, Tate Modern review – a prodigious talent

Can an artist be too diverse? Goncharova’s vast output was surely, in part, a reflection of her life. Raised in not-quite-modern Russia she made folkloric-styled modernist paintings and books. Her later life in avant garde Paris brought acclaim for her costumes and sets for Ballets Russes. “Everything she did was fully realised and extremely powerful, yet … she remains enigmatic.”

Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

Ringgold’s work is political, intense. It thus surprises how often it is called colourful – even “pretty”. She started with painting and posters but moved to “populist” quilts, a form women have long used for story telling. The art world can be sniffy about textiles but they suited Ringgold, their textures and colours expressing her “exuberance and optimism” in the face of angry subject matter.

April Dawn Alison Casts Light On the Identities That We Hide Away

Alan Schaefer had a secret – April Dawn Alison, an after-hours female persona. Following his death, decades of Polaroid images were found, “an extraordinary long-term exploration of a private self”. In our social media age, a project “intended only for private consumption and personal pleasure feels so anachronistic and so genuine as to become almost sacred.” More images are here.

The Rijksmuseum displayed ‘all the Rembrandts,’ and crowds went crazy

A lookback at the Rijksmuseum’s “epic” show of its nearly 400 Rembrandts, now in its final days. His self-portrait paintings are fabulous but smaller prints and drawings impress even more, especially those done after the death of his beloved wife. Overall, the show reiterates the “inexhaustibility of his invention. Nothing human was alien to him. He was us before we were us.”

4th June 2019

Lee Krasner: Will Gompertz reviews the 20th Century’s unsung artist

Krasner’s marriage to Jackson Pollock slowed her art because, it is suggested, she carried “two loads of self-doubt, his and hers”. But there were also benefits, coming from their critical engagement with each other’s work. At her first retrospective a critic noted some of Krasner’s work was “touched with real grandeur”. Decades later, that judgement seems affirmed.  Images are here.

Frank Bowling, an overlooked star of British art’s golden generation

Bowling’s first retrospective has critics puzzled as to why he has been so long ignored. Is it race (he is from Guyana), his unfashionable abstractionism, or perhaps his avoidance of a signature style? Recognition from the London art establishment has been scant – New York has been more welcoming. Not that Bowling has been put off at all – “I still get a lot of juice out of abstraction.”

Liberty, democracy and the art of Martin Puryear

Puryear’s work has been called craftsmanly. That’s not craftsmanship in a contemporary sense but something from a past era when wood was an industrial material. His show in Venice – where he represents the USA – is in his characteristic style, abstract pieces that are modern but somehow carry historic overtones. “One of the most subtle and powerful shows of the Biennale.”

Brancusi and America

Brancusi felt a debt to America, its openness to the new. In return he has been “the fountainhead” of American sculpture. Listing his undoubtedly numerous innovations tends to obscure where his true greatness lay. An earlier critic is more specific – “his rapturous feeling for surfaces … [and endowing] his forms with something of the clarity and finality of law”.

Political art in China 30 years after the Tiananmen Square protests

China-based artists face significant headwinds. The government is not anti-art per se – it sees art as an important “business sector”. Limited self-expression is the issue. State surveillance (and self-censorship) have stopped explicit social criticism, particularly in genres like painting. Without liberalization, self expression will need to find different form – “something new has to start.”

Cute puppies and octopus sex: A Japanese art exhibition reveals our fascination with animals

Animals, for the Japanese, figure prominently in their culture. They feature in the Shinto religion, sometimes with supernatural powers, other times representing human foibles. Animal iconography also appears in secular political and philosophical discourse. And, of course, there is contemporary kitsch. All in all, a very, very Japanese thing.