The Easel

5th November 2019

Bauhaus: A Failed Utopia? Part 3: Last Rites

By the late 1950’s, Bauhaus’ alumni had had a widespread influence, especially in architecture. Among them, Marcel Breuer was a luminary and he took Bauhaus ideas in a strange direction … concrete.

“The Bauhaus idea … to maintain a balance between craft and industry did not work … One branch of Bauhaus lands us at IKEA. [Elsewhere] the Breuer wing of Bauhaus got weird and dark. Breuer and other Brutalists made buildings that have the capacity to shake your soul. [In Breuer’s hands] concrete is … like a monument to a new and strange God. At the root of many of the buildings Breuer built in the 60s and 70s seems to be the following thought, “don’t fight alienation by resisting it, fight it by going through to the other side.”

Of pain and poetry: how Francis Bacon drew inspiration from Greek drama and TS Eliot

A “stupendous” exhibition. Bacon felt he deserved to be Picasso’s equal. A 1971 exhibition in Paris had hugely elevated his international reputation. Where to from there? Unhappy in his personal life, Bacon wanted to express “the vulnerability of the human situation”. And he did, in visceral, confronting terms. Little surprise that a favourite quotation of this most “pitiless” artist was “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”.

Hans Haacke, at the New Museum, Takes No Prisoners

A difficult show, leading to some clunky reviews. Haacke has spent his career documenting art’s entanglements with business and museums as “warehouses of wealth”. He famously had a retrospective at the Guggenheim cancelled because the director felt his art was too political. Haacke disagreed. “My works do not advocate any political cause”. Says this writer, Haacke has “often been a better activist than artist.”

Kirchner’s Colors

Colour, for Kirchner, wasn’t about subtlety. He wanted brute force. Colour reflected emotion and emotions, both personally and socially, were running high. Urbanization, the disfunction of German society, changing sexual norms, all made for a nervy big city environment. Add to this Kirchner’s addictions and wartime trauma, and you have a memorably bold, emotionally disturbing artist. Images are here.

‘There Was Great Purity in American Art. I Wanted to Insult It’: Going Rogue With Peter Saul

Saul’s early work anticipated Pop but such a rebellious talent would never be a “member” of any such movement. His priorities have been to avoid political correctness, take pop culture seriously, be “attentive to the chaos of the world”. If that means treading on toes, fine. “To accept not to be shocking is to accept being a piece of furniture”. An exuberant, unclassifiable career that finally is gaining broader recognition. Images are here.

Jacolby Satterwhite

Will Satterwhite turn out to be an important artist? Wall to wall coverage of his solo show suggests he may. He is an art world generalist, using multimedia, animation and performance in “wildly ingenious” ways to distill pop culture memes. “The question of permanence hovers in the air … explorations of how to make something last and whether or not one wants to make that type of commitment”.

A New Exhibition Shows Women as Artists, Not Muses

The Victorian era Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painted pretty but hapless women in need of (male) rescue. No wonder they are ridiculed. Were the women members of that group better artists? The above piece praises them, perhaps out of sisterly obligation. A tougher view is that few had much talent. A clear exception was Evelyn De Morgan, whose masterful touch “makes the wan pre-Raphaelite men who surround her look like wimps.”

29th October 2019

El Greco: The last great Renaissance master

Patrons are hard to come by. El Greco tried in Venice, Rome and Madrid before finally winning favour in religious Toledo. Contemporaries thought his style “incomprehensible” with its expressive distortions of form and colour. Having started Spain’s Golden Age of art, El Greco was quickly forgotten. One contributor to his belated rehabilitation – the young Picasso, via his masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Images are here.

More than Mona Lisa: Louvre’s Leonardo da Vinci is a blockbuster with brains

This is “the great Leonardo show of our time”. Leonardo didn’t dabble – he was “striving for the most perfect form of painting”. Says one critic, he “erased the distinctions between art and ideas … the original conceptual artist”. More than a painter, Leonardo was a polymath, who could imagine distant futures. His workbooks have this writer “inwardly whooping with delight. You go, Leonardo!” An illuminating discussion of eight works is here.

Inside LA icon Betye Saar’s Laurel Canyon studio

Joseph Cornell made his acclaimed assemblages from junk shop stuff. On seeing this work, Saar determined to do the same. In 1969 she made Black Girl’s Window, various images arranged inside an old window frame. A window frame? “That’s the protection for what’s inside.” Besides bringing her national attention, this work now seems a career signpost, “rescuing the black female figure from her destiny of abasement.”

August Sander’s Life Studies

Sander embarked on a 40 year photography project inspired by the daft theory that facial features predict character. His portraits of thousands of everyday Germans didn’t prove the theory. They do reveal Sander was an immensely insightful portraitist whose images “provoke feeling” and “humanize history”. They have profoundly influenced 20th century photography. Images are here and background video here.

Dissident Modernism Meets Peak Philanthropy at the New MoMA

Course correction. MoMA has conceded that it cannot present the tumult of modern art as a tidy process. Some think this long overdue change deserves no more than “a really slow clap and a really long eye roll.” A more generous take is that MoMA’s rehang of its collection achieves “an elegant but limited cosmopolitanism”. Perhaps more fresh thinking awaits. New MoMA ads state: “Make space for the new mistakes.”

‘If you can outlive most men, all of a sudden you can be venerated’ – an interview with Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith eludes the definitive statement. A self-described “thing maker”, she makes sculptures, prints, tapestries, photography and more. Her sources of inspiration are similarly various – “the overlooked detail of the everyday”. Perhaps Smith doesn’t want to be defined. She hesitated before putting colour in some recent tapestries – “Colour seems too personal, self-expressive to me – too scary.”

Nubia: The Kingdom and the Power

History is owned by the storytellers. Without a written language to record their achievements the ancient Nubians have been presumed inferior to their Egyptian rivals. In fact, these cultures were equally accomplished. A major Boston collection, obtained a century ago, shows Nubia’s “glorious” achievement across gold, ceramics, sculpture and architecture. A discussion of Nubian art (5 min) is here.