The Easel

4th February 2020

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.

From the ‘Unknown Lady’ to Beyoncé, 500 years of pregnancy portraits

Art about motherhood is common. However, until very recently there has been reticence about pregnancy. Why? Pregnancy denotes female sexual activity which has been “hugely problematic” for some. And then there is the view that when pregnant, women do not ‘look their best’. And then there is the spectre of miscarriage or death. Even with modern medicine, “the pregnancy portrait is the space “where death and life intersect.”

Ikebana: The Living Flowers of Japan

Ikebana boasts an ancient lineage but gets scant coverage in English media. This piece, though brief, is thus of interest. Sōfu Teshigahara, a 20th century ikebana master, considered Ikebana as art rather than decoration. He introduced unconventional materials – like scrap metal – blurring the line between ikebana and sculpture. The video referred to in this piece is here (32 min; the second half is the more interesting)

‘For Goya, the normal, the terrible, and the fantastical existed cheek by jowl’

Amidst the Prado’s 200th birthday celebration, a landmark exhibition of hundreds of Goya’s drawings. Between war against the French and the sorry reign of Ferdinand VII, Goya was “able to find something cruel, stupid or both almost wherever he looked”.  And look he did, at length. Whatever the reason for his fascination with suffering, these expressive drawing have a cumulative effect that is “astonishing”.

Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates

Denes’s 1982 wheat field in a Manhattan landfill site was a seminal work of land art. A New York retrospective shows a career full of divergent ideas – buried poetry, patterned tree plantings, floating sculptures. Technical drawings of “great beauty” attempt to visualize branches of knowledge. And then there are her pyramid sculptures: “what they all convey is the human drama, our hopes and dreams against great odds.”

Artist Noah Davis died tragically at age 32. A New York show reveals a great lost talent

Reviews of this show carry a flavor of ‘what might have been’. Davis’s profile was rising, having early success in the LA art market as well as establishing a thriving Black-centred art space. At just 32, he died. Will his lasting achievement be the art center or his “atmospheric” art? Perhaps the latter, muses the curator of a New York survey: “I think he’s a really great artist”. Says the writer “I think she might be right”.

Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eighteenth century European royalty believed that ‘knowledge is power’. What better way to show this than with ornate scientific objects, like clocks, compasses, telescopes, that displayed both scientific ingenuity and regal erudition. And, if this messaging was too subtle, there was a sub-text. As the history of the Dresden Green diamond makes clear …’if you’ve got it, flaunt it’.

28th January 2020

Less Is More

What is minimalism, and what do we mean by its attendant phrase “less is more”? Donald Judd and Agnes Martin both felt “less is more” was irrelevant to their ‘minimalist’ work. Philip Johnson denied that these words encapsulated his glass and steel architecture. Beyond art, Marie Kondo says ‘less is more’ if you declutter. The writer shrugs; “The harder you try to nail something down, the more it escapes.”

On Having No Skin: Nan Goldin’s Sirens

Goldin’s new video works are about addiction and memory. Photography, she has said, is her way of remembering. Her new work is characteristically candid – blurry self portraits, scattered pill bottles, images of friends, dead and alive. Besides documenting “where all the time went” there also perhaps is a bigger point: “What a person is looking for in addiction … is totally sane, totally desirable, totally human”.

Hogarth: Place and Progress. Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Hogarth was not a moralising scold. His celebrated narratives depicted London street life but not in a way that made poverty itself a moral failing. Having invented the (highly remunerative) concept of a narrative series, he documented life in this great city, without judgment. As one critic notes, “Charles Dickens is Hogarth’s only rival as a chronicler of London”.

Käthe Kollwitz: War and other atrocities at the Getty Research Institute

Kollwitz’s life spanned social upheaval in Germany plus both world wars. Ample opportunity to observe life’s sorrows. Like others in the German avant-garde she took to woodblock prints, becoming one of the foremost graphic artists of the century. Kollwitz’s socialist leanings are clear but it is her humanistic outlook that gives resonance to her images and conveys “dignity and respect” to the cause of social justice.

Between art & science

Modernist architecture offended Scruton. For him, architecture should be something that serves the public, not a “private art”. This piece, reprinted to mark his recent passing, is a furious denunciation of stars like Frank Gehry. “Humility, order, and public spirit … have been chased from the discipline by the starchitects. [They] are not building for the city, but against it … what people want is not “me” but “us.””

Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years is a portrait of the artist as priapic provocateur

Since winning the Turner Prize, Perry has delighted in promoting himself as Britain’s leading transvestite potter. Pottery’s “nice domestic associations” contrast sharply with his commentary on sexuality, class and gender. All of which he delivers without earnestness. “Decorativeness, sensuousness, laughter, joy, vibrancy, vitality, they are just as important [as] all that misery-making, pseudo-political, woke bollocks.”

John Baldessari Was Anything But Boring

In 1970, dissatisfied with his art, Baldessari took all his paintings to a crematorium and burned them. He called this action his “best work to date”. That set the tone for a half century of his conceptual art, up to his recent death. Widely influential, his work combined insight, humour and the obvious. One work simply bore the text “everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work.”