The Easel

5th May 2020

Essay: Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Over his long career, Lucien Freud’s favourite subject was perhaps himself. All self-portraits are “exercises in ego” but what gets expressed varies from artist to artist. For example, Frida Kahlo’s many self-portraits conveyed vulnerability. Vulnerability? – that’s the last thing on Freud’s agenda. Of his 1965 “Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait)” – “Freud, in excellent Don Draper drapery glances down at us from the height of his masculinity, self-satisfied, virile, intimidating and supremely uninterested in us.

At various points in our lives, as a friend of mine observes, we all look in the mirror and say to ourselves, “You again?” which, in a nutshell, is the reaction Lucian Freud inspires in his self-portraits.”

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Hilma Af Klint’s spiritualist paintings have enjoyed a huge revival. Will the same happen for the “spiritualist reveries” of Agnes Pelton? Pelton is linked not only to Af Klint but also Georgia O’Keeffe, given their shared love of desert imagery. Is she in the same league as these famous names? “Philosophical loopiness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand when it comes to art”. Pelton’s best work “confirms Georgia O’Keeffe to be a drab hand”.

What Is Street Photography without Street Life?

The earliest photographs of Paris or New York show alluringly empty streets. They weren’t. They bustled, but cameras were not yet able to capture moving figures. Now, our streets really are deserted, reducing street photography to “a species of architectural photography. The loss of street life necessary to minimize [Covid 19 spread] involves the loss of almost everything that makes the life of the street photographer worth living.”

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 turbulent times that shaped Korea’s thriving contemporary art scene

Korea boasts prominent contemporary artists. Western attention, though, remains skewed toward its pre- 20th century art. To correct this, a new book surveys Korea’s contemporary art, and links it to its turbulent political and social development. Sadly, despite being something of a landmark, the book is yet to get the quality review it deserves.  Prominent Korean contemporary artists are surveyed here and here.

28th April 2020

America’s Big Museums on the Hot Seat

In the flush of post-Civil War confidence, New York founded the Metropolitan Museum. Some reviews marking its 150th anniversary recount the museum’s early days as the “tycoons darling”. The linked piece notes contemporary challenges – an uneasy relationship with contemporary art, a tendency to ignore artists who are not male and white. “They need to rethink the Temple of Beauty branding … they need to rethink what they were and are.”

Close Contact

Spanish flu killed millions yet seems absent from art works of that period. But perhaps not. John Singer Sargent, who caught the flu while working as a British war artist, produced Gassed, which shows soldiers blinded by gas.  It “equates [war and pandemic] in its portrayal of a group of people waiting to receive medical attention. [I]t makes what is so fearful in a time of viral pandemic—physical proximity and human touch—into a saving grace.”

Nina Katchadourian

Now here is art for our constrained circumstances. Katchadourian has lifted her profile with several series of works made under a lockdown of sorts – long distance flying in economy. Most notable among these is her series Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style.  These inventive works encourage us to “lean into the boredom, and there to rediscover the pleasures of play”.

A Portrait of the Socialites as Bright Young Things

Beaton left Cambridge without a degree. No matter – Vogue had already started publishing his photos. His brilliant career covered portrait photography and, later, Hollywood film design. Beaton moved in exotic circles and his images of aristocratic 20-somethings partying to excess in the 1920’s is “a social record nonpareil”. Some background on Beaton is here.

Deineka / Samokhvalov exhibition in St Petersburg

A recent St Petersburg exhibition of two painters popular in the Soviet era drew big crowds. Through Western eyes, the show expressed a “cozy, amused nostalgia” for the Soviet era and Socialist Realism art. A Russian critic see something deeper: “there are [visions of Russia] still floating out there in our post-Soviet age of individualism. The Soviet dream of unity and belonging is still haunting us”. More images are here.

Three colours: Blue

Philip Ball, Homunculus: April 17, 2020

Colours have interesting histories and blue a more exotic back story than most. The Egyptians came up with Egyptian blue. Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan yielded ultramarine for artists with deep pockets. Starting in the 18th century, systematic chemistry developed a wide array of affordable hues. In 1959 Yves Klein famously produced a blue so vivid that ‘it spoke for itself …“blue is the invisible becoming visible”.

The impact of Covid-19 on art critics

Most art critics are self-employed and work on a project by project basis. For them, life now has a gritty immediacy, addressing postponed projects, doing the filing and trying out new ideas.  This writer cannot disguise an inability to answer her own jaunty question – “If there’s no art, does an art critic make a sound?” Her piece on how artists have been impacted by the shutdown is here.