The Easel

12th May 2020

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 Pleasures of Home Viewing

Well, here’s a different voice! Lockdown has its compensations if you are not enamored of the art world’s “society of private views and dinners”. Making art available for home viewing is inherently “democratic”. Even if it is online, art can pack a punch – “art is robust enough to survive not only translation into a portable, reproducible and affordable medium but also the distraction of my flatmate boiling the kettle”.

‘A giant of Italian art’ – on Germano Celant (1940–2020)

In 1967 the 27-year-old Celant coined the phrase arte povera, literally impoverished art. The strident justification he provided, and the supportive response of Italian artists, created a movement that drew international attention. An influential international career followed as a curator and art historian though the themes of arte povera were never far from Celant’s mind. Says this writer “a giant of Italian art.”

Sylvain Bellenger on the online future of museums

An American running one of Italy’s largest museums expects the crisis will change museum attitudes to their online presence. The virtual is its “own dimension … not a substitute for reality’, partly because “our way of seeing changes with technology”. Digital photography, for example, reveals tiny details that signal “the intentions and desires of the painter. The worst mistake would be to think we can go back to normal.”

Alina Szapocznikow’s Radical Instability

In 1960’s New York, “emotionless” minimalist sculptures were all the rage. Some European sculptors wanted the opposite – sculpture that expressed emotion. Szapocznikow was one. Her sculptures, “awkward objects … that capture the fleeting moments of life” included body parts, cast in unconventional materials like resin. Her works are of their time but “contributed significantly to redefining the visual language of sculpture today”.

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.