The Easel

16th June 2020

Edward Hopper and American solitude

More puzzling over Hopper’s enigmatic paintings.  He, like film director Alfred Hitchcock, could compose scenes that elicit a particular feeling – aloneness, mystery, perhaps voyeurism. And what are his solitary human subjects thinking? “Regarding [Hopper’s] human subjects as “lonely” evades their truth. We might freak out if we had to be those people, but—look!—they’re doing O.K., however grim their lot.” A video (3 min) is here.

Eyes on the Prize: The Inaugural 2020 Sigg Prize

China’s most reputable art prize has just been awarded by Hong Kong’s M+ museum. Behind the hoopla, new security regulations are creating uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong’s art world. Will the museum and its new, grand, building, remain free to promote contemporary Chinese art? So far, so good, says the philanthropist behind the museum and the prize; “better days will come”.

John Elderfield and Terry Winters on Cézanne’s Rock and Quarry Paintings

Cézanne’s greatness requires a dense explanation, which this essay provides. He grasped the modern idea that perception is subjective. For him, a landscape was “unintelligible”, an assemblage of shapes and surfaces, something that changed with the viewer’s position. So, when painting a landscape, what was Cézanne reaching for? “An image of equivalence … a harmony parallel to nature”.

Points of contact – a short history of door handles

The humble handle. Elaborate creations appeared in 17th century Europe although England seemingly preferred the plain knob. The 20th century concept of a building as a total work of art brought handles that reflected architectural aesthetics. Then (of course) the Bauhaus, which introduced the idea of elegant functionality. Nowadays, despite numerous good designs, “almost every door handle you will see … will be cheap and ill-considered”.

Always Leave Them Wanting Less

Vivid. First, Warhol the person. “He craved the company of others, but never knew what to do with them.” Secondly, his art. It focused “on what he liked best, the tawdry pathos of supermarkets … you don’t need an art degree to get it.” Lastly, the new biography. “Elephantine, ill-written, nearly insensible … [old material] is rolled out as startling news, embedded in a dense lard of fatuous pedantry.”

Gentileschi: Let us not allow sexual violence to define the artist

Some of Gentileschi’s works portray frenzied violence. Is this an expression of her “thrilling” talent or lingering trauma from rape by her art tutor? If we think the latter, are we limiting her work to being just “a visual record of her personal and psychological make up”? And what then about our view of the eminent English artist Eric Gill, who was not a victim of sexual violence but, it seems, a perpetrator?

9th June 2020

“So Many Glaring Absences That Were Very Loud to Me”: An Interview with Titus Kaphar

This #blacklivesmatter moment is rippling into art, with Time placing a Kaphar work on its cover. The linked piece is a backgrounder on the rapidly rising Kaphar. On the removal of confederacy statues: “if the conversation is binary then my opinion is to take them down, but I don’t think it has to be binary. If we engage artists on this subject … we would be getting a different set of answers”.

Tate Modern anniversary: 20 years of wow

Tate Modern is the world’s most visited modern art museum. Lacking the huge permanent art collection of MoMA, Tate has instead innovated with exhibitions that follow a theme rather than a chronology. Its 660ft Turbine Hall has reshaped thinking about the showing of art. Overall impact? MoMA has recently rehung its collection to de-emphasise chronology. And urban power stations are now viewed with a new sense of possibility.

How John Constable got masterpiece after masterpiece out of a tiny corner of rural Suffolk

The critic Robert Hughes said Constable was “the great example of the Englishness of English art”. Unlike his contemporary, Turner, Constable was a “stay-at-home”, painting local, seemingly unexceptional landscapes. He filled them with the familiar – “willows, old rotten planks, brickwork”. Like Monet with his water lilies, Constable found “how much interest the art, when in perfection, can give to the most ordinary subjects.’

Marie Denise Villers

Another nice example of how to understand a painting. “Two female artists are in the process of observing each other as they work. But this situation – one woman drawing another woman drawing her – in studios recently reclaimed from a royal palace … none of it is traditional. To be here, to be doing this, was to be shaping new social identities into existence.”

A History of Architects Mistaking Design for Politics

A bucket of cold water over architecture’s more ambitious exponents. How often do grandiose projects actually provide solutions to social problems? Preordained ideas about design that are imposed on a community often become “projects of domination”. Architecture needs to propose buildings that “reflect the values of the cultures in which they are created.”

Open access to collections is a no-brainer – it’s a clear-cut extension of any museum’s mission

The dry topic of copyright gets a dust-off. Museums under lockdown are seeing increased online traffic, renewing the long-standing debate about publicly releasing digital images of their collections. Such moves, which are “becoming mainstream” have been shown to boost scholarship and public engagement. Image licensing is costly to administer, yields little revenue and now “looks like a losing hand”.

What Was British Surrealism?

Surrealism was essentially a French movement. An attempt to show there is an equivalent distinct strand of thinking in English art seems to fall short. Still, the English have an interest in strange imaginings and the eerie – “the threshold between the garden and the woods the tamed and the wild … the violence beneath the politeness”. As the surrealists were fond of saying “surrealism has existed always and everywhere.”