The Easel

8th September 2020

The meteoric rise of Angelica Kauffman RA

This show calls Kauffmann a “superwoman and influencer”. Quite! Swiss born, she trained in Rome before moving to London. There, her insightful portraiture chimed with the new interest in “the ‘self’, in the gap between … face and heart”. Made a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, she subsequently returned to Rome wealthy and “the most famous female artist in the age of Enlightenment”. Images are here.

How Much Rodin Is Too Much?

When is a Rodin sculpture an ‘original’ Rodin sculpture? He carved Gates of Hell in plaster but died before it was cast in bronze. Posthumous ‘copies’ of this and other works are controlled by Musée Rodin (as Rodin intended) which funds itself from the proceeds. Many museums, believing that owning a Rodin affirms their status, are eager buyers. A complex mix, the writer observes, of access to art, artworld conventions, and financial self-interest.

James Turrell: celestial encounters in light and space

A neat encapsulation of Turrell’s exploration of the perception of light. Early pieces used high intensity projectors but he soon moved to using natural light coming through specially designed apertures. Out of these came his renowned Skyscapes, enclosed rooms with an opening to the sky. “My work has no object, no image and no focus. You are looking at you looking … an experience of wordless thought”.

UK museums are back open – but visitors are staying away

Sombre reading. The challenge of rebuilding museum attendances is becoming clearer. Visitor numbers at British national museums are only 12% of pre-Covid levels, reinforcing findings from midyear polls that restoring public confidence will be crucial. US reports are similarly anxiety-producing, one body projecting that many smaller institutions may close permanently.

Vivian Maier: The elusive genius who hid herself away

Maier’s previously unknown photography was discovered in 2007. Additional research is changing her posthumous narrative – from the nanny who hid her photography to, now, the photographer who supported herself by being a nanny.  Maier’s images “really [look] at texture and colour …not just what’s going on but the framing and composition. She was a real pioneer … we should be comparing [greats like Eggleston, Shore] to her.”

Broken intentions: on damaged contemporary art

Minor touch ups to repair damaged paintings, especially old paintings, is generally accepted. Conserving contemporary works, by comparison, is a minefield. Did the artist want a “broken” look? What if, on consulting the artist, their “poetics” have changed? And what happens where an artist (think Donald Judd) rejects authorship of a work not assembled exactly as they wish. Yup, it’s a minefield.

1st September 2020

El Greco Sizzles in Chicago, in Paris, Not So Much

El Greco had ambition. He left Crete for Italy and, later, Spain, chasing a bigger career. Why such restlessness? Money, of course but also a stubborn pursuit of his artistic vision. In Toledo, it finally emerged. His portraits are “fantastic”, his religious works attention-grabbing with their “electric” colours and twisting, elongated figures. El Greco was “all about drama”.

Marie Cuttoli’s Bold Revival of the French Tapestry Tradition

Tapestry is a tough art form – expensive, complex and slow. Artists are not always happy about weavers deciding how a painting (say) is transformed into a woolen and silk object. Thinking tapestry could be modern art, Cuttoli commissioned pieces from artists like Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. Many of the pieces created are masterpieces and helped revitalize the ailing French tapestry industry. An excellent video on tapestry making is in the linked piece.

Take a walk in the digital wilderness at teamLab Forest Fukuoka

teamLab is an “ultratechnology collective” which seeks to “navigate the confluence of art, technology, design and the natural world”. It has just opened a second permanent museum, notable because it’s Tokyo museum is the world’s most visited “single artist” museum. Some wonder if the output is art, but why not? Either way, teamLab seems unbothered. A video (3 min) is here.

As The Met Reopens, a Former Employee Longs For Its Art

An ode to a favourite artwork. “The ancient Egyptian head of a queen emerges from an extraordinary piece of yellow jasper. The sculpture was broken below the nose, leaving behind a presciently modern fragment of exquisite lips. [She is] a monument to a pure and constant beauty. So, I suppose I’m tired of the miracle of nature. I want something that … is thrown at me by the breathless force of its creation.”

The greats outdoors: the pioneering Lakeland landscapes of Francis Towne

Towne mostly avoided London, building a small regional following. Attempts at election to the Royal Academy were unsuccessful and, when he died in 1816, that was that. An art scholar in the 1930’s saw something quite different. Towne’s use of ink and watercolour, without the usual washes, created flat images that emphasised “visual impression” over mood. So 20th century! Towne is now seen as a pioneer of the British landscape watercolour tradition.

David Goldblatt: Seven decades of Johannesburg

This London show is a reminder of the impact of Goldblatt’s work. Some have puzzled why, in apartheid South Africa, he focused not on its chaotic and violent events but on the “moral weight” of the everyday. “Events in themselves are not so interesting to me as the conditions that led to the events. These conditions are often quite commonplace, and yet full of what is imminent.” More images are here.

Heels: Through the Magnum Archive

Largely for fun. High heels are “womankind’s most public footwear”, an easy way of expressing feminine elegance. Nothing wrong with that – unless women feel pressured to wear these precarious items. “In the sometimes arduous work of fulfilling the prescriptive demands of womanhood, the high heel has become a key, and complicated, emblem”. So, yes, for fun … mostly.