The Easel

3rd November 2020

JMW Turner: Narrating A Modern World

Turner, the Romantic, “enjoyed going to extremes”. Why paint a placid river when the tempestuous sea was available? Even better, the sea – which he painted hundreds of times – was diverse and changeable, a challenge to Turner’s “supreme energy”. Some of his watercolours seem prophetic – “like scribbles made by Jackson Pollock”. Not that he was trying to be prophetic; he was “making art for one primary audience – for himself,”

Having His Cake and Eating It, Too

Thiebaud is turning 100 and getting various celebratory shows. He still thinks his work is joyous, which it is. But it’s more. Very much the realist painter, he is attracted by colour and shape. Cakes, for example, offer a “nobility of abstract form: prisms and wedges, disks and cylinders”. Aspiring to emulate “heroes” like Morandi, his is a demanding style – “it’s actually almost ludicrous that anybody would do it”.

Tim Clark – interview: ‘This set of Hokusai’s drawings is a really important piece of the jigsaw’

A newly uncovered set of Hokusai drawings shows that, well before Japan had opened itself to the world, he was a “world artist”. The drawings incorporate European ideas about perspective and use images from ancient China and India. Hokusai received commissions from the Dutch East India Company. Van Gogh was a huge fan. His human poses have a “fundamental humanism. People compare it to Rembrandt and I think that is a very good comparison.”

Death barge life

When Géricault painted his epic The Raft of the Medusa in 1818, he wanted to raise his profile with a painting that shocked. He succeeded. What makes us, still, recoil from this huge work? The “gore shock value” of dead and dying on the drifting raft is only one part. “These people are all in various stages of fight and defeat. [They face] the challenge of endurance when hope is removed, and the human necessity to locate hope again”.

Art After the Plague

Visions of death, inspired by history’s famous plagues. That most efficient of killers, the Black Death, is represented as “a gaunt, hollow-eyed woman”, wielding a scythe. A frescoe shows a cavalier on a “pale horse”, shooting diseased arrows. Poussin portrayed human chaos delivered by rats amidst Rome’s “serene architecture’. And Munch painted a hunched figure battling Spanish flu where “even the midnight sun cannot dispel the chill terror of death.”

Celia Paul Redefines the Artist’s Model

A review of Celia Paul’s memoir, for once not smothered in Lucien Freud anecdotes. Portraiture is a central part of her work. “When Freud looked at Paul, she felt reduced; when Paul looks at her subjects, they are exalted. Her painting is not an act of close observation—she’s seen these people before—but some deeper communion with the person she’s aiming to fix on canvas.”

In defence of progressive deaccessioning

Amidst what seems an endless debate on deaccessioning, a pragmatic voice. Deaccessioning will happen if only because some museums need it to survive. More institutions, though, want to finance acquisitions that correct woefully lopsided collections. Critics point out that a few such acquisitions won’t correct past mistakes. True, but “no one believes undoing this legacy will be either quick or easy. The only way to begin is to begin.”

27th October 2020

Bruce Nauman

A London retrospective demonstrates Nauman’s huge influence. Deft neon text pieces, quirky sculptures and incisive video work, all are examples of his “transformative presence”. Gushes one artist, his work is “so nimble and so complicated”. He offers us “a bewildering array of gifts. There’s humour in his work, but it’s always nervy and problematic, never open-hearted or fun … a perfect fit for the Covid world”.

An eyewitness to an important moment in history’: Jeanne Mammen in pre-war Berlin

We usually associate inter-war Berlin with names like Dix, Grosz and Kirschner. Now add another name, Jeanne Mammen. Her watercolours and sketches were stylistically similar to those artists but distinguished by their empathetic focus on women caught up in the decadence and “cold hedonism” of Weimar Berlin. Colourful at first, her works became steadily gloomier as befitted the times. The linked piece has a sales tilt; more background detail is here.

Amy Sillman

Will the pandemic prove an enduring focus for new art? What surprises in Sillman’s new show is not the “characteristically turbulent abstractions” that have brought her acclaim. Rather, it’s the uncharacteristic works – still lifes of flowers – that she made during the lockdown. “Things don’t have to be topical to be timely … Sillman’s blossoms speak not only to springtime renewal but, especially given our context, to mortality and death.”

F is for fake

The art world is slowly waking up to indigenous art. As that happens, authentication becomes a priority. In the case of American indigenous art, forgery seems widespread. However, it’s difficult to be sure. A “careless chain of custody” doesn’t prove a work is a fake, and sometimes artists copied their own works. It’s an unwanted problem for communities who “remain marginalized by inaccurate representations, persistent cultural appropriation”.

Velázquez’s Las Meninas: A detail that decodes a masterpiece

A new hypothesis about Velázquez’s masterpiece. A study of life at the opulent but declining Spanish Hapsburg court, it has long been acclaimed for being a “riddle”, a painting of hidden meanings. New research reinforces this narrative by revealing that an earthen pot being offered to the princess had hallucinogenic as well as cosmetic properties. What Velázquez painted was a meditation on the “hereness of here … the inevitable evaporation of self.”

Botticelli: A Closer Look at Young Man Holding a Roundel

A Botticelli portrait is coming to market and will sell for gazillions. Sales promotion aside, it’s “linear simplicity, bold colors, human expression and religious reference” make it a Florentine Renaissance masterpiece. These features brought acclaim and were later taken up by da Vinci and others. Still, Renaissance Florence was a rough place and the death of his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici, meant decline for Botticelli’s fortunes and life.

The Surprising Power of Color to Ease Quarantine Anxiety

Colour is one of art’s great preoccupations. When suddenly confronted with pandemic-related stress, what do we learn about the influence colour has on us? A “quarantine palette” has emerged apparently, one that favours “silky blues, quiet greys, and subtle shades of pink,” that convey “stability and timelessness”. “Color therapy is definitely at play … an attempt to adapt to our newfound mode of introversion.”