The Easel

23rd March 2021

The Ideal Museum: Art Historian Kenneth Clark on the Formation of Western Institutions, in 1954

From the famous director, a ‘big picture’ essay. The first galleries, in fifteenth century Italy, simply gathered famous pictures and were a means of showing off. Great collections are now in the public domain and are works of art themselves. There are no rules for what they should collect. A museum director must “not only know what the works of art are saying to him, but what they are saying to one another.” Their aim should be to provide “exalted happiness”.

Is the nude selfie a new art form?

Art rendered the nude respectable. Selfies, like art, are edited to create an idealized image. Should we consider selfies, nude or otherwise, “the artwork of our time”? A useful test question – is the intent of a nude selfie to assert identity or simply to titillate? Ironically, the smartphone nude may be a return to “the aesthetic of the traditional respectable art historical nude: codified, safe … designed to be gazed upon”.

The UBS & Art Basel Art Market Report 2021 – Key Findings

The annual art market scoreboard. Global art sales totalled $50.1bn in 2020, a whopping 22% below 2019. Gallery sales fell 20% and auction sales fell 30%. Galleries responded by going online. Those sales doubled and now comprise 25% of the market. Over half of scheduled fairs were cancelled. For a change, smaller galleries weathered the pandemic somewhat better than those at the top end. Purchases by female buyers rose but representation of female artists stagnated.

In search of Irma Stern, whose paintings still embody the contradictions of South Africa

Stern was the classic insider / outsider. She was born in rural South Africa but grew up in Germany. Returning to Capetown after WW1, her modernist style ruffled feathers as did her respectful portraiture of black Africans. After WW2 her acclaim (and white skin) brought support from the Afrikaner government, while she also supported the anti-apartheid cause. Her work, with its contradictory back story, “speaks loudly to our contemporary moment”.

Awarding the Prtizker to a team synonymous with refurbs marks an important shift in architectural vales

All too often, architecture seems to reward the new, the flamboyant. This year’s Pritzker Prize – the profession’s highest honour – has instead gone to a firm that emphasises re-use of neglected buildings. Their mantra is “never demolish … always add, transform, and reuse!” Said the jury, their work “renews the legacy of modernism, but they have also proposed an adjusted definition of the very profession of architecture.” Images of 10 key projects are here.

Germany moves toward full restitution of Benin bronzes

A significant moment. After widespread procrastination, Germany has become the first nation to commence “full restitution” of its Benin bronzes. These artifacts – statues, plaques, ivory carvings, made over hundreds of years – were looted by British soldiers in 1897 in Benin (southern Nigeria). Says one curator, “Benvenuto Cellini could not have made a better cast. [They are] at the summit of what can be technically achieved”.  An excellent backgrounder is here.

5,000 photos from the fall of the Berlin Wall

Besides being politically momentous, the fall of the Berlin Wall was aesthetically significant. Conrad, an East German resident, photographed the Wall prior to its fall. It was, he states, “architecture at its most vicious”. He then documented its lengthy physical removal. “Photographing buildings or military installations that may have outlived their purpose is a form of reflection on how we deal with the past.”

16th March 2021

The Downward Spiral: Popular Things

Wow! Christie’s has auctioned Beeple’s crypto art for $70m. Some reactions seem too cerebral – “the violent erasure of human values inherent in the pictures”. More interesting are those focused on culture. Much current art and entertainment has “the uncanny feeling of having been made by algorithm, even though it wasn’t … We’re all looking for more popularity, new ways to find an edge; and yet, all this competition only seems to lead to blandness”.

An Unwitting Monument

“The human body contains histories.” Vienna in 1918 faced hunger, national decline, disease. Schiele’s art triumphed in that year’s Vienna Secessionist exhibition but then, the Spanish flu. Klimt died in February 1918, Schiele’s wife in October, Schiele himself three days later. Five days after that the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed. His last portraits, sparse drawings on scraps of paper, are collectively “an unwitting monument to immense loss”.

Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented

Artists in the new Soviet Russia eagerly joined in the re-making of society. Posters, in particular, became “form-givers of a new modernity”. It was a “seismic” change because these were images made for mass production. That meant mass consumption – “from individual to collective reception, from rapt absorption to off-handed viewing.” Official support for these artists was fleeting but what remained was a visual culture that is still highly influential.

Jules Olitski in New York

Olitzky absorbed from his Abstract Expressionist predecessors not the dramatic expressive gesture but the power of colour. He launched into colour-driven abstraction, showing a colour sense that “walks a tightrope between the ravishing and the vaguely disturbing.” What gives these works a feeling of prescience is that their wonky cellular and blobby shapes signalled that Pop was just around the corner.

Detective who found Munch’s Scream and Irish Vermeer stolen by Martin Cahill dies at 73

Light relief. Art detectives, like the thieves they chase, enjoy a certain mystique. Hill’s back story – an Oxford educated Scotland Yard detective – may only enhance that romantic image. The anecdotes are splendid and the list of artworks he helped recover impressive. His views on the thieves are interesting – “there is a madness that afflicts these people”.

The Frick Madison

New York’s Frick Collection is famously housed in the mansion Frick lived in. Forced to relocate by a renovation, do its treasures look different in a modern gallery setting? The Vermeers, now hung together, have quite different relative merits. With improved lighting, the Bellini is more obviously a masterpiece. Smaller details “pop” without the clutter of Frick’s furniture. Mostly, the art is better without the “complicating aura of its Gilded Age robber baron of a founder”.