The Easel

6th July 2021

EASEL ESSAY: Smudgy Areas: the art of Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot was a first-rate artist and the Impressionists’ sole female member. Like them, she was interested in “the fuzziness of visual experience”. Her greatest fascination was with those moments when we lose focus, when our attention drifts elsewhere. How can such moments be captured in a painting? Perhaps a smudge might do it?

“The woman in Woman in Grey Reclining, [Morisot wondered], might not have very precise boundaries at all. The result is a picture that seems on the verge of falling apart, in the same way that a melodic line in one of the more evanescent compositions by Debussy threatens to evaporate into a tissue of dreamy, disconnected notes that float away into the breeze.”

Paul Cadmus and the Censorship of Queer Art

Art has long been a carrier of coded messages. Employed to capture “the American scene”, Cadmus painted The Fleet’s In in 1934. It’s satirical image of drunk, flirtatious sailors with sexualized bodies caused a scandal. Homoeroticism, a clear element of the painting, went unmentioned, presumably because homosexuality was a topic absent from mainstream discourse. The Navy protested it was “not true to the Navy”. Well, not all the Navy.

On Taste

An acclaimed Rembrandt turns out, embarrassingly, not to be by him. Authenticity is an important quality of an artwork. Were the experts who were fooled lacking taste? Training helps develop taste, but the standards that are taught are only based on trial and error. And who is to say that today’s standards are not about to be overthrown by a new way of looking? “Times change, tastes change. That’s the way of the world.

Sabine Weiss: A Century of Photography

Nearing 100 years old, Weiss has recently stopped taking pictures, but awards and recognitions continue. She, along with Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis, helped established the humanist school of photography that is now synonymous with black-and-white street photography. And, she reminds, she did it without assistants. Her images are all spontaneous, she says – “I photograph to preserve the ephemeral.” A good bio piece is here.

Why this Rodin scholar would gladly see the back of The Thinker

Wow – a Rodin scholar who dislikes this famous work! When Rodin made it, a male body building “craze” was sweeping France. It was seen as a bulwark against moral degeneration. The sculpture’s “in-your-face machismo” and prominent genitals also extoll artistic creativity. An example of toxic masculinity? “Embodying virile masculinity, exemplifying outdated sexist and classist ideas, The Thinker is now past its prime.”

Picasso: echoes of Iberia

Young Picasso had an eye for ‘primitive’ art. African and Etruscan influences are well known, but the impact on him of ancient art from Iberia has been “underestimated”. When he first moved to Paris, Iberia was just being recognized as a Mediterranean civilisation. “Picasso’s ‘Iberianism’ is now accepted as a crucial stage in the journey from a sentimental [literal] representation of the figure to a ‘conceptual’ representation … [the path to] Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

29th June 2021

Chantal Joffe: Story

Joffe has said “As I get older, only the personal seems to matter”. Portraits of herself and family members thus dominate her output. These works are acclaimed because they describe an emotional landscape, especially the one she shares with her mother, whom she has been painting for over thirty years. Whether childhood memories or images of an aging parent, the writer admits they collectively “create a sensory and emotional landscape I didn’t want to leave.”

Carved into history: the life of Grinling Gibbons

No superlative seems too grand for Gibbons, whom some consider the greatest woodcarver in history. Dutch born, he spent his career in England where, for decades up to about 1700, his patrons included a succession of kings. What set his carvings apart was an exuberant but naturalistic style – “cascades of fruit, leaves, flowers, foliage, fish and birds.” Without doubt, he “helped to shape the aesthetic of the British baroque.” A video (4 min) is here.

In the studio with James Barnor: ‘I never thought the world would see my photographs’

The teenage Barnor had a choice – basket weaving or photography. Easy! He developed a relaxed, candid style that helped give an energetic face to the newly independent Ghana. Between Accra and London his eclectic practice spanned studio portraiture, photojournalism, fashion and social commentary. In retrospect, Barnor admits he had ambition but not expectation – “I never thought the world would see my photographs”. Images are here.

Elizabeth Peyton’s meditations on fame, friendship and ‘holding onto things’

Peyton’s portraits feature celebrities so often it makes her work seem, well, celeb focused. As a result critics fret that the work varies “between vapidity and sophistication, bland copying and intent focus”. Perhaps they are put off because her work is pretty – handsome faces, jewel-like colours, angelic light. Peyton asserts that her real interest is entirely different – the passage of time. “With your friends you don’t see it … but you know it’s all going to pass.”

For the Medici, the last great spectacle of images

Florence was a tough town when Cosimo became its Duke in 1537. Just 17, he was thought compliant. Wrong. Besides getting an effective army, he splurged on portraits promoting his greatness and that of his circle. It had a “transformative” effect on late Renaissance portraiture. Says one critic, “the wonder and power of Florentine art came out of the scramble to clarify a [political situation] that was anything but clear.” Images are here.

Eileen Agar

Agar’s writings show an interest in life’s big themes. Did her art meaningfully address them? Not every critic is convinced. Collage was her strongest work and, with their unexpected juxtapositions, have a surrealist flavour. Before and after were abstract paintings. Overall, “the work never settles, as if [seeking] the next visual possibility”. One critic notes her early rebelliousness is gone from the late work. “Recanting? Not exactly, but somewhat akin”. Images are here.