The Easel

31st August 2021

Johannes Vermeer painting restored to reveal portrait of Cupid in once-bare background

Three cheers for technology. Art historians have long puzzled about Vermeer’s intentions in his early work Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. A restoration has revealed a naked Cupid that was overpainted after Vermeer’s death. With the overpainting removed, it is clear that he intended the work to be about romance. And the paper in the girl’s hand? “It’s a love letter, of course”. An excellent video on the restoration process is here.

Why is Yves Saint Laurent’s “Sardine Dress” So Compelling?

An elegy to “small-scale artistry”. The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watt regarded his Saville Row suits as works of art. What, then, about Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘sardine’ dress? The hand embroidery took 1500 hours and uses 19th century stitching techniques. Tiny gelatin sequins create a look of opalescent scales, or perhaps moonlight on “a disturbance on a calm bay”. “Hand embroidery is something emotional … it’s something that comes from the soul”.

Actions speak louder than words: Louise Bourgeois at the Jewish Museum

A troubled childhood led Bourgeois to decades of psychoanalysis. She also stated that “my art is my psychoanalysis”. Putting these together, a current show claims that her jottings about analysis explain her work. Don’t be taken in, advises the writer, Bourgeois was known for “self-mythologizing” and mischief making. The more one looks at her work without preconceptions, “the less Freudian it gets … [Bourgeois] is still a few steps ahead of her archivists”.

The curse of Mies van der Rohe: Berlin’s six-year, £120m fight to fix his dysfunctional, puddle-strewn gallery

Mies van der Rohe’s museum in Berlin is a “global icon” of 20th-century architecture. However, a six year “surgical” renovation has revealed the compromises made for the sake of good looks. Cracking windows, dull underground galleries, under-sized doors, the list is lengthy. Van der Rohe knew of such practical difficulties but prioritized the purity of his design. Sniffs the writer “never has so much praise been lavished on so dysfunctional a building”.

Sotheby’s New Hire: Can the Auction House Lion Lie Down with Gallery Lambs?

If covid restrictions feel endless, spare a thought for Art Basel. Big art fairs have pretty much stopped, starving Art Basel and others of cashflow and halting their collaboration with galleries. Sensing an opportunity, the big auction houses are using their high-profile online sales capabilities to entice galleries to work with them instead. It is, says the writer, a delicate balancing act, an “alliance between competitors”.

Germaine Krull’s Queer Vision

Krull’s 1928 photobook of industrial structures, Metal, led Man Ray (no less) to say she was his Modernist equal. There was, though, another strand to Krull’s work – images of “queer desire”. The subject was commonly broached using images of women gazing into mirrors – lesbian desire as narcissism. Krull’s approach, fifty years before Mapplethorpe, was just to be frank. Pioneering, yes, but it didn’t resonate with the times and she was forgotten. A backgrounder is here.

Ive by Gursky: A meeting of minds

How best to photograph a creative person? Gursky, famed photographic documentarian, was asked to make a portrait of Jony Ive, ex-Apple designer. Should he surround Ive with his famous products, perhaps focus on his chic dress sense, or use some metaphor of his “cerebrations”? Gursky declined all, instead showing Ive in Apple’s vast, spaceship-like building, an object that, like some of Ive’s designs, is “lightly tethered to planet Earth”.

24th August 2021

Chuck Close, Creator Of Gigantic Portraits, Has Died At 81

Setting out to be an abstractionist, Close painted multiple de Kooning look-alikes. And then he abruptly switched to portraits. Initially hyper-realistic and “psychologically aggressive”, they gradually became “brushier”, including grids of abstract shapes that, from a distance, resemble the subject. “I am not trying to make facsimiles of photographs,” Close said. “My main objective is to translate photographic information into paint information.”

Shahzia Sikander – An Extraordinary Past in Present Time

To the non-specialist, Indo-Persian miniature painting seems a world unto itself, unchanging. Well, not quite. Sikander trained in this artform but has since “blown it open” by bringing abstract elements into these finely detailed works. After her move to the US, Sikander’s work was initially greeted with the ‘rebel Muslim woman’ label. Now it is recognized as a study of womanhood and femininity where Mughal art is a reference point but not its focus.

Tokyo: Art and Photography

How’s this for ambition – a single exhibition covering 400 years of art from Tokyo! Despite being “ordered chaos”, the show somehow works. Tokyo’s printmakers are the star artists – the radical Hokusai, the sensitive Hiroshige. But contemporary artists – especially photographers – are also eye catching. And at least one critic sees threads of continuity across the centuries – an enduring interest not just in the “floating world” but in “modern life in all its strangeness”.

A First-Rate Weathervane Show at the American Folk Art Museum

When people walked everywhere, weathervanes were a building’s “exclamation point”. Besides providing weather information they also declared allegiance, or perhaps just local pride. As such they were a notable area of American craft and “at their finest, as much art as the best American silver and furniture.” At some point, though, when horse and buggies were common, their audience dwindled and weathervanes became merely quaint. More images are here.

Hiro, fashion photographer with an eye for the surreal, dies at 90

Richard Avedon’s early mentoring of Hiro didn’t last long because Hiro’s talent was so abundant. He changed commercial photography using bold colours and precise, sometimes surreal juxtapositions. Said one critic “he introduced into fashion an extreme formalism that had everything to do with exploring the boundaries of photography and less to do with selling anything. In front of his best photographs we often ask, what are we seeing?”

Drunk and disorderly: Michelangelo’s Bacchus

New in Rome and just 22, Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. Despite being a “virtuoso” work, it was rejected by the client. What happened? Was Bacchus simply too drunk-looking? Did its effeminate features set off alarm bells? Worse, was the drunkenness of the figure meant to suggest a god “consumed by homosexual desire”? Young Michelangelo was learning that even Renaissance Rome would tolerate only so much.

Purple Prose

While the science of optics advances, our response to colour remains essentially cultural. Cattle farmers in Ethiopia have “eleven colour terms for cows, but none for anything else.” Most of us think red signifies dignity, while yellow is “precariously balanced between the divine and the disagreeable”. Green now refers to a multitude of actions and attitudes; “metaphorical greenness is understood all over the world.” A podcast on the topic is here.