The Easel

28th September 2021

Frans Hals: The Male Portrait, review: pale, stale, male – and exhilarating

Hmm – a show exclusively of male portraits! The curatorial rationale is to celebrate the “astounding originality” of Baroque portraitist Hals and his masterpiece, The Laughing Cavalier. Done in 1624, the painting is a tour de force of vivid personality, showy fabrics and “27 [shades] of black”. Hals “revolutionized” portraiture with strategies that made his subjects “immediate, sparky, and natural”.

Neo Rauch’s antagonistic art

German unification, it seems, is ongoing. Rauch is from the East and while feted in New York, he gets criticism from Berlin. His figurative work, sometimes called arch-traditionalist, reflects his East German training. These works are “huge, dense, ostensibly narrative scenes in which narrative is stubbornly elusive … [recalling] Renaissance art one minute and socialist realism the next … allegories to which Rauch has thrown away the key”.

The unseen masterpieces of Frida Kahlo

Kahlo has become “merchandise”, reflecting the way her colourful personal life and numerous self-portraits grab our attention. A survey of her known work, much of which has been ignored, finds surprising diversity. Her art didn’t start with her husband’s encouragement. She had wider influences; her father’s still lifes, surrealism, Old Masters. One thing we know hasn’t changed, though – “Kahlo made her work speak loudly to us”.

Jasper and me

Not so much a review of a huge Johns retrospective as a personal meditation on his enigmatic work. Johns rebelled against 1950’s abstract expressionism with radical work about “things the mind already knows … things seen and not examined”. It had a huge impact – “like the Beatles kicking out Elvis”, opening the door to important new art ideas. Johns, says the show’s curator, is “[perhaps] the most important living artist for more than 60 years”.

Jerry Gogosian’s First Impressions of Art Basel in Basel

Art Basel, the premier name in art fairs, was held this past week. Organisers claimed it was the “first full scale international art fair since 2019”. Proving one’s vaccination status was apparently a nightmare. American collectors were missing as were free oysters at the VIP breakfast. Most galleries only presented works that were easy to sell. And there was an “NFT kiosk”. So, back to business as usual? Hmm … let’s see.

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

Sitting in Florence in 1550, Vasari wrote Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Art history was born. Can we still learn from this work? Gossip is a constant in life. Vasari’s favourite artists “broadly are our own” implying that taste in art doesn’t change much. And even back then, art was a winner-take-all market, but “craftsmen who have as their ultimate and principal end gain and profit rarely become very excellent”.

21st September 2021

Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty, Dulwich Picture Gallery review – adventures in print

Frankenthaler has long borne criticism that paintings as pretty as hers cannot be serious. What about her woodblock prints? Described as “visions of overwhelming beauty”, they have a familial link to her paintings. Woodblock printing is complex and signs of the technique, such as wood grain, add surface texture and ‘dimensionality’ to a work. By accentuating such effects, an evidently serious Frankenthaler achieved “a paradoxical distillation of all that is painterly”.

‘It’s just a perpetual slaughter’: Barbara Kruger on why she’s remaking some of her old critiques of power for her new museum show.

One famous Kruger aphorism is “your body is a battleground”. So is her art. It has been described as “one-liners that do no serious harm to anyone” and “one long exercise in preaching to the choir”. Well, imitation is the surest form of flattery and her text/photo style is widely copied. Further, her critique of consumerism and cultural power resonates loudly. Does that make her feel prescient? “No … the past 1000 years is fraught with power and its abuses”.

A Study for ‘Worn out’: a newly discovered Van Gogh drawing

Having just moved to The Hague, the young van Gogh was drawing figures in the hope of becoming a magazine illustrator. He drew both men and women, in particular one old man from a nearby home. One of those drawings, long held by a Dutch family, has re-surfaced. Says one expert involved in the authentication “a very fine, powerful drawing, which stands up entirely on its own.” (The linked piece is the authentication report, temporarily out from a paywall.)

Christo’s Wrapped Arc de Triomphe Set for Moment of Glory

Dreamed up by Christo in 1962, the Arc de Triomphe was finally wrapped this week. The installation uses 25,000 square metres of silvery blue polypropylene fabric, secured by 3,000 metres of red rope. Says one writer, “the effect is at once disorienting and riveting”. Livestreaming video of the installed work is here and an interview with Christo about the project is here.