The Easel

26th April 2022

It’s Art! It’s Marketing! It’s Publicity!: Inside the Art and Fashion and Billionaire Bonanza at the Venice Biennale 2022

WARNING – gossip! The Venice Biennale involves over 200 artists represented in 80 national exhibitions, plus another 30 collateral events. ‘Must visit’ lists are here and here. A “worst” art list is here. The Ukrainian pavilion gets special attention. Sonia Boyce won the Golden Lion for her work on the British Pavilion. Overall, it’s a “30,000-steps-a-day, five-dinners-a-night bacchanal of culture”. At some point, hopefully, someone will get around to writing about the art.

Review: Photo visionary Imogen Cunningham gets a refocus in new Getty retrospective

Graduating in chemistry in 1907 marked Cunningham as different. And she was. Her soft-focus images of people and landscapes and subsequent sharply focused images of plants both conveyed a “warmth, intimacy” markedly different to the prevailing “commercial culture”. In the 1930’s she co-founded Group f/36 which prized “the making of a picture over merely taking one.” A current show “secures her top tier in the ranks of 20th century photography”. More images are here.

Sheila Hicks: Off Grid

Hicks, the eminent textile artist, claims that textiles are “a crucial and essential component” across all cultures. She has walked that talk, working with craftspeople in many different cultures. What distinguishes her work, though, is how far she has gone beyond those craft foundations. Compared with her early loom-based pieces, many are now sculptural and abstract, use non-traditional techniques and incorporate diverse materials. “Simply delicious”, enthuses this writer.

Gallery chronicle

Soviet Russia in the 1920’s enjoyed creative freedom. Cinema was hugely popular leading to an explosion in poster art. Most posters lasted about a week before being pasted over, so eye-grabbing visuals were essential. Little was usually known about the film, so designers drew on avant garde art and experimented freely with lithographic techniques. Political nervousness was momentarily “overcome by the idealism of some of the greatest graphic designers of the twentieth century.”

The exquisite pottery of Richard Batterham

How does the traditional fit into contemporary art? Working with “tide-like regularity” Batterham handmade beautiful, minimally decorated, stoneware ceramics, using just a small repertoire of designs.  One writer described his work as “for us – ordinary people – not for museums”. His valedictory show in London has received modest coverage. Says the writer, his “simple pieces can shape your sensibility more directly than less accessible fine artworks”.  A video (30 min) is here.

Kawanabe Kyōsai: the demon with a brush

The trade deals forced on Japan by Admiral Perry in 1853 were seen internally as a political and commercial “humiliation”. The consequent political upheaval fascinated Kyōsai. A “masterly” painter, he also had a “mischievous genius” for satire and used it to highlight the dilemma of wanting both Western approval and political autonomy. Today Kyōsai is “one of the best loved chroniclers of Japan’s entry into the modern world”.

19th April 2022

The Melville of American Painting

People have long puzzled how to read Homer, the “chronicler of 19th-century America”. His contemporaries wondered why he painted foot soldiers rather than generals and called him the “obtuse bard”. For a time, he was seen as having “a kind of wholesome stupidity”. Rather than stupidity, modern eyes see complexity – “what is happening but not what will happen. He is the master of the ambiguous outcome, which also makes him the master of the unclear moral.”

Discovering Frank Auerbach’s true colours

A show of Auerbach’s paintings and drawings reveals the intricacy of his work process.  He is renowned for attempting a painting, scaping off the result and then repeating that process multiple times. This formidable effort is preceded by repeated drawings of the image. He draws not to record an image, he says; rather, “it’s a question of invention”. Drawings “drive” a new show and are Auerbach’s response to discovering, when he turned to painting, the “struggle to get it right”.

A State of Matter: Modern and Contemporary Glass Sculpture

Some think glass is too pretty a material to be taken seriously as fine art. The writer pushes back, politely, noting the many innovative ways glass is now being worked. True. What he bypasses, though, is whether the complexities of working with glass limit its use. Says a curator “interest in glass as a material for sculpture has never been greater.” Responds one critic “what really astonishes about contemporary glass is how little progress has been made since the Romans.”

Architect Norman Foster’s Guggenheim Exhibition Is A Requiem For The Age Of Combustion

A “thoroughly beautiful” show, curated by a famous architect, celebrates “the artistic dimension of the automobile”. You may or may not agree that cars are “rolling sculptures”, but the forty automobiles on display make a strong case. At the very least, this is eye candy of the highest order as well as, Foster admits, something of a “requiem for the last days of combustion.” Images are here.

Visions of Spain

Underfunded and off the beaten track, New York’s Hispanic Society is an “outsider” institution. It is re-opening after a five-year renovation, financed partly by loaning its spectacular collection of paintings, books and sculptures. A strength of its collection is painted wooden sculptures – “arresting works” – that show how Spanish artists leaned toward an expressive realism quite different to the idealism of Renaissance sculpture. Out of the limelight, such work has quietly had “a life of its own”.

The Story of a Stare Down

Holbein’s status as a “supreme” portraitist bestows renown on all his works. Some, though, become famous in their own right. New York’s Frick holds two, a “lushly painted” Thomas More and a “slit-eyed, hunted” Thomas Cromwell. The machinations of these adversaries and the convoluted path of the works before falling into Frick’s hands are the subject of this elegant essay. Perhaps enjoying the historical antagonism, Frick hung them either side of a mantlepiece, “staring each other down”.