The Easel

7th June 2022

Nicholas Galanin

Shows of contemporary indigenous art seldom receive such a full size review. Galanin’s multimedia work addresses the survival of traditional indigenous culture in the face of ghastly “assimilation” policies, as well as inappropriate handling of indigenous cultural objects. As befits an artist represented in some major public collections, this show is full of “indelible imagery”. Says the writer, “his art makes me squirm.”

The Art of Knowing When to Stop

Picasso accused Bonnard of being “indecisive”. A new biography pushes back. While he admired both the Impressionists and, later, Cubism, Bonnard was a convert to neither. He loved domesticity and his interiors that show people and things dissolving into “in an iridescent haze” are the result of “a thousand tiny decisions piled on top of one another”. This was not indecision but Bonnard’s unique meditations on how what is seen gets represented on canvas. (Available outside the WSJ paywall here.)

How ‘Animal Crossing’ and the pandemic informed Takashi Murakami’s new Broad show

Murakami is having a high-profile museum show, the first in years. His early works are a blizzard of “stridently cheerful” flowers and manga-influenced figures, presented in “primary colours and jewel tones”. Newer “darker” works, inspired by the pandemic and the Fukushima disaster, are rendered in “cotton candy pink, bright blue and lemon yellow”. And the curator is buzzy about his new AR works – “It’s the next step. He’s moving physical objects into the metaverse”. Images are here.

German art before the arrival of the Nazis

Germany in the 1920’s was “brutally” transforming, a result of military humiliation, febrile politics and the introduction of mass production techniques. Its art changed toward a “stoic”, less expressive figurative style that portrayed people as “interchangeable and disposable objects”.  Sander’s documentary photography was an exemplar of this “new objectivity”. It lasted but eight years, after which it suddenly was deemed degenerate. We all know what happened next.

The Prodigal Son of Spanish Baroque Art

Seville-based Murillo, one of the great religious painters of the Spanish Golden Age, loved to tell a story. The Prodigal Son was an ideal topic – a strong narrative but little detail that might restrict the artist’s imagination. Some of Murillo’s works are criticized as having “a bit of a bubble gum quality”. Not these. Full of little Seville details, they are an inventive and dynamic imagining of the protagonist’s progress “from lost to found”. Detail on the Prodigal Son cycle is here.

Why Britain should want to return the Parthenon Marbles, argued by a professor of Aegean archaeology

Greece has long argued that Lord Elgin was a serial looter who took the Parthenon sculptures illegally. Britain has steadfastly maintained that the works were obtained fairly. British public attitudes have been shifting toward restitution and recently UNESCO announced that the two nations will hold formal talks. A breakthrough? Perhaps not – a British Museum official has suddenly announced a new justification for how the works were acquired. A case of two steps forward, one step back.

31st May 2022

Easel Essay: Goya: Bearing true witness

Once he was appointed as court painter to Charles IV, Goya knew nothing but worldly success. Yet, over his career, his art became bleaker, culminating in the “Black Paintings” done on the walls of his final house. The usual explanation is that Goya, beset with ill health and appalled by war, became disillusioned. While that is true, says Morgan Meis, there is more.

“Human beings tend to clump together. It just happens. It is born of randomness and yearning, of anger or of dreaming. Goya was interested in this clumping … and perceived clumps and pyramids [everywhere]. In this sense, Goya was never a painter of The Enlightenment. He was a painter of tendencies and forces that are deeper and more fundamental. Clumping was, for Goya, a core truth not to be denied.”

Why we’re all still screaming for Edvard Munch

Munch had woes – anxiety, alcoholism, unsuccessful romances. They appear in his work via a vocabulary of symbols, such as staring eyes, sunken cheeks and pallid skin, collectively expressing his view of the self as “a battleground”. A show of his overlooked early work reveals a more nuanced Munch, one more obviously connected into European art of his time. For a change, the omnipresent The Scream is absent. That, says one critic, is “very welcome”.

Eye-catching textiles from India, at the Textile Museum

Indian textiles have long been a case study in diversity. Regional differences have always existed in the raw materials and dyes used and the customer base spans all social classes. As Islamic influences grew in northern India from around the 12th century, floral and figurative elements started appearing. Chintz, with its floral designs, arrived in the 1700’s and, via its popularity as a sofa covering, now influences interior design everywhere. A quick tour of the history of Indian textiles is here.

Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Ways of Seeing’

In 1969 the BBC screened Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. Three years later it broadcast Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Where Clark offered scholarly veneration, Berger used plain English to argue that art reflects society’s values. A Gainsborough landscape was, to Clark, an enchantment but to Berger a celebration of property ownership. Berger also pointed out that, in art, “men act and women appear”. And, he anticipated our media age where images “structure our understanding of ourselves”.

Damien Hirst’s Natural History at Gagosian

When Hirst first exhibited a shark in a tank of formaldehyde, it shocked. A similar work of cow and calf soon won him the Turner Prize. Does a show featuring 30 years of such works bring another round of applause?  Not exactly. Some criticize him for “wasting” animal lives, though he is surely not alone in this. The bigger criticism is a clear lack of inspiration. Says this writer “most of the works seem lazy or forced [and] points to a lack of worthy ideas”. Another is more acerbic – “art for oligarchs”.

Sean Scully: the Shape of Ideas at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Scully’s work is so often on show that it takes a “massive” retrospective to attract attention. This review falls toward the ‘adoring’ end of the spectrum but is thorough. Scully’s early career in New York yielded tight geometric abstractions. Since his acclaimed Backs and Fronts in 1981, his work has become less tightly controlled, more self-expressive. The writer admiringly uses Robert Hughes’ comment that Scully’s stripes possess “something fierce … a grandeur shaded by awkwardness”.