The Easel

6th September 2022

Wolfgang Tillmans’ ways of seeing

Tillmans seems to acquire accolades with ease, a Turner Prize in 2000 being just the first of many. They are indicators of the distinctiveness of his photography, which is about being alert to the present. His work isn’t diaristic, he says. Rather, he strives to “spotlight something that everyone pretends not to see”. That something might be specific (youthful eroticism, AIDS) or just a “sense of the here and now”. Either way, his work is “a flash news report from and for a new generation”.

Tearing Down the Myth of Paul Gauguin

Critics see Gauguin as one of the greats of modern art. Regrettably, his behaviour toward women was appalling. A novel, written as a direct analogy to Gauguin’s life, articulates the question that now shadows his work – does his “brilliance” excuse his behaviour? In saying no, the novel argues that it is “impossible to separate the art from the artist”. If that is right, then are museums that exhibit his work and visitors who admire it committing “acts of complicity”?

Barbara Kruger’s ‘Rabbit Hole’ at MoMA

Kruger is resolutely unorthodox – she exhibits infrequently, does not copyright her works (leading to widespread copying), avoids self-promotion. Her text-focused images don’t bother with subtlety – “more wallop than resonance” as one writer puts it. Yet she is one of very few artists to have significantly influenced our visual world. Confined to just the atrium of New York’s MoMA, her current show is scaled up so that it “overwhelms” the space. Its architecture “screams her messages”.

Why the Barnes Foundation matters

Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation has a dazzling collection of Cézanne, Matisse and Seurat paintings. Reflecting current social discourse, much art criticism now emphasises artist identity and social context. This appreciation of that collection seems almost quaint by comparison, with its focus on the technical qualities of the paintings and personal aesthetic judgement. The inclusion of this piece is not taking sides in an important debate, but simply a reminder of just how much art criticism has shifted.

Japanese design: Rinpa

The Tokugawa shogunate brought prosperity to 17th century Japan. Kyoto’s artists responded by more freely using colour, pattern and form – the Rinpa school was born. It did not limit artistic expression, meaning that its leading figures were designers as much as painters. Their “spectacular” household screens, ceramics and lacquerware mixed realism and stylization in a way that “harmonises with our modern aesthetic ideals” and still influences contemporary design.

5 Things To Know About Italian Maiolica

Tin glazed pottery has one great virtue. Tin glaze, when applied to earthenware, creates a white porous surface ideal for painting. When painted and fired, the resulting piece is shiny and colourful, ideal for display. This Islamic invention appeared in 14th century Spain and, a century later, was all the rage in Renaissance Italy where it enjoyed a status similar to easel painting. The above piece is a succinct primer; more detail and images are here.

30th August 2022

Emma Talbot: The Age/L’Età at the Whitechapel Gallery review – a true visionary

Talbot is having a moment – being hung at the Venice Biennale and winning a major art prize that comes with a solo show. The show takes the story of Hercules and reimagines it with an older woman protagonist. It’s a neat twist that allows Talbot’s paintings, which fuse “patterning, abstraction and lyrical figuration”, to extol matriarchal wisdom. One critic wonders if this makes the show “overtly feminist”. Not at all, says this writer “[Talbot] is a true visionary”.

Keep Looking

Shabazz claims that humility is essential for his work. His decades-long subject is the people he encounters on New York’s streets, people who are the “center of the photograph but not of the world in which the picture is taken”. Politics gets scant attention. Mostly, we see past fashions, old makes of cars, or passing acts of tenderness, evidence of people “acting out the story of being themselves”.  Collectively, Shabazz has produced an “archive” of New York’s street culture. Images are here.

The British Museum Takes the Feminism Out of Feminine Power

A London exhibition explores female deities across world religions. They turn out to be a varied lot, not all of them gentle nurturing types. Some critics like the show but there are more than a few who don’t. One of the latter calls it “shrill and preachy”, pushing “feminist readings on to unruly ancient art”. However, the above writer grumbles about the opposite, that the show gives insufficient weight to feminist perspectives. Perhaps the curators got it about right. Images are here.

After Nearly a Decade of Debate, There’s a New Definition of ‘Museum’

Do we care how we define a museum? Apparently so, as the accepted definition may get used in legislation. And, of course, it matters greatly to museum professionals. An international museum association spent years updating the definition, only to have its proposal rejected for being “a statement of fashionable values”. A revised, narrower definition has now succeeded, in part by excluding difficult issues like repatriation. Phew!

The drama of Madame Lebrun

Le Brun, a favourite of Marie-Antoinette in pre-Revolutionary France, was a “leading portraitist of her age”. Accused of being a “flatterer” and a narcissist, she was written out of art history until a recent rehabilitation. Any rehabilitation, says the writer, is “preposterous … [she painted] people as if they’re as dull as drapes”. Others counter that Le Brun needed to self-promote to overcome the misogyny of her times. As for flattery – isn’t that the calling card of portraitists everywhere?