The Easel

20th September 2022

Photography trailblazer William Klein dies at 96

In 1954, Vogue persuaded Klein that his brash, graphic photography was just what they wanted for their fashion magazine. Shooting fashion out on the street proved influential at the magazine and beyond. More rules were broken with his book of New York street photography that focused on “all the exuberance, violence, and off-beat beauty a city contains”. Published in 1956 – in Paris, not the US – it was instantly acclaimed. Says one critic, Klein was “one of the greatest filmic artists of his age”.

The Iron Curtain: Christo and Jeanne-Claude

A reminiscence. In 1962, Christo and Jeanne-Claude used discarded oil barrels to block off the tiny rue Visconti in Paris. Police dismantled it after just seven hours but it was an indicator of the bigger projects to come. Their barrels were intended to confront, creating a tension between viewer and environment. Concealment was also part of this work, as was its modular elements and its temporary nature. Like all their works, it was intended as a “gentle disturbance”.

Storms, sharks and rippling bodies – but was Winslow Homer lost at sea?

Homer, a household name in the US, is little known in Britain. Does a “magnificent” survey in London bring the usual acclaim? Not really. Homer’s naturalist scenes were often unresolved. Will the sailor survive the shipwreck? Are soldiers at war always heroic? But, what to American eyes adds tension fails to impress this writer. “Its difficult, today, to get excited about this overly-explanatory visual quality. In general, there’s too much boyish, adventuresome melodrama, and insufficient mystery.

Albert Bierstadt unveiled the epic vistas of the American West

Manifest destiny was the idea that settler expansion across the American continent was but one more step toward American greatness. A young Bierstadt saw himself as just the artist to paint this vision. His landscapes of the West were huge, immensely popular, but appear now to express a “dream of conquest”. Railroad magnates loved them, but an observant Mark Twain thought them too much – all those silvery mountains, clouds and sunlight were “considerably more beautiful than the original”.

Rodin & Degas: Impressionist sculpture

Both Rodin and Degas were fascinated by dance. Intending all his work for public display, Rodin tried to capture the “emotionalism” of contemporary dancers, such as Nijinsky, in classical sculpture. Degas’ interest was classical ballet – as his paintings attest – and he used his sculptures as private experiments about the figure and the effect of worked surfaces on light. As one critic observes, two different approaches but the same objective – “modern figural expressiveness”.

13th September 2022

Picturing the Queen: How artists portrayed Queen Elizabeth II through her reign

The media is giving us an Elizabethan week, following the death of the English monarch. She was perhaps the “most visually depicted individual ever”.  Being on the throne as the mass media age blossomed, she was irresistible to image makers. A key decision, it seems, was whether or not to flatter.  Warhol, like many others, showed her “eternal regal glamour”. Lucien Freud painted a small, controversial portrait that showed “she had been through a lot”. She never commented on it.

Vagina scrolls and tongue-kissing with cats: Carolee Schneemann is one of art’s great rebels

Irate at the unfair treatment of female artists, Schneemann decided to provoke. When her abstract paintings didn’t have much impact, she tried performance art, working in the nude. Some of her performances may now look silly, like writhing around among chickens and fish. One critic hints at exhibitionism by an artist who was “flawlessly beautiful”. Still, Schneemann emphatically made her point with works that are “highlights of the performance art canon”.

The Punk Portraitist of New York’s Underground

Among the soon-to-be-famous artists in late 1970’s New York were some major talents with lesser profiles. Leatherdale was one. Often compared to Mapplethorpe, his portraits of New York’s demimonde attracted attention, including from a young Issey Miyake. While Mapplethorpe was happy to shock, Leatherdale was more restrained, documenting “the cosmopolitan netherworld of style … with an understanding and graceful precision”. More images are here.

Telling the story of art—without men

Shows of long overlooked female artists now happen regularly. Has equal treatment for female artists finally arrived? Not really. A new art history constructs a timeline of female artists back to the Renaissance. It features 300(!) artists, many of whom have only come to light as a result of recent scholarship. Surely, art history texts need a re-write. Asks the author “How did museums get away with celebrating the history of patriarchy instead of the history of art?”

Tomorrow’s Orthodoxy

Why did the modernist art revolution happen in Paris? By 1905, there were around 3000 aspiring artists there, working with a “dense network of small dealers and galleristes” outside the mainstream salons. Although located in raffish Montmartre, this was a professional community. London had no equivalent, its art world having stayed close to elite society and its patronage.  Of course, outsiders usually become insiders, and Paris’s radical impulse was eventually overtaken – by New York.

The Not-So-Golden Age of Holland

The Dutch Golden Age, the century following Holland’s independence from Spain in 1588, was an era of great cultural achievement – Rembrandt, Vermeer and more.  Holland grew wealthy from its colonies and the art that we celebrate today displays those “exploitative” relationships. Portraits show the trappings of colonial wealth, for example, and indigenous figures are portrayed as “accessories” of the wealthy. Beautiful they may be, but these paintings are “bitter fruits” of the Golden Age.