The Easel

9th May 2023

Auerbach, grand master of paint, as hot-wired as a live grenade at 92

Gushing admiration. Portraiture features prominently in Auerbach’s career, including his near obsession with painting just a handful of sitters. Only now, at 91 has the “Grand Old Master of British Art“ produced a series of self-portraits. These works are a “hard, uncompromising quest to take stock of human decline” with paint strokes that “almost disguise the likeness while exposing the interior of the mind. One of the most astonishing exhibitions of self-portraiture ever seen in London”.

‘Les Belles-Soeurs’: Ingres’s Portraits of the Noble Sisters-in-Law

An appreciation of Ingres’ portraiture. Harmony was an essential – “her exquisite [blue] satin ball gown … is an icy shade whose coolness is offset by the silky golden chair”. Subjects were shown in “anatomically unrealistic [poses] to create an impossible idealized beauty”. More perceptively, the late Tom Lubbock called these works “an extraordinary spectacle. The sitters are gift wrapped trophy wives … objects of worship and items of beauty … portraits in which, at every point, intimacy occurs”.

The Sheer Teeming Multiplicity and Variety of It All

Bruegel placed in his life and times. In Antwerp, he encountered the work of Hieronymus Bosch whose vision of life included “everything from the carnival-esque to the grotesque”. Antwerp teemed with life but, due to political instability, had a troubled zeitgeist that perhaps explains an ominous Bosch-like tone in some Bruegel works. His renowned snowy landscapes “may be magnificent in their vision of bleakness but they do not depict a happy or easy way of life”.

Critics fear Benin Bronzes could be privatized by royal heir

Not long after being restituted to Nigeria from Germany, a group of Benin bronzes have been given to their “rightful owner”, a descendant of the former royal family. One dismayed critic calls this outcome a “fiasco”. The response, of course, is that these were stolen goods and their owners can do with them as they please – as is the case with restituted artworks stolen by the Nazi’s. Whether the bronzes will be exhibited in the planned new museum of West African art is unknown.

Natural Light by Julian Bell review – the forgotten German artist who inspired Rembrandt and Rubens

No one person invented landscape painting, but Adam Elsheimer deserves an honourable mention. Contemporaries like Caravaggio thought human figures gave a painting its “substance and vigour”. Elsheimer, influenced by the rise of the natural sciences, prioritised landscape. He painted vegetation in realistic terms and portrayed subtle gradations of light. Not only did he highlight the world’s “immensity” but also posed an enduring question “what it [means] to be human and in nature”.

Artists Are Suing Artificial Intelligence Companies and the Lawsuit Could Upend Legal Precedents Around Art

An essay from just 2014 that explains the long accepted role of appropriation in art now seems almost quaint. AI presents new and subtle challenges, most recently copying an artist’s style and using that to create new work. Is this fair? Style cannot be legally protected and there is a presumption that online content can be copied. Complains one digital artist “You develop this [visual] language … and then AI doesn’t just replace you but also muddies what you are trying to do.”

2nd May 2023

Essay: Vermeer: objectivity, intimacy

What is it about Vermeer? As a painter in provincial Delft, he found limited success. Rediscovered in the 19th century, he is now wildly popular. The focus of that popularity is his tranquil scenes of household life. Why, in the 21st century, do we find them so beguiling?

“Vermeer’s images intrigue in the very way that a great photograph always intrigues. There is an uncanny objectivity to the camera eye [that] can create a powerful sense of intimacy. His Woman Reading a Letter asks, with its detachment and respect, that we not try to interpret too much. Do not step closer, says Vermeer. It is her letter, not yours. And thus, almost magically, the objectivity of the picture also lends itself to a sense of care.”

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith Can’t Believe She’s Still the First

“Why not before?” says a Whitney curator about this first retrospective given to a Native American artist. Part of the answer is that few had thought contemporary art and indigeneity might co-exist. Smith has spent decades demonstrating such a co-existence is possible. Her work uses modernist methods – collage, oil paints, prints – to make wry commentaries on “post-genocidal existence”. “Smith is one of America’s greatest living artists, and failing to acknowledge that would be madness.”

What Uta Barth’s Images Tell Us about the Limits of Sight

To those who say her images are out of focus, Barth responds that they are perfectly focused. The camera just happens to be focused on “an unoccupied point in space”. By recording the “envelope of information” that otherwise surrounds a central object, she draws attention to how we look, what we focus on and what we miss. This sometimes “slightly hallucinatory” focus allows Barth to show sight as an experience that is “visual, perceptual, felt, lived, subjective, flawed. And yet, coherent.”

The poor relation of the art world

One view is that the art we value expresses the temper of our times. Alternatively, what is deemed ‘good’ art can be manipulated by governments or curatorial fashion. These latter factors explain why figurative art – notably landscapes – are being “driven out” of museums, especially in Britain. Villains like Stalin, Hitler and the CIA get named. All fine, except that abstraction was creeping into art even before 1900. Tranquil landscapes perhaps don’t resonate with modern viewers like they once did.

Georgia O’Keeffe before she was famous

O’Keeffe, in remote New Mexico, churned out oil paintings. They have not been immune from criticism – they “reward glances, not scrutiny”. Working on paper was her foundational expertise and these works are “spectacular”. Early watercolours show she was an “intuitive, surprising artist”. Charcoal drawings feel “rash, rough, magnetic … in a word, alive”. The time she devoted to oil painting, perhaps swayed by its prestige, is a case of “a world class sprinter [who] chose to run marathons”.

What Should Contemporary Art Do for a Society?

The benefactor of Hong Kong’s M+ museum ponders the “use-value” of art. Chinese culture wants art to create “a sphere of beauty and harmony … without [social] dissent”. Western contemporary art is “mostly analytical and critical”, matching a curious and open society. The curators of Documenta 15, representing low-income countries in the “global south”, view art as political activism, not the creation of precious objects. Such a view is likely to “change the terms of the party.”