The Easel

3rd October 2023

In an unforgettable new show, Manet and Degas are much more than rivals

The best review by far of this “stupendous” show. The Monet-Degas friendship formed over a shared antipathy toward the “listless” art establishment. Degas was interested in “psychological interiority” while Manet focused on devastating painterly technique. Friends became frenemies as they strove to make “modern” imagery. In their relationship, “the dynamic of rivalry is never resolved. How much did they hate each other [becomes] how much did they love each other?”

Hyperreal art is Instagram-worthy and booming

Half way through its run in Paris, Mueck’s show continues to divide opinion. The problem is that his hyper-realist works straddle “tenderness [and] horror”. Some love his exquisite, technically precise craftsmanship. Others – art-world insiders, apparently – “loathe” hyper-real sculpture, viewing it as “unimaginative … more spectacle than sublime.” Few, though, will disagree with the observation that “in an era of screens, the body still matters.”

Sarah Lucas: Happy Gas, Tate Britain, review: Toilets, dildos, fags and boobs – the YBA is still perverse

Lucas has been around for decades, but her bawdy humour still has some critics calling her a joker. To be fair, there are tits and penises everywhere, making for “blokey, off-colour” jokes. For one writer this is 1990’s feminism all over again, making it “as rebellious as paper doilies”. In contrast, this writer calls some of Lucas’s work “brutal”. Her figures made with stuffed tights “look as though they’re waiting for us like working girls in the world’s loneliest brothel.”

‘Rubens & Women’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery: who’s afraid of Peter Paul Rubens?

Think Rubens, think fleshy, buxom beauties? Well, perhaps we shouldn’t. Yes, he painted nudes, but a curator argues that he didn’t objectify women. If so, that explains why he had numerous female patrons. Rubens was a devoted family man whose mother was a role model for the strong females that appear throughout Rubens’s work.” Says one critic, “He paints what he admires, in a way that respects and empowers”.

The Art of the Great Depression

Facing the Depression, the US government funded employment creation. This included “art for the millions” as a way to promote American cultural identity. Male images predominated with few female workers or workers of colour. Small town imagery, evocative of American values, was promoted as was photojournalism and modern design. The end result was a familiar melange: “consumerism and moderation, tradition and innovation, and imperialism and cultural tolerance”.

Divinity Incognito

This book, previously reviewed, yields in different hands a different story. Elsheimer was a mid-level artist, painting in Rome around 1600. For a time, he was influential – Rubens, Gentileschi, Rembrandt. Elsheimer “loved clutter”. Rembrandt, aware of Elsheimer, leaned opposite. This essay also reminds that art history is detective work. Did all these artist connections exist back in 1600 or is it a mirage caused by scant historical evidence? The reader must judge.

26th September 2023

Very Veritas: Barkley L. Hendricks – Portraits At The Frick

Hendricks’ portraits are acclaimed because he painted black subjects in the grand style of the Old Masters that he so admired. This fell flat with late-1960’s American audiences, but times change. New York’s Frick, with its rather “white” collection, has hung Hendricks’ works amongst its own. Their portraits by Van Dyck communicate “a single idea, ‘attitude is armour’, and it’s precisely this idea Hendricks portraits appropriate”. Background to the show is here and images here.

Tetsuya Ishida: My weak self, my pitiful self, my anxious self

Japan’s dizzying postwar economic success abruptly stopped in 1991 and was followed by stagnation. Ishida belonged to that “lost generation” of young adults whose dreams were not met. Ignoring the cute aesthetic of mass culture, he adopted a surreal/realist style, depicting anonymous workers who convey “a sense of estrangement and rupture”. This is a “society of tiredness and fatigue … a world lost to reason”. More images are here

Marina Abramović’s catalogue of self-harm

Abramović’s most critically acclaimed work was Rhythm 0 in 1973 when audience members nearly assaulted her. Wider recognition, though, came from a 2010 work where she sat in a New York museum for 700 hours. Her works, especially when done by hired performers for a London show, don’t persuade this writer. “Abramović needs buy-in from the viewer. Her catalogue of self-harm provokes a reaction, but to what end is less than clear.” A review of her key works is here.

The avant-garde artists who went wild in Paris

In the aftermath of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat, some Paris artists developed a radical idea. Rather than using colours that match reality, why not choose colours for their “expressive value”? Explorations of this idea included Matisse painting a beach with red sand. The artists who gravitated to the idea – the “fauves” – had coalesced by 1904. But their “all-out assault on the senses” barely made it to 1908.  Said Braque “you can’t remain in a state of paroxysm forever”.

Pulled from a Field in Albania, a 2,500-Year-Old Statuette Comes to Getty

A cute story. Archaeologists watching an Albanian farmer plough a field after onion harvest noticed a green object (that wasn’t an onion). It turned out to be a solid bronze statuette made in about 500 BCE when the area was a Greek colony. What has caused much excitement – apart from its age – is its high quality craftsmanship, indicating it was likely made in Corinth, an ancient centre of metalworking. And, unusually, the stars of the story are unsung conservators.

Bernard Cohen: Things Seen

Is Cohen an abstract artist? He says no, claiming that his paintings have a “storytelling capacity”. Finding those stories, however, is a challenge. For decades he has produced labyrinthine works, variously colourful “tangled spaghetti” or shards of glass interspersed with patches of colour. Cohen’s paintings are “a series of diagrams about painting”, is one suggestion. Less ambitiously, perhaps they simply reflect “the visual cacophony of everyday life”. A video (4 min) is here.