The Easel

4th June 2024

Sonia Delaunay: Living Art

To say Delaunay was prolific is an understatement. Her output spanned painting, embroidery, textiles, couture, tapestry, graphics, mosaics and décor. She established her modernist credentials in the 1920’s by applying “singular” geometric designs to fashions such as the flapper dress. Although she moved on to painting after WW2, the peak of her career was her textile and fashion work that anticipated Pop and Op art. Delaunay noted ruefully that she had ”been born forty years too early”. Images are here.

Piero della Francesca: the world knew him not

Coming from regional Italy, Piero was a forgotten outsider of the early Renaissance. Rediscovered in the mid-19th century, his work differs from the styles of the key Renaissance cities. He rarely painted human feelings, portraying instead an “ideal proportional world” with “unerring apportioning of light and shadow”. Such works include some of the “supreme masterpieces” of Italian art, making him “a worthy predecessor to Leonardo and Vasari”. Having accomplished all that, Piero gave up art to study maths.

Whitney Biennial 2024: Even Better Than the Real Thing

A biennial is, by definition, a mélange. Good reason to expect controversy, which is kind of the point. Sadly, the commentary coming out of the Whitney show is not lively criticism, but conveys an air of weariness. The biennial itself has a feel that one critic describes as “I can’t go on/I must go on”. Another wonders whether it’s a “a grand intellectual battle, or just an insiders’ chinwag?” Says the above writer, “As we lean into what divides us—the cracks and fissures … we choose tribalism and separatism.”

Marc Camille Chaimowicz Was Not Really of This Masculinist World

Chaimowicz felt that his art school disapproved of his interest in applied arts – “colour was seen as decadent and pleasure as reactionary”. His response, it seems, was to go all in, becoming renowned for  “uncategorizable and gloriously chaotic room-size installations [containing] objects one might find in a flea market”. He was trying, suggests one critic, to represent “memory and the mists in which it necessarily resides”. Often Chaimowicz would be part of the installation, available for a cup of tea and a chat.

Stroke of Genius: How 34-Year-Old Flora Yukhnovich’s 21st-Century Spin on Rococo Turned Her Into an Art-World Phenomenon

When does a young artist become noteworthy? If they make brilliantly original work, undoubtedly. A contemporary alternative is to get huge prices at auction. Yukhnovich has done the latter and, perhaps, also the former. Her semi-abstract paintings riff on the rococo style of 18th century France, and a major London museum will hang two of these over the summer. Does that justify the triumphant headline above? Not really, but then Yukhnovich’s achievements are not nothing either. A video (2 min) is here

Sir Elton John and David Furnish talk us through their upcoming V&A exhibition ‘Fragile Beauty’

Does a celebrity’s photography collection deserve a show in a public gallery? The problem is that there is a fine line between a show that celebrates great images and a show that is simply a homage to the collector. That risk is even greater when the collector is Elton John, a name that will pull in the crowds. The show is “rammed full of iconic images” says one critic. It works because its link to the singer gives it “a story, and an iconic story at that”. More images are here.

On the Dot: Vienna’s Albertina Celebrates Roy Lichtenstein’s Centennial

It’s hard to disagree with one critic’s characterisation that Lichtenstein was “the most cerebral of the Pop artists”. His comic-like paintings were challenging on several levels. They displayed (flaunted!) a mass production aesthetic in a hand made object. And, of course, they presented a seemingly “low culture” image as high culture. Coming hard on the heels of individualistic abstract expressionism further amplified his challenge. Plagiarism? Yes … and no. Comics don’t deal in parody.

28th May 2024

A Century Later, Käthe Kollwitz’s Phantoms of War Go Unheeded

Being called “the conscience of her age” sounds like a compliment. In Kollwitz’ case, it has also been a line of attack. She has been dismissed as a maker of “sentimental” work, or merely a printmaker with political views. Her refusal to be stoic in the face of war and personal loss led the Nazi’s to tag her work as “degenerate”. Now she is recognised as having made some of the most enduring images of maternal grief. “Despair should not be this beautiful”.

In Radiant Paintings and Beaded Extravaganzas, Jeffrey Gibson Remixes Native American Histories

Gibson becoming the first Native American to lead the US presence at the Venice Biennale is a cause for celebration. But are we celebrating his Native identity or his contemporary art? It’s not always easy to separate the two because Native perspectives on things like the materials that are used may differ from mainstream views. Gibson responds “My goal was never to recreate what was made previously [basket weaving]. I wanted to learn [that] technology so I could then make a sculpture.”

‘A Plaything for Rich People and Fancy Museums’? Reevaluating Impressionism at 150

Surely there is nothing new to say about Impressionism. On the 150th birthday of the movement, a Paris museum makes a valiant effort to show otherwise. Its “erudite” show demonstrates how radical the Impressionists were – their optimistic modern vision compared to a moralising status quo. A curator explains that in the first “Impressionist” show in 1874, such works were actually a minority – not quite the confrontation that art history tells. Yet in a Paris battered by civil unrest, the work did carry a shock.

Sitting on the art

Why don’t we think of furniture as art? We could blame the Renaissance and its ”valorisation” of fine art, or 20th century modernism, that also was high minded about its own spiritual qualities. Notable efforts to eliminate the boundary have come from Britain’s Arts and Crafts movement and the Bauhaus. Furniture is slowly being liberated from the strict protocols of product design, resulting in “a whole species of ambiguous objects where furniture meets sculpture. Art and design exist in a continuum of possibilities”.

Memling’s Faces

An appreciation. Renaissance folks were attracted to virtue signalling – and signalling material success – just as we do today. This “extraordinary” portrait by Memling does none of that. We know nothing about its subject except that he is old. An absence of personal identifiers “pre-empts our current insistence on identity as the ultimate measure of existence”. This is a different expression of being human, something almost universal. “He has been through some things and known some pain, but he is still searching …”

Masterpiece Story: The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

A useful primer if you have seen references to the Arnolfini portrait but don’t know its background. When van Eyck painted it in 1434, oil painting was new. This work’s “spectacular” detail and plentiful symbolism made it the first iconic example in this medium. It’s also enigmatic. Is it really Giovanni Arnolfini? Is his wife pregnant? Does it commemorate their wedding or, as argued here, her untimely death? “Jan van Eyck has certainly left us with one of the most intriguing paintings in the history of art.”

Herbert List’s Couples, In Three Vintage Prints

List worked professionally in inter-war Germany when surrealism was influential.  It influenced him too, but there was another influence at work – he was gay. The classically composed images that brought him renown often had a sense of contemplation or melancholy. Little wonder – homosexuality was illegal, so his images of his friends and their relationships had to be allusive, and only appeared in avant-garde publications. His best known book, featuring homoerotic male images, was published posthumously.