Paris’s glittering new museums

How do you manage a dictatorship? By producing ‘a succession of miracles’, according to Louis-Napoléon, that ‘dazzle and astonish’. In 1852 he inaugurated his Second Empire regime with a strategy of soft power predicated on the assumption that the loyalty of politically volatile Paris was to be won not by violent repression but by visible magnificence and grand designs. This wasn’t an original idea: it followed the policies of le Roi Soleil and Bonaparte, not to mention the Roman emperors. It worked again for Louis-Napoléon because, as well as such jaw-dropping follies as Charles Garnier’s extravagant opera house, it extended to Haussmann’s lavish investment in socially useful boulevards, sewers, housing

Sublime salvage

There was a moment more than 20 years ago when Bankside Power Station was derelict but its transformation into Tate Modern had not yet begun. I remember thinking, on a visit to the site, how beautiful and impressive the huge rusting generators looked — like enormous real-life sculptures by Anthony Caro. Nothing that has since been exhibited in what came to be called the Turbine Hall has looked quite so strong. A quarter of a century later, the artist Mike Nelson has reversed the process — not at Tate Modern, but at Tate Britain where he has filled the Duveen Galleries with massive pieces of redundant machinery: cement mixers, engine

Art institutions should stop virtue-signalling about funding and focus on what they’re showing

The ethics of the private patronage of arts institutions has never been straightforward issue. But as the preoccupation with transparency and corporate responsibility has grown, wealthy benefactors can nowadays turn from pillars of respectable society to moral pariahs in the blink of an eye. Such is the fate of the fabulously rich Sackler family, major philanthropists with fingers in arts institutions across the UK, in the face of mounting criticism over its close links to Purdue Pharma, the family-owned US pharmaceuticals giant and maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin – the drug now the focus of outrage over the opioid epidemic that has made addicts of thousands in the US

Roll out the barrels

It’s not a wrap. This is the first thing to note about the huge trapezoid thing that has appeared, apparently floating, on the Serpentine Lake. Many of the projects by the artists who conceived it, Christo and his late wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude, have involved bundling something up in a temporary mantle. The items thus packaged over the years include a naked woman (in Düsseldorf, 1964), the Pont Neuf (1985) and, famously, in 1995, the Reichstag. This London work, however, is the product of an equally long-running obsession with the barrels in which oil is stored and transported. At first, and second, glance, these objects lack charm. Nonetheless, the youthful

Cut it out

How do you make a work of art? One method is to cut things up and stick them back together in a different order. That is, roughly speaking, the recipe for collage. Thus in 1934 Max Ernst snipped away at a pile of illustrations to 19th-century novels, reassembled them in an altered fashion, and came up with Une semaine de bonté — or A Week of Kindness — a surrealist novel in pictures. Some of its pages are displayed in The Ends of Collage, at Luxembourg & Dayan, 2 Savile Row, W1. In one a woman reclines on an ornate, neo-baroque bed, while all around the waves of the sea

Paranormal activity

In 1896, a group of five young Swedish women artists began to meet regularly in order to access mystical zones beyond the confines of mundane everyday reality. Every Friday, they would gather in order to contact the incorporeal beings they called ‘spirit world leaders’ or ‘High Masters’; among these were five named Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Gregor and Amaliel. In 1904, during a séance, Amaliel instructed one of the artists, Hilma af Klint, to make paintings ‘on the astral plane’ representing the ‘immortal aspects of man’. Many of the results of this occult commission are on display in Painting the Unseen, a new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. As you might

In a class of their own

Painters and sculptors are highly averse to being labelled. So much so that it seems fairly certain that, if asked, Michelangelo would have indignantly repudiated the suggestion that he belonged to something called ‘the Renaissance’. Peter Blake is among the few I’ve met who owns up to being a member of a movement; he openly admits to being a pop artist. The odd thing about that candid declaration is that I’m not sure he really is one. A delightful exhibition at the Waddington Custot Gallery presents Blake in several guises, including photorealist and fantasist, but — although one of the exhibits is an elaborate shrine in honour of Elvis Presley

From cave painting to Maggi Hambling: the best Christmas art books

It’s been a memorably productive year for art books (I have published a couple myself), but certain volumes stand out. Chief among the illustrated monographs is Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath by James Cahill (Unicorn Press, £30), a spirited examination of this wonderfully unpredictable artist. The book focuses on her recent paintings and sculptures, many on the theme of war. Art history meets forthright artistic statement, and it’s fascinating to see Cahill’s intellect in dialogue with Hambling’s visceral art. As she says: ‘Real art is the opposite of mere observation or reportage. It takes you to another place.’ Perhaps the greatest living writer on art, and thus the most

Fairground attraction | 18 June 2015

Gianlorenzo Bernini stressed the difficulty of making a sculpture of a person out of a white material such as marble. Imagine, he said, that someone we knew well whitened his hair, his beard, his lips and his eyebrows, and, were it possible, his eyes. Would we recognise him? This is not a problem encountered by the 20th-century American artist Duane Hanson, whose work is on show at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Kensington Gardens. Hanson (1925–96) took every possible step to make his figures mimic reality in skin, hair, clothes, accessories and surroundings. In comparison, the resemblance of waxworks to their models is much less convincing. Hanson’s creations can engender

The perfect excuse to get out all the best Ravilious china

A day trip to the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne is a summer pleasure, and two concurrent shows are proving a considerable draw, with their focus on design and applied art. Designing the Everyday is in some ways just an excuse to get out all the best Ravilious china and show it with his working drawings, but where’s the harm in that? Ravilious continues to be one of the most popular of 20th-century British artists, and his applied art is not as well known as his pellucid watercolours, so here’s a chance to remedy that. And to put it in context, the surrounding rooms examine work from both earlier and

I take my kids to galleries to demonstrate my cultural superiority over the masses

Jake Chapman, one half of the YBA duo the Chapman Brothers, has been rude about taking children to art galleries. He told the Independent that ‘it’s as moronic as a child’ to expect a child to understand complex modern artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko as ‘children are not human yet’. His forthright views have elicited a predictable response. Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund (who seems to be angry on a regular basis about some latest insult to the noble visual arts), countered on the Today programme that children can indeed appreciate a work of art deeply. Anthony Gormley told the Times that art is there

Oceans and forests in kaleidoscopic flow – discovering Keith Grant

For decades I’ve been aware of the work of Keith Grant (born 1930), but it is only in recent years that I have come to know it at all well. During that time both the style and the subject of his paintings have undergone a series of remarkable revolutions, as he determined not to rest on his laurels, but to explore the fundamentals of his approach and interests. You don’t often see an artist doing this, particularly one over the age of 80, when an ‘everything goes’ Old Age Style is a more common development. Through his radical questioning of precepts, Grant has pioneered what might be called (somewhat paradoxically)

Josef Albers: roaring diagonals and paradisiacal squares

Josef Albers (1888–1976) is best known for his long engagement with the square, which he painted in exquisite variation more than a thousand times. A German–American painter, he trained in Berlin and Munich before enrolling at the Bauhaus (the leading modernist art and design school) in 1920. He was a student there for three years and a teacher for ten (longer than anyone else), his chosen craft was stained glass, and his teaching ranged from typography to furniture. In 1933 he moved to America and began to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Among his students was Robert Rauschenberg, who acknowledged Albers as ‘the most important teacher I’ve

Alain de Botton: We need art to help us to live and to die

The world’s big national museums are deeply glamorous places. We keep quiet in their hallowed halls, we wander the galleries in reverence, we look at a caption here and there, but, sometimes, if we’re honest, deep in our hearts, we may be asking ourselves what we’re doing there. Art enjoys unparalleled prestige in the modern world, but the reasons for this are rarely explained in plain terms. Just why does art matter? When people want to praise art museums, they sometimes remark that they are our ‘new cathedrals’. This seems an extremely accurate analogy, because for hundreds of years, cathedrals were, just like museums, by far the most significant places

The Discerning Eye show is full of great art pieces. I know because I chose them

If you want to buy a picture or a piece of sculpture and have lots of money or not very much, or if you just want to look at more than 450 contemporary works, then the Mall Galleries is the place to go. For some 20 years the Discerning Eye charity has held an annual exhibition of work by invited artists, plus contributions from an open submission, selected by a panel of six — two artists, two collectors and two critics. The charity’s aim is to encourage a wider understanding of the visual arts — an aim that surely no one can disagree with — and the commission it charges

One leaves the Patrick Caulfield exhibition longing to see more

In the wake of the Roy Lichtenstein blockbuster at Tate Modern comes Patrick Caulfield at Tate Britain, and what a contrast! Where Lichtenstein looks increasingly like a one-trick pony, an assessment driven home by the excessively large show, Caulfield emerges as fresh, witty and visually inventive. Undoubtedly this impression is fostered by the size of the exhibition: Tate Britain’s Linbury Galleries have been divided between Caulfield and Gary Hume, allowing each enough space for a highly focused solo exhibition. There are thus only 35 paintings by Caulfield spanning his entire career, and one leaves his show wanting to see more, not suffering from the usual museum overkill. This is an