Visual arts

No one should trust the camera in the age of AI

This war is being fought with pictures more than words. The poignant shots, often selfies, of families, children, even babies, who were to become victims of Hamas butchery, the wailing mothers and children on stretchers in Gaza, the missile strikes and collapsed concrete buildings. We know politicians on all sides lie, but photography is a mechanical process; these pictures must, surely, be the truth? Almost all these photos have been taken with mobile phones. To a rough approximation, everybody now has a smartphone. There are said to be seven billion smartphones in use around the world – there are only eight billion people. (Sales of what we used to know

A salmagundi of tedium: The White Pube podcast reviewed

The White Pube started life as an influential art blog, written by Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle de la Puente. The name announced iconoclastic intent, playing on the White Cube gallery — which certainly deserves mockery (like a city law firm, it has outposts in Hong Kong and Manhattan). But The White Pube podcast is as inanely conventional as the gallery it makes fun of. Each episode is an hour-long salvo by the hosts, or ‘art critic baby gods’, and as with their exhibition reviews — rated with emojis, not stars — conversation is appealingly informal and spontaneous. But they have little of interest to say, especially about their ostensible subject.

What’s in a name? | 8 August 2019

Perhaps we should blame Vasari. Ever since the publication of his Lives of the Artists, and to an ever-increasing extent, the world of art has been governed by the star system. In other words, the first question likely to be asked about a painting or sculpture is whodunit? And if the answer turns out to be, not Leonardo da Vinci — as has been suggested in the case of the controversial ‘Salvator Mundi’ — then the price tag becomes enormously smaller. Does this matter? Artist Unknown, a little exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, investigates the case of the anonymous work. This draws on the rich resources of the museums of

Modern sublime

Superficially, the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at Tate Modern can seem like a theme park. To enter many of the exhibits, you have to queue. The average age of the crowds in the galleries is much lower than it might be at, say, the RA. And most visitors keep their phones permanently ready to snap a selfie — which isn’t really what the artist has in mind. He wants you to concentrate on a reaction that is internal and unphotographable. Eliasson — as the title of the show, In real life, might suggest — offers sensory experiences. One of the most memorable of these is produced by ‘Din blinde passager’ (‘Your

Science may say this is a Caravaggio but my eyes think otherwise

Last month a painting that had been found in an attic in 2014, supposedly by Caravaggio, was put up for sale in an auction in Toulouse. The vendors must have known there was little interest, as they accepted a pre-emptive offer for an undisclosed amount. Surely it wasn’t what they were hoping for; but they will have done well enough so there’s no need to feel sorry for them. It’s just business. But what about the painting? Why does it look so different – to put it politely – from everything that is known to have come from Caravaggio’s hand? Do our eyes deceive us, or have so many esteemed

Hiding in plain sight

Steel flowers bend in a ‘breeze’ generated by magnetic pendulums. This is the first thing you see as you enter Tate Modern’s survey show. And ‘Magnetic Fields’ (1969) is pretty enough: the work of this self-taught artist, now in his nineties, has rarely been so gentle, or so intuitive. But there’s a problem. ‘I would like to render [electromagnetism] visible so as to communicate its existence and make its importance known,’ Takis has written. But magnetism hides in plain sight. A certain amount of interference is necessary before it will reveal itself. Does the interference matter? Does the fact that gallery assistants have to activate this work every ten minutes

What you see is what you get | 25 April 2019

There’s no avoiding the Britishness of British art. It hits me every time I walk outside and see dappled trees against a silver-grey cloud that looks like it was painted by Thomas Gainsborough, or look in the mirror and feel the same gooseflesh anxiety as I do when I see a portrait by Lucian Freud. It’s got something to do with the light — that pale, ever-changing clarity that is so kind to clouds and, when Freud has got his model naked under the skylight, so unkind to human flesh. The phrase the Englishness of English art was coined by Nikolaus Pevsner in the title of a classic art-history book

Keep politics out of art

If you want to lose friends and alienate people in the art world, try telling them you support Britain leaving the EU. As someone on the left, I’ve always argued a left-wing case for leaving. It is, to say the least, an unfashionable position, usually met with anxious looks, sullen silence or overt hostility from one or other artist, curator or art bureaucrat. That the art world should be against Brexit should come as little surprise. It’s striking, however, how far art has become involved in the burning political questions and controversies of the moment, to the extent that making art is often seen as nothing more than an extension

Apocalypse Dau

Dau is not so much a film as a document of a mass human experiment. The result is dark, brilliant and profoundly disturbing. For three years up to 400 people, only one a professional actor, lived for months at a time on a city-sized set specially built for the shoot near Kharkov, Ukraine. Modelled on the real Kharkov Institute of Experimental Physics between 1938 and 1968, every detail on the set was scrupulously in period, from the light fittings to the lavatory paper. The participants — who included a real-life Nobel Prize winner and famous orchestra conductor as well as real former KGB and prison officers — were required to

The odd couple | 31 January 2019

The joint exhibition of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Bill Viola at the Royal Academy is, at first glance, an extremely improbable double act. Viola is one of the contemporary-art stars of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. He was one of the first to achieve fame in the new medium of video art, and is still its best-known exponent. While Michelangelo, as they say in showbusiness, needs no introduction. But there’s more to this bromance, across eras and continents, between a 16th-century Florentine and a contemporary Californian than might immediately be apparent. The more you think about the pairing, and follow the argument of the curator Martin Clayton, the more

Relative values | 10 January 2019

When he knew that he was dying, Thomas Gainsborough selected an unfinished painting from some years before and set it on the easel in his studio. It was a portrait of his nephew, pupil and assistant Gainsborough Dupont, begun more than a decade earlier and set aside. This little work, which he seems to have intended as a sort of artistic last testament, also hangs at the end of the exhibition Gainsborough’s Family Album. What did he mean to tell us by making a small, intimate picture of a relative the conclusion to a career of more than 40 years? This marvellous and brilliantly conceived exhibition at the National Portrait

Banksy’s stunt wasn’t even original – and why we should support ads on Sydney Opera House

It was announced last week that the woman who bought Banksy’s ‘Girl With Balloon’ will be going through with the purchase. And who could blame her? The prospect of owning a piece of ‘art history’, as she called it, is an enticing one to any investor, regardless of its condition. The video documenting Banksy’s triumph has clocked over 12 million views since it was uploaded to his Instagram account, and one could certainly argue it highlights the disconnect between the intrinsic value of art and that ascribed to it by ever-changing tastes. But it would be wrong to give artistic credit for what is essentially a publicity stunt. Not least

Lost in the Pacific

At six in the morning of 20 July 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson first set eyes on a Pacific Island. As the sun rose, the land ‘heaved up in peaks and rising vales’. The colours of the scene ‘ran through fifty modulations in a scale of pearl and rose and olive’, rising into ‘opalescent clouds’. The whole effect was a ‘suffusion of vague hues’ shimmering so that mountain slopes were hard to distinguish from the cloud canopy above. Oceania, the new exhibition at the Royal Academy devoted to the region’s arts and cultures, is almost as beautiful as that dawn landscape, and just about as difficult to make out with any

Horror show

‘It is disastrous to name ourselves!’ So Willem de Kooning responded when some of his New York painter buddies elected to call themselves ‘abstract expressionists’. He had a point. Labels for movements — such as pop art, impressionism and baroque — are almost always misleading and seldom invented by the artists themselves. That was certainly the case with the idiom examined in a little exhibition at Tate Modern, Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33. Actually, this rather heterogeneous assortment of painters has two tags. In 1925, a critic named Franz Roh came up with a nice phrase, magischer Realismus, which was later borrowed to refer to various writers, including

The play’s the thing | 9 August 2018

Nothing was so interesting to Yves Klein as the void. In 1960 he leapt into it for a photograph — back arched, chin raised, spread-eagled. The same year, he took out a patent for International Klein Blue (IKB), a colour inspired by the limitlessness of the sky itself. He even went so far as to stage an exhibition of white walls and an empty cabinet. If there is a less appropriate place to exhibit his work than the lavishly adorned Blenheim Palace, I can’t think of it. Klein was born in Nice in 1928 and learned judo as well as art. In his late teens he visited the Scrovegni Chapel

Beasts from the East

One area of life in which globalism certainly rules is that of contemporary art. Installation, performance, the doctrine of Marcel Duchamp, conceptualism — nowadays these flourish throughout the world and nowhere more so than in the Far East. Plenty of evidence for this is on view in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery by the South Korean artist Lee Bul. But though the idioms are familiar, the works themselves can seem outlandish to an occidental eye. Just inside the door you are confronted by a sculpture entitled ‘Monster: Pink’ (2011). It looks like one of those oddly shaped vegetables that are sometimes displayed at village fêtes — but running riot

Searching high and low

In the Moderna Museet in Stockholm there is a sculpture by Katharina Fritsch, which references Chekhov’s famous story ‘Lady with a Dog’. It was part of a Jeff Koons mini-show. At the time (2014), I thought it was by Koons. The postcard disabused me. It shows a woman in unapologetic Barbara Cartland pink, with a parasol, accompanied by a white fighting Pekinese. Both are constructed entirely from shells — she mainly scallop shells, her ample bust the bulging hinge of a clam, her arms fashioned from auger shells like mini-whelks. We have seen this ‘art’ before in a thousand evening classes for housewives who couldn’t get into the over-subscribed flower-arranging

Glasgow School of Art is much more than just an art college

Let’s be clear. This is not Grenfell. The word ‘tragedy’ may be all over the news, Twitter may be full of despair, but no architectural loss can compare with the deaths of seventy-two people. Nevertheless, the response to the latest devastating fire at Glasgow School of Art really is visceral and profound, just as it was four years ago when part of the building that included Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s world famous art nouveau library, first burned down. The Mack, as the old section of the art school is known, is more than a building, more than an institution; it’s one of the cultural threads that runs through Glasgow, or at

High art

‘To look at ourselves from afar,’ Julian Barnes wrote in Levels of Life, ‘to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us a psychic shock.’ The context of Barnes’s remark is the 100-year span in which aerial photography evolved from its 19th-century birth in the wicker cradle of a gas balloon to the miraculous moment in 1968 when an astronaut aboard Apollo 8 took the photograph known as ‘Earthrise’: the darling blue ball of planet Earth rising up over the arid, inhospitable surface of the moon. And all around our little blue globe, darkness. ‘Earthrise’ administered a psychic shock by providing ocular proof of our true position in the universe:

Worse for wear

Erté was destined for the imperial navy. Failing that, the army. His father and uncle had been navy men. There were painters and sculptors on his mother’s side, but they were thought very frivolous. Romain de Tirtoff (‘Erté’ came from the French pronunciation of his initials) was born in 1892 at the St Petersburg Naval School where his father Pyotr was inspector. When he was a little boy, his aunt bought him a set of wooden soldiers. Instinctively, he hated war, violence and, above all, uniforms. He burst into tears and threw the box out of the window. What he liked best was to play with his mother’s old perfume