Victorian Fan Service

Last week I was in Bristol, and took a turn round the City Museum and Art Gallery, which I’ve not visited in years – very good it is too, in the foyer look up and marvel at the replica Bristol Box-kite (made for the film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, at Vickers when my dad worked there).  But this post isn’t about early aircraft, though a future post might be if I can find a way to work it in.

No, this post is about Victorian paintings of somewhat less than totally clad women, of which the City Museum has a few. I was walking away from them when I found myself musing about the fact that really they’re an excuse to show women with less clothes than the respectable Victorian lady might wear under the guise of putting them in a classical setting. Then the phrase popped into my head…

“It’s just fan service really”

And once it was there, it stuck there.

For those not familiar with the term, ‘fan service’ is an expression to describe young ladies with no clothes in Anime and Manga, generally they take their clothes off for no apparent reason, or they’re somewhere clothes aren’t required. They go with the whole Anime/Manga territory. But really, apart from a century or so, there isn’t as much clear blue water between chaps like Alma Tadema and the illustrators of manga like Battle Vixens. At this point I’m going to say that you can go off and google for images if you want, both of them feature heavily on the Internet and by not posting images I can’t be held responsible for doing NSFW stuff. Just don’t google at work or college, that’s all I’m saying here…  You might well say that Alma Tadema is by far the superior artist, and I’d say if you’re talking about painting then yes he is – but Manga and Anime artists have to produce a whole load of graphic images in short order so the skill set is different. Though I admit it’s not likely that pages from High School of the Dead are going to be hanging on gallery walls in a few decades. But they’re art of their time, and they both in some way serve to provide images of unclothed ladies under the guise of a storyline which somehow requires that.

So, there you are, a brief ramble on based on an idea which made me giggle in the gallery.

It’s not about the camera

One of the great sayings about photography is that it’s not about the camera. Actually, sometimes it is, if you’re shooting for Vogue then using a £50 point and shoot probably isn’t going to hack it. In the broadest sense though it’s always true, if you watch the Cheap Camera Challenge on Digital Rev you get to see top pro-togs (their phrase) using the direst cameras and getting great results. If you haven’t watched this series then I’d really recommend it. The camera is the tool: the skill and experience of the snapper is what makes the difference.

Personally, I’ve realised how right this is.

After years of shooting film we got our first digital camera, a Fuji Finepix S5000, not top of the line by any means. Took adequate photos, though I never felt that happy with the results. I’ve taken photos for years but a few years ago I decided to take it seriously and, you know, practice and be more self critical. After a while I found myself in a position to upgrade to a DSLR and got an EOS 450d which is much better than my Fuji and which I’ve used a lot. Last week I was up in London and took the Fuji because it’s small and light, and if something happens it’s not a significant loss (though having seen the second had price of the 450d on EBay that’s not as big a concern). It’s got really slow autofocus, and low resolution by modern standards, and a really crap digital viewfinder. But when I was looking at my results I realised something.

I’d taken better photos on my old Fuji than I was taking on my EOS when I first got it

Clearly I’d improved as a photographer far more than I realised I had – as a result of my own “cheap camera challenge” I’d proved it really isn’t about the camera.

Andrew Wyeth – marmite artist

What is it about Wyeth?

Up till a few weeks ago the only Andrew Wyeth painting I knew was (yes you’ve guessed it) Christina’ World. This wasn’t down to intentional avoidance tactics, just that somehow I’d managed to miss the rest. So while working out what I was going to say in this post I’ve been spending some time exploring his work. There’s a lot of it. I think it’s really good. I’m not planning on talking so much about him and his life because loads of people have already done it really well (links at the end); I want to talk about his marmite effect. See I’ve found that he’s somewhat contentious, people love him or loathe him. Not all people of course, that’s a rhetorical effect again. I like those. As in my previous post.

He seems to be the depleted uranium round in the war with modernism. The laser-guided munition fired against all the drippers and splodgers. The American Artist (in fact the ‘premier American Artist’ of which more later) who painted real people doing real things in a proper painterly manner with real skill, unlike all that stuff 5 year olds could do. It’s all bollocks of course, apart from the real skill part, he was all that. He picked on a difficult medium, egg tempera, which requires a lot of skill to master and which gives his work it’s texture. Spent a lot of work out in the field sketching and was a bloody good draftsman.

But a painter of real life, no way. Wyeth no more paints real American life any more than Ansel Adams photographed the real American landscape or constable painted 19th century rural England. The cheerful rustic dream of the Hay Wain isn’t the real one of poverty, under-employement and the poor laws. Take the painting we all know – now it’s easy to read this as young girl, in a field on her nice family farm. Touseled hair, sprawled on the ground, dreaming of her future. Easy reading isn’t it? I read it like that and so did at least one other person I ran it past. But it’s not: it’s a 55 year old woman crippled with polio looking at the house where she eaked out a poverty stricken existence…and it’s not even her, other people posed for parts of her because Wyeth wasn’t happy about asking her to pose too much. He’s not guilty of pulling of any deceptions here, he painted what he wanted to paint in the way he wanted to paint it. He’s not staking any claims to be a particular type of artist or to be opposed to anything.

1948, the year of Christina’s World has Pollock getting really into the dripping and De Kooning abstracting for all he’s worth. The year after would see Life ask of Pollock “is this the greatest living American painter?”. As time goes on Wyeth is either loved or vilified, depending on what side of the abstraction fence you were on (or indeed perhaps still are). He’s either about real art or a reactionary has been depending on how blinkered your viewpoint was. I think, and it’s a personal view though not an original one, that the reason Wyeth is so much a poster child for ‘real art’ is about what he isn’t.

*“In today’s scrambled-egg school of art, Wyeth stands out as a wild-eyed radical,” one journalist wrote in 1963, speaking for the masses. “For the people he paints wear their noses in the usual place, and the weathered barns and bare-limbed trees in his starkly simple landscapes are more real than reality.” *

So there you are; he’s the painter of the person on the Maine omnibus, the one it’s safe to like, the one you don’t have to think any of those wild modernist ideas to like. It’s very easy to remember the 60s (if you can) as the summer of love, woodstock and all that sort of thing, but most of it wasn’t like that. In 63, black people were still using separate drinking fountains in much of the south, the pill wasn’t easy to get (and it’s way before Roe v Wade), fuel was cheap, the US hasn’t yet realised where it’s involvement in Vietnam was going and the Hayes Code still pretty much governed cinema. I reckon it’s the America the republicans wished they still had. Talk to many conservatives in the US today and they view Europe as a place from which all the dangerous and left wing ideas flow…and modernism was just so very European. Who is the journalist in the above quote talking about who paint people without their noses in the right place? Sounds very pre-war too me, not really very 60s art at all, not Pop Art or anything. I’ve just read an article which takes the position that one of the candidates in the current American election isn’t fit because he’s a socialist and that all the countries in Europe do that and are somehow ‘bad’ because they state control a lot of things.

In 65 Time called him America’s Pre-Eminent Artist (in an interview in which he, interestingly, called himself an abstractionist and said he detested the sweetness in muc realistic paiting) – now that’s a heck of a big accolade for anybody and one which Time doesn’t justify in the article. It throws it in right at the begining, twice, and then moves on. I’d say it’s an empty bit of rhetoric for any artist at any time and in any place and is more interesting for what it says about Time than about what it says about Wyeth. The article is free to look at on the Time archive and is worth reading for anybody interested in Wyeth and drawing their own conclusions

Personally, I think he’s generally very ‘modern’, he may be right in calling himself an abstrationist but not in the sense of the abstract expressionists, cubists, futurists, vortacists or whatever. His work is not chocolate box stuff, apart from Christina’s World until you lean what the image is about at any rate. So I’m not going to join in the line drawing and name calling: he’s an artist, he’s a good one too. Job done in my book.

Some other interesting articles

Andrew Wyeth dot Com

Smithsonian Mag

His obituary

Looking Out, Looking In

 

Why I Hate Poundbury

Okay, so I don’t actually hate Poundbury.

The title is there for rhetorical effect I’m afraid, so if you were hoping for an amusing anti-Poundbury rant you’re in the wrong blog. I’m sure it’s a great place to live, convenient for both central Dorchester and easy to get to other places, lots of trees, always seems clean and vandal free, designed to encourage walking and cycling rather than driving. Apparently there are rules about what colour you can paint your front door, but for Poundbury-ens that’s probably a small inconvenience though from what I read on the Internet the gravel paths are. My grievence with Poundbury isn’t it’s existence, or even how the individual buildings look, it’s the fact that the whole place is built so completely to match HRH’s Vision of Britain that it fails to look like a real English village. It lacks the modernism he so fervently detests, but it goes so far the other way that it even has false windows the sort which used to be found in the days before the window tax. It’s a film set, it’s a pastiche. You ever watch cult TV show The Prisoner? That’s sort of how it feels to me when I drive through it.

Housing the population has a long history as an issue, especially when you need to deal with an influx of people into an area and has frequently been approached by the building of estates, or sometimes entire towns. Swindon has The Railway Village , built to house workers in the GWR works. It’s very victorian and quite a tourist attraction. Then after the first war you get Garden Cities like Letchworth and Welwyn, then post WW2 we got the New Towns like Harlow housing the bombed out from the cities. It’s not a UK only thing, mass housing projects are a feature of the Europe and the US too. Anywhere you need to house your workforce, or just an increasing population, people have commissioned and built places like this. So I’m not knocking the concept of Poundbury one bit. Where I think it went wrong is that it’s not, I think, really about housing an increasing population or a mobile workforce, but about somehow proving that you can build mass housing in some kind of traditional manner.

It is according to The Guardian about being a ‘vibrant place to work as well as live – like a traditional English town centre’. But English town centres do not spring fully formed from the head of a member of the royal family, they develop over hundreds of years as buildings are put up, torn down, fall down or burn down, get rebuilt, altered, knocked together, divided up, change use, etc. This is how real town centres develop, over time and as their use changes. Look at any real English town centre and you’ll see a huge difference in building ages and styles, you’ll see old fashioned shop fronts, brand new ones made to look old, and ultra-modern ones scarfed onto the front of old ones. You’ll see a riot of colours and design. You’ll see everything you don’t see in Poundbury.

It’s fashionable, among many people, not just among some members of the Royal Family, to decry modern architecture as though there is something intrinsically (or even somehow, morally) wrong with it, as though the failings of the brutalist estates are inherent in the very concept of them. They did fail in many ways, but that had as much to do with poor mainteance and management by the authorities as the design. To say that the dark alleys between the blocks made people feel unsafe is ridiculous as a criticism of the estates when traditional English town centres have loads of alleys and paths in them; is a 20th century concrete alley somehow more dangerous than an 18th century dirt one? But we’ve learned a lot about managing and designing estates over the past few decades, so why isn’t Poundbury an ultra modern place, incorporating the latest materials in exiting modern designs managed in the light of all the mistakes made in post war projects?

It seems to me that the desire to produce new housing has become mixed up with the Prince’s desire to create his vision of what a traditional English town should be like. So Dorchester wound up not with a new community which has grown organically and is full of buildings which learned, as Stuart Brand put it, nor full of buildings which say clearly when they were built and which fit in with 21st century design and technology, but with a rather boring pastiche which, because of the controls on what can happen there, will always remain more one man’s dream than a real place.