Art – or ‘art’?

Yeah, it’s cryptic title time, only this time not because I wanted a cryptic visitor-hooking title but because I actually couldn’t come up with something which said what this post was about any better than that did.

I found myself today looking at a website of art by somebody I sort of know, I knew she did art but had no idea what it was like – she’s called Bryony Aston and the site is here if you want to take a look. I think it’s good, in fact I think it’s really good: I’d have one of her paintings on the wall any time (this one if I could pick). So that got me thinking about all the amazing artists we’ve never heard of, which got me thinking about why some artists sell for millions at auction, which got me thinking about all the artists who don’t even exhibit. What is it about some art and some artists which suddenly makes them, if not famous, then at least well known. When does somebody’s art become Art?

Now there is a part of me which has always thought that art really shouldn’t ever be monetarily worth more than the materials and time involved in its creation. Let artists be fairly recompensed for their creativity and effort, and gallery owners for their work in selling the art on, but they should be the ones who benefit, not somebody who really never even knew them years down the line, not people who buy art as an investment. Think how much more visually interesting the world would be if that were the case, nobody would buy pictures as investments and stick them in vaults where people can’t see them, public galleries would be able to build their collections easily without having panic funding drives to keep something in the country. What’s more with low values on the stuff it might be easier to borrow and exchange works (dunno about that though). People who owned art wouldn’t be forced to sell it off to cover taxes, and folks could take their pictures along to the antiques roadshow without the risk of finding it’s so bloody valuable the they can’t really have it on the wall of the living room any more due to the risk of theft. So yeah, I’m opposed to investment art in general. I’m in favour of art because the more art you have the better civilisation you have, your world is a better place.

So what about all the unknown art? What about all the hundreds of thousands of creatives like Bryony out there? What about the art you and I have never heard about? Well, I reckon without Art there would be more respect for art – Joni Mitchell said ‘he knew they’d never been on their tv, so he passed his good music by’ and that’s the lot of a load of artists out there, they make stuff which immeasurably improves our world, but it doesn’t get shown. Frankly, if I had a choice of a reproduction Old Master and one of Bryony’s paintings I’d take hers any day, because a reproduction isn’t the painting, it lacks everything which makes the painting worth looking at. I’d rather have a picture by somebody unknown which I loved on the wall any day. Okay, I have a lot of prints of pictures, including one I’m not ever going to take down, but that’s going to be a future blog post (‘spoilers, sweetie’).

See, frankly, I’m not convinced that Art is actually any better than art. Certainly much of it is brilliant, though a lot isn’t I think that great – I’m not doing the old master v modernism thing here, it’s got nothing to do with the type of art, some is just better than others. I accept that ‘better’ is a personal opinion thing though. For example if Millias had not painted after Ophelia I’d have been happy, it would have saved us from mawkish dreck like Bubbles. We clearly can’t think it’s all good because it’s famous because if you watch anybody visiting a gallery they wander the rooms and stop at some paintings because those are the ones which engage them. You know what? I reckon if you took one of Bryony’s paintings and put it in an exhibition of art by well known abstract painters as many of the public would stop to look at it as they wander the rooms as those by famous painters in the same genre. Because deep down art lovers, real art lovers (it’s my blog, I can be as polemical as I like) look at and enjoy art which engages and captivates them. The Ecstasy of St Theresa doesn’t captivate because it’s by Bernini, it captivates because you swear that if you reached out and pushed on one of her feet it would swing.

The Cass Arts chain says “lets fill this town with artists” – they’re actually wrong to say that (though I totally applaud the sentiment), it already is full of artists, we just need to realise that everybody who paints, or draws or sculpts, or scrapes, or prints is an artist, even if they’re not Artists.

 

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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.

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

 

Ophelia and the Art of Beautiful Dying

Ophelia, we’ve all seen her. Lying back in the river in that dress, beautific smile on her face surrounded by flowers and foliage. Just in case somehow you’ve missed out on this painting, though to be honest I think you’ll have seen it somewhere, perhaps on the wall of a certain type of teenager, here it is.

We’ve probably all heard the story of Lizzie Siddal in the bath catching a cold too (she caught a cold, got over the cold, though her dad still stung Millais for a £50 doctor’s bill, go dad…).

I heard a quote on a TV documentary, and I can only find it on one website though I have no reason to disbelieve the truth of it, that a critic said that Millais had ‘even made dying beautiful’, and bloody hell hadn’t he just? There she is, floating down the river, flowers slipping from her fingers and her complexion just the right shade of pale and interesting.

Much over the years has been made of the amazing attention to detail Millais got into the painting, weeks spent on the side of the hogsmill river (yes, we know exactly where) getting all the flowers and leaves right to the point where a botany professor once said that he’d be able to use it as a teaching resource. Then all the time with Lizzie in that bath (a story which every damn website feels the need to recount painting her as the dying Ophelia. Yes, it’s a painting which is all about accuracy John Everett, we get that…

Though of course it isn’t because nobody drowns like that!

First off, sorry to say angst-ridden teenagers of the world, nobody dies beautifully. Your body, however crazy you may be because your lover has murdered your father, wants to live and if you start breathing water it really wants to get some air instead. The UK lifeboat service the RNLI released some very disturbing videos about what drowning is like, and this chap recounts his near-drowning experience while surfing. Go off and google for images of dead bodies if you don’t believe me on this one. After you’re dead, especially under less than ideal surroundings, you look like crap rather than somebody who has slipped into sleep. Ophelia isn’t a distraught teenager driven to suicide by despair; she’s sleeping beauty with duckweed.

You read a lot about how this painting shows Millais’ obession with detail and accuracy, all those days on the riverbank getting the flowers right, etc. But the painting has nothing at all to do with accuracy because the actual subject of it is entirely devoid of accuracy! It’s a painting of a drowning girl..devoid of the actual act of drowning. This page makes the suggestion that actually this Ophelia just after she’s drowned, which of course allows Millais to avoid all that nasty drowning stuff but really only shifts the question of accuracy along a notch because if she’s a corpse what in heck is she doing with those hands? Now my experience with dead bodies is zero, but common sense tells me that on the whole they’re not inclinded to pose their hands and arms like that, and even if she’d managed to drown in that pose they’re going to collapse again once she’d died. Even the much vaunted foliage is flawed as, because it took so long to paint, flowers appear next to each other which just don’t do that(see here).

So when we come down to it, what IS this painting about? It’s about pretty much all the other work by the PRB: great colours, ideally with an idealised pretty girl in it. Don’t get me wrong, on the whole I like the Pre-Raphaelites, but they’re not big into ‘real’ girls are they? You’ve heard the joke? ‘What’s the thinnest book in the world called?’ ‘Tolkein’s decent female characters’ – the same is true really about the Pre-Raphaelites depictions of women. Though they may have been better in real life, after all Millais obviously was a more attractive option for Effie than Ruskin was so either he was actually good company…or Ruskin was really dire (given the rumours that Ruskin didn’t even know what female plumbing looked like before they got married, it may be the latter). Ophelia had what it takes to be the subject of a great image, young, pushed over the edge by death and betrayal she kills herself in a great setting, it could be full of emotion and drama. Carravagio could have painted that; Francis Bacon could have painted that; Klimpt could have painted that; Bernini could have sculpted that.

Millais spent weeks painting flowers, then stuck a girl in a bathtub and painted her. What you see is what you get. It’s beautifully done and beautiful to look at, and devoid of reality and emotion.


Some other websites
Looking Down From Above
Lizzie Siddal.com

Michael Borremans – thank you artstack

I’ve just signed up for Artstack, as though I didn’t already have enough blogs and sites to read every day. But I really like it as it shows me lots of art that I didn’t necessarily know about and much of which I really like.

Like Belgian artist Michael Borremans, who I discovered this week.

(Image linked in from Salomea’s Room)

He’s a contemporary artist, alive and working today, though his paintings are clearly in the Old Master style and very ‘painterly’ (according to Wikipedia he cites Valazquesz as an important influcence) … though they’re also very surreal, sometimes to the extreme.  You work your way down a figure to discover that they’ve got no legs and are floating just above a table top for example.  Or people are shown from the back but with their clothes on back to front.  I’m not sure I’ve got much to actually say about him, apart from the fact that a) I’d love to own one of his pictures and/or b) I’d love to be able to paint like that!

But I really do recommend that you go and spend some time looking at his work online – worth checking out this link on Salomea’s Room for more samples of his painting, or just google for him