Thursday, August 4, 2011

Seeing Beyond Oneself

A recent piece in the New Yorker magazine written by Adam Goplik, Titled “Life Studies” was ostensibly about how the author learned to draw from one of the leading “classical realists” of today, Jacob Collins. The fact that he stumbled through the learning process was not particularly of interest to me. What was of interest is how thick headed the classical realists are and what a shame that is. Classical realism is a name given to those artists who hearken back to the academy days, when students were taught a very strict and very specific way to make art. It is more or less the Pre-Raphaelite movement of today. They don’t consider any art valid after 1860 unless it is created in a very specific academy realist style. It is truly a shame because there are many things about these painters that are admirable. Their work, generally, is of a very high technical quality. They work from life and the object of their art is to create beauty. That isn’t what I have an issue with. I consider myself to be a contemporary realist. What I have issues with are the limitations they place on art, dismissing all artists who are talking about things other than what they are talking about. They (Collin’s in this article) dismiss out-of-hand not only Monet but also Sargent, Homer, and O’Keefe because they added their thoughts to what they saw. They deny the artist’s intent. And they deny an artist’s response to their time and place. Conceptually the work is much like Andrew Wyeth’s—illustrative.

Drawing from memory, drawing from the subconscious, drawing from the symbol side of your mind, and drawing from imagination are just as valid as drawing from life. To deny that, is to deny the way we think and the way we communicate visually. The idols of the classical realism school, or most or them, painted not was before them technically, but created the worlds of heaven and hell. (Unless of course, they did something no near mortal could.) They may have drawn from life, but it was staged. Jesus is not Jesus in the paintings, he was a model dressed up as Jesus. Is that more or less real than working from an image of an actual person, or a memory or a dream?

To pretend our time and place does not exist, (i.e. Andrew Wyeth and yes, Jacob Collins himself) creates a falsehood in itself, a world entirely bordering on the illustrative. Wyeth painted the rural countryside of Pennsylvania while traveling around in a five-million dollar private jet. The world he painted was not his world or really anyone’s world. It was a story. Jacob Collins paints his children beautifully but why deny their time and place? Where is his world? Beauty does not deny who we are. Beauty is not one way of thinking.

The problem with the entire “Classical Realism” movement is not that they are bad painters creating bad product, quite the contrary—much of the work is technically outstanding—it’s that they are too much like the “creationists” of art; determined to ignore the entire twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They block out additional ways of seeing. They don’t allow consideration of another way of thinking.

Do I insist my students learn to draw from life? Absolutely, yes. Without that skill, it would be the same as a writer who does not know how to read. But in addition to it being a fundamental skill that improves their ability to observe, to connect their eye/hand coordination, and aid their visual memories, it gives them access to a world that is not apparent. It gives them access to a state of being.

"The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence.” Robert Henri, “The Art Spirit” 1923

But then, Jacob Collins would dismiss Robert Henri. He was born after 1860.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Going Into Your Soul

This winter I went to the Norman Rockwell show not once, not twice, but three times. Not because he is a favorite of mine, he’s not. But because various friends and family wanted to go and I didn’t mind going with them. Although, the third time there, I bowed out and headed upstairs to take a look at the permanent collection.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Norman Rockwell is a wonderful illustrator. And I think it is wrong of the reviewers to compare him to the fine artists of his day: Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keefe, John Marin, Edward Hopper, Neil Welliver and other realists. Instead of J.C. Leyendecker, James Montgomery Flagg and Robert Fawcett, who were his contemporaries in the field of illustration. Because illustration and fine art are not the same thing. One is not better or worse than the other, but they are quite different. They are different in intent, they are different in concept and they have different criteria.

First, let me state that I am a painter but also an illustrator. I love illustration. I am a professor of illustration and I practice illustration. But it is, as we now define things, a different genre. There are three substantial differences and Rockwell’s work has them all. Illustration is not self-expression. It has a very specific purpose, to communicate visually to a target audience. Illustration is mass-produced. It is designed and painted with the idea that the original is not what the majority of people will look at. Illustration is used usually with text. It is used to elucidate text, to visualize text or in place of text.

Norman Rockwell rarely, if ever painted anything for himself. His sole reason for painting was to satisfy the needs of a client. All of his work was designed and painted to be reproduced at a specific size, for a specific format. He was chosen by his clients because of his style both in form and in content. His work reflected the mood and feeling that they wanted to communicate with their publications.  His work was not self-expression. Rockwell’s work was, and is, a narrative story—complete with actors and props. Nothing that you see was real. When reviewers criticize his work for being sappy and sweet they completely miss the point. It was just that accessibility and “chocolate box” feeling that his clients were after and he did a fantastic job communicating that. That is what illustration does. His illustration defined the look of his client’s magazines.

There are many “fine artists” who illustrated.  A few doors and one floor up from the Rockwell exhibit are some absolute gems. There is a small room filled with the Civil War illustrations of Winslow Homer. But even Winslow Homer’s illustration differed fundamentally from Rockwell’s. Homer painted actual solders. He went to the front lines of the war and painted from life what he saw. He didn’t stage action, or costumes. He reported the war in a visual manner. Rockwell, on the other hand, painted models dressed up as solders, creating a still movie. The only thing that really makes Homer’s Civil War work illustration is the fact that it was mass-produced.

I think that it’s important to point out that illustration existed before the idea of fine art ever did—that the earliest cave paintings were indeed illustrations. They were painted to communicate a specific idea, not for self-expression or personal commentary. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Da Vinci all illustrated the Bible. They all had clients who paid for their specific style and talent. They all used models and props for their work. Their work was very much done like the way Rockwell put his illustrations together. Rembrandt actually used his Jewish neighbors for his paintings of the Apostles just like Rockwell used his neighbors in Vermont.

But I wouldn’t but Rockwell in their company—and not just because their work wasn’t mass-produced. I wouldn’t put Rockwell in their company because their paintings are both illustrations of the Bible and great art. They go beyond the time and place of which they were created. There is an immeasurable quality to the painting. They go into your soul. Rockwell’s work, while quaint, and well executed, are of his time, nothing else. They are great pictures, technically exceptional, but have absolutely no depth. They are great illustrations.