Tuesday, August 30, 2011

American Realism in XX century Part One

Since art historians are people of ideas, delighting in finding conceptual, seemingly beautiful abstract constructs they irresistibly are attracted to the kind of art that begs for exegesis.
 The temptation is just too strong and who would blame them for yielding into the impressive acrobatics of flexible ideas. Modern art is perfect in this one instant- it screams for explanation. And art historians, with vigor worthy of a better cause jumped at the chance to knit and weave the most astonishing web of absurd theories, explanations, and commentaries encasing each puny piece of modern art in protective cocoon against common sense reactions. Outcome of this tendency is powerfully reflected in books on XX century art and in museums across the country. Modern art is therefore presented as the shimmering efflorescence, the precious bloom of artistic effort of that century, all due to the tendentious, cross-eyed hatred of both beauty and reality.
Yet, another art history should be written of that period, where dilettantish smears and splatters would be wholly omitted, while artists of true and lasting merit would take their rightful recognition. It will take a good while, not because the obvious fraud is not obvious, but because the powers behind the sham of modern art are very, very strong.
In the first decades of the XX century American painting faced a dramatic fork in the road of artistic choices. Painters could have joined realism or follow the newly exported European modern art. American realism had roughly two thematic realms of inspiration; urban and “regional”, meaning rural.
All of the painters of American realism, while rejecting cubism and abstraction had taken some elements of European modern art. Some have intensified their color and light along the French examples of impressionism, others “loosened” their brushstrokes which no longer were hidden, but flaunted them as some misguided virtuosity of post-impressionism, also from France. With those influences they turn toward American scene and brought us large harvest of fresh, not painted before images of local life.
Painters whose artistic origins were rooted in XIX century realism were creating splendid works often for another quarter of a century. John Singer Sargent painted a magnificent mural commemorating solders of the First World War.
                                                          John Singer Sargent "Gas"

William Paxton is another painter whose realism has roots in XIX century and painted well into mid-twentieth century. There is very alluring serenity in his interiors filled with coloristic delight no less admirable than in paintings of great Jan Vermeer.
                                                               William McGregor Paxton 

One of the most influential painters of the first quarter of the century was Robert Henri. His pronouncements concerning painting sound appealing, because he calls for learning to “see” and for expressing “life”. 
                                                                Robert Henri "Cumulus"

At a sober distance one has to ask if hasty, excessively sketchy lathering of sloshy paint is really effective way of bringing “life” into a painting. It certainly gives permanent sense of something provisional, done in inexplicably great haste, rushing to sign it before paint has been turned into the flesh of objects it is depicting. Being a charismatic figure he instilled in a long row of very talented painters the method of agitated, provisional, smeary manic brushing, as if they were whipping ,flogging their canvases with thick goo. If his credo was “seeing” than surely no one can see outside of their canvases all those deposits of raw paint. In humility, appropriate to the devotional task of painting the world, all silly gimmicks should be put aside and painting has to be understood to be an image appearing behind a surface of a mirror.
Here are some choice examples of the works of his circle.
                                                      George Luks "Paddy Flanagan"

                                                        John Sloan Drying Hair"

                                                          George Bellows "The Circus"

                                                                        Everett Shinn
.                                                                     Reginal Marsh

Instead of leaving some provincial surroundings and moving to New York to paint city life or join modernism and propel the wheels of recognition, one could defiantly stay put and  make art of that world.
It became known as “regionalism” and they painted Mid-West..Two convictions these Midwesterners had in common: they chose to paint land and life of their own origins and they rejected modernism, not because they were traditionalists but because they viewed modern art as empty formalism.
 The best, by far representative of the regionalism was Grant Wood of Iowa.
His portraits are much more successful than landscapes. There is far too much toy-like look of buildings and trees, the fields have neatness only hairdresser can achieve, like backgrounds of animated movies. Excessive stylization was somehow in the air of the epoch and art of regionalists would have been much better had it resisted the temptation.

                                                                    Grant Wood

John Steuart Curry was a regionalist from Kansas.
                                                              John Steuart Curry

Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri was very prolific artist with an instantly recognizable style. The Mexican muralists and Benton shared the taste for highly stylized forms but artistically he was never as good as Diego Rivera. His compositions are usually chaotically atectonic ,his figures lack the degree of observation and study of actual human figure to make them compelling rather than contorted .Still, with those shortcomings his huge body of work shows great inventiveness of subject matter and admirable ability of poeticizing ordinary life.

                                                             Thomas Hart Benton

End of Part One.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Modern Art is not our culture

This is portrait of Cecila Gallerani, known as “Lady with Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci.

Is anything else needed than what is in view for the full enjoyment of this painting? Certainly not: everything that the viewer would need to fully inhale the beauty, the sublime refinement is provided by the painter who organized the content in such way that it would force each viewer in each viewing to respond with aesthetic delight.[ Neither Botticelli nor Ghirlandaio could succeed in their portraits to bring  this much presence of the sitter.]  Our innate sense of beauty and the offering of the painting were matched by the painter at such heights of experience we are left with awe.
Indelible experience of gazing at   “Lady with Ermine” [at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków,Poland] requires no guiding help from an eloquent art critic or erudite art historian. All that is required is naked, direct contemplation.
Leonardo delivered the portrait to Lodovico Sforza in 1490.Let us move now five centuries ahead and see what was praised in Western Art then. Surprisingly, even shockingly when one consider the past five hundred years as time of hard work by very talented artists we arrive at the state of the arts where products presented in the halo of greatness look like this:

Franz Kline

Oh,no! This just must be some grim joke, a monstrous prank to scare us. Sorry, Leonardo- we have let the troglodyte barbarians take over our culture and replace it with their values.
To install excremental work like Kline’s in the temple of the arts could not happen on its own merits because there are none there. It was only possible by orchestrated network of opinion-makers, claque-manufacturers, foam-beaters of acclaim.
The natural, innocent reaction to a work by Kline, Hoffmann, Rauschenberg or Rothko is an instant recognition of total absence of art there, complete lack of aesthetic merit. To promote something so hideous as great art called for New-York size of “chutzpa”, and it worked beyond boldest con-dreams. All those smeary refuse is shown under the protective canopy of modern art “theory” which turns, miraculously, refuse into great art. That is why a cleaning crew, uninitiated into the modern art theory were putting “art-objects” into trash-bins thinking innocently that it was trash.
In essence modern art theory demands that painting has to reject depicting the world and become radically sovereign by concerning itself with forms and colors that do not resemble anything of the world outside of painting. Anything hinting at connection to the real world should be viewed as “anecdotal” and foreign to modern art. This way modern art ushered in formless blobs, chaotic smears, drips and dots, thick deposits of paint when showing how passionate they can be and stripes, squares, circles and angularities when hard edges of their disciplined, analytical approach was to be flaunted. Never thru ought the long history of Occidental art painting sunk so low. What is proudly exhibited in national collections, written about, lauded, awarded, taught at art schools, staring at us as public art, honored as the face of “our” culture is not ours at all. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Public Art

Public art is commissioned by bureaucrats and paid by public funds. The purpose of its existence is to express some edifying general idea or belief which the public is expected to recognize as their own.
Of course no one is actually asking the public what it would want to be honored, commemorated or expressed in public places. Such decisions are left to Zeus-like administrators and sweet little committees of mostly women imposing their good sense of what would be “appropriate”.
The pool of these edifying ideas is actually very small because there is always some group of loud people ready to be offended by variety of ideas and to avoid in advance controversies there is ever smaller repository of public sentiments that can safely be expressed by permanent public art. As a result artists can exercise unfettered freedom of expressing political correctness and be handsomely rewarded for the good sense of pleasing the mind-controllers.
 Political correctness came to us straight from USSR, the system that covered tightly its land mass with alleys of Lenin statues from the Western Ukraine to the Kuril Islands, touching the toes of outstretched Japan. So much public love,” Amor sacro” provided many decades of busy work for artists of the Soviet Union.

Here in America political correctness has been attenuated, adopted to suit  country proud of its mythos of freedom. What worked best is what is simplest: avoid any controversial subjects. Thus public art embraced abstraction and what a happy union it proved to be. The fit is so clever and safe as if someone invented “nameless soup” so devoid of any identifiable distinct taste that no complainer could ever reject it by pointing to a floating bit and say “I hate leeks”. There is nothing there but boiled water and cosmic dandruff- so, eat it!

The title, rather surprisingly is “Olympia” as if this effort was tied to ancient Greek sculpture. Other possible titles are: “Swastika’s Vacation” and “Air Duct and I are Separated”. The quote from The New York Times explains:”... Formal and abstract metal sculpture dominates. “Olympia” (2008), by Maria A. Hall, is a large, dynamic abstract stainless steel sculpture installed in an open grassy area. Like all abstract sculpture, it is concerned with relationships of form, line and space.” If I were the the author of it I would be concerned too. Just look at this language: miraculously the stupefying primitivism is called “dynamic form” and mechanical, machine –made form is presented as concern for line and space?!!! No wonder they feel validated and legitimized presenting these pieces of obscene junk as art. Olympic Gods, please forgive her if you can.
Across the country there is tenfold as many or more of these idiotic pieces mascarading as sculpture as statues of Lenin were in USSR. The statues of Lenin were not high art: they were political kitsch and a very purposeful reminder who is in charge, like watch towers in their Mind-Gulag. 
What is seriously wrong with “modern sculptures” in public places  is that the source, the origin of their birth is not human heart or inspired mind .

Just as it is in contemporary painting , parallel to Metallic Junk there are some worthy exceptions of serious figurative sculptures in public places firmly tied to occidental tradition.One such splendid piece of great art is a statuary of several figures installed in front of Banco Central in San Juan,Costa Rica.The author is Fernando Calvo.

Right in the heart of administrative, financial and political power stand a group of peasants to remind those in power of the people they govern. It is not an assembly of angry protesters and there is no sense of demand expressed there. These figures portray ordinary, hard-working, honest people who are not coming to complain about their lot, but their presence is very potent. Standing in front of the statuary it is inescapable to understand the clarity of their message. It is a bond of trust by which the hard toil of national labor will be done providing that the ruling class will protect laborers from exploitation, excessive greed and usury, corruption and vile manipulations. It is as if they installed this silent but eloquent, permanent reminder that they are “present”, which is the title of the sculpture.
It seems that this sculpture better than most shows how important public art can be, conveying meaningfulness, reaching into our social ideals to embody them with clarity, dignity and gravity.