Art and the fashion of Art

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Last night Bristol Life Drawing left me a reply to a comment I made some time ago, which restarted a discussion that continued on. I really recommend the Bristol Life Drawing blog, especially as I really like figure drawing. I like the bloggist’s commentary. So have a look if you like.

Specifically, this post was the trigger for discussion and I’m repeating my reply here, because I find the subject interesting, and you might too – and you might otherwise not find it if your are unfamiliar with Bristol Drawing. If you want to get the discussion from the very beginning, look up this post and the ensuing comments.

bristollifedrawing.wordpress.com/2007/06/28

Modernist still-life? I’ve rescued a few of them from the Salvation Army and other thrift stores lately, along with some other out of fashion originals.

I visit an elderly gentleman, friend of my mothers, in his late nineties who collected art in the period of 1930 to 1970 and collected some good brand names, so as to speak, of the modernist genre – nationally, if not internationally, icons that are largely unrecognized now by other than a few cognoscenti, those in the know.
Some of these paintings really no longer appeal to the current taste. They look childlike and brutally inept. Those modernists, though, opened the door for following generations to allow exploration and creativity, to encourage insolite and eccentric vision. It was a good thing. It engendered a whole lot of positive creativity.

Do you remember all those “chocolate box” and “Pompier” works of art that we were taught to abhor in Art School?

For those who may be following along who are not familiar with these Schools of Art, they were most popular in the 19th Century. The first, in general, had sweet subjects of little girls in pinafores, garden scenes with cottages, mothers with their babies or little children, little boys catching toads or newts. You get the picture – sweet, redolent of happy homes, wild English gardens, play at the seashore – nothing controversial and nothing deeply philosophical nor symbolic.

The second, from the same period of art fashion, was a hugely bombastic, emotively dramatic, often glorifying soldiers and war, and was steeped in allegorical imagery. It was favoured by the French Academy of Art. It was sneeringly called  “L’art Pompier” or translated, “Fireman’s Art”. Wikipedia has a good explanation of L’Art pompier, if you want to know more.

I was interested to see, relatively recently, that some renewed interest in these Schools of Art had once again become a lucrative trade on the auction market.  I mention these two schools of art because, without a strong grounding in anatomy, neither one of them would have been remotely interesting.

As a curious aside, I wonder how a comic book artist or caricaturist would handle a take-off on Bougereau’s “The remorse of Orestes” (which is the illustration for the Wikipedia reference I made up above). I can’t imagine it working at all! And yet, just look at that painting! If I had one tenth of the ability to draw those luscious nudes with so much movement, tension and emotion, I could die and go to heaven.

After all these years of painting and drawing, I still only get the best that I can do, but it’s rarely what I see or what I want to do.

So why did I mention all this?

What’s fashionable in art comes and goes. There’s always an “Academy” of thought that imposes its self-made criteria on the peons without influence telling them how they should think, do and produce. Art is influenced by our times and progress, whether that’s the right word for it or not, is characterized by rebellion against what has become normalized through time.

Even the Impressionists have fallen into a slump, if you are an upcoming student of the arts. Yes, they may be making millions at auction, but if you produce them in your art school these days, you are mocked to Perdition.

Installation art is in. I mention it because I remember going through some European countries – mostly France, Germany and England – in my first sabbatical year, going through museum after museum and steeping myself in Northern European Art History. I was awed, quite simply.

I based myself in Rheims where I attended Art School. It was still operating on the classical method of teaching drawing and painting, with Classical plaster statuary, figure drawing and perspective classes that have since been tossed out the window in Art Education, even in Rheims.

I struggled to get a good figure drawing. Despite my degree that allowed me to teach children what art was, I couldn’t draw. It was a year before I could do a decent figure and then, only sporadically.

When I saw Dominque Ingres’ beautiful nudes, they were to die for! – his ability to draw a hand as if it were alive! his beautiful transitions, his ability to express the roundness of his models, the softness of the skin, the absolute draughtsman-like ability to get proportion right. Well, that’s why we consider him a master of his art, n’est pas?

Quite rightly, for me, I fell in love with figure drawings (and paintings) and have wanted to succeed with them ever since; and because I never have, to the best of intentions, I have to keep on going back to it to get the next one right. As a result, I’ve got a basement full of three-quarters-good pastel drawings that will never be seen! I am spared the thought that my mother (unlike Whistler’s) will burn them all when I die, because she has predeceased me; but I shall nevertheless regret some fool executor trashing the bunch of them because they are out of fashion or because they are deemed by that person to be untoward, unChristian or somehow lewd.

I’m out of step with my times. I should be out there creating spare pile-of-rock installations in warehouse sized rooms; or decorating the landscape with a trail of a thousand white umbrellas.

One thing I am mightily thankful though, is that in my era, creativity has become accessible to the masses; and the revolt against the Academic strictures (both then and now) of What is Art have been successful in giving each of us permission to take the avenue that we desire to pursue in expressing ourselves, whether it be through traditional landscape, still life or portrait, or through more experimental modes of expressionism, impressionism, conceptualism, minimalism or any of the other ism you can think of.

The door is wide open. Hooray!

And if the figure is a hard-sell these days, I perceive that all art is a hard-sell. The dollars or Euros or pounds are not the purpose of it. Creativity is. So sell or no sell, I’m very happy to be painting and creating as best I can, because it enriches me and sometimes enriches others when they see it, and because it’s such a positive and satisfying activity to be involved in.

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One Response to “Art and the fashion of Art”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    LFB – I’d remove the reference to Filio. She or her opinions are no part of your argument, which you have very eloquently made. i will check out the blog you mentioned, as i have a keen interest in imaging the figure. Good post! G

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