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Screwing with the classics

The current topic at Freaking News is Degas. Which just cried out for the weasel treatment (The Absinthe Drinker meets plop-plop, fizz-fizz).

I really dislike the Impressionists. Not so much for their work — though some of it is truly hideous, some is okay — but because they have been so grossly overestimated and overpraised in my lifetime — and roundly congratulated for overthrowing the art that preceded them. They aren’t nearly good enough to be put forward as the bestest art that ever was.

I believed that before I got a look at the art they “overthrew” — the pre-Raphaelites and Victorian narrative painting. And when I did, my dislike of the Impressionists ripened into ripe dislike.

Late Victorian painting too often strayed into the silly and the sloppy-sentimental, I’ll cop to that, but it was by-god the most technically accomplished use of oil paint ever. Pre-impressionist Victorians loved to paint lush, creamy textures — polished wood, oriental carpets, mother of pearl, alabaster, fur, feathers — and they were irrepressible show-offs.

Sadly, “overthrow” is the right word. You couldn’t give away Victorian paintings for the longest time (there’s a persistent rumor that one of Alma Tadema‘s canvases was rescued off a trash heap). Museums that hold them seldom show them. I learned to keep an eye on side passages and other inauspicious hanging spots, in the hope of catching some stray bit of the 19th C collection accidentally on display.

That’s changing a bit, thanks in large part to Andrew Lloyd Weber. Hate his musicals, love his art collection.


Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: July 20, 2010, 2:16 am

Hm, well, I love many paintings created by the Impressionists. . .and there are many others that cause me to yawn and roll my eyes, and a few that make me gag. But, well, what else is new?

Thing is, any type of creative work (painting, music, writing) of necessity has to keep rolling through phases–if practitioners keep doing the same thing, it becomes derivative and banal. And, in truth, most creative work IS derivative, and a surprising percentage is also banal. But you have to accept all of that if you are going to have a chance of encountering the truly original and spectacular.

A couple of years ago a museum in my community deaccessioned a Picasso print and turned it over to a museum in a neighboring community. It was a fairly unimpressive (and small!) print, viewed by itself, and our local museum really doesn’t have an art collection to start with, so the damned thing hadn’t been displayed in donkey’s years. And the museum to which it was transferred actually had other Picasso prints, and also had enough related material to create an exhibit which (at least from the description in our local newspaper–I didn’t visit it, as I’m not a great Picasso fan in the first place) made sense and provided interesting information and perspective. . .

You should have heard the howls on the local chat forum. “Priceless heritage,” “masterpiece,” yada yada yada. It became clear to me that none of the commentors actually had a clue about the particular work in question, or the exhibits in either museum, or even any real clue about why Picasso’s work might be interesting and valuable: they simply reacted to the artist’s name which they have been trained–by clever marketing–to regard as sacrosanct.

Sorry for the ramble, but I guess my point is that the salivation over the revolutionary nature of what the Impressionists did is about on the same level. People who know squat diddely about art have actually heard of Renoir and Monet and Degas, and know they did something really special, so their work must be really special too, hein? (And, as a bonus, it is pretty, and anyone can understand it, but still feel superior because it seems af if it requires more depth of perception to understand than does, say, narrative painting.)

I realize you probably were exposed to a particularly virulent form of the above pestilence, from instructors in art school. But, truly, the Impressionists weren’t all that bad. It’s just that they also weren’t all THAT good.

And then there is Rothko. . .

And, oh, yeah. Your poster is a giggle. . .and a gas!

Comment from Allen
Time: July 20, 2010, 2:26 am

I got over Impressionism when I went to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. 3 or 4 rooms of Rembrandt, a roomful of Da Vinci, on and on, and on. The paleolithic art alone far outdid the Impressionists.

The work done with just Amber was dazzling. Bottom line, Impressionists? Pfft, there’s a hell of a lot more than them, Weasel’s dead on about dat.

Comment from Enas Yorl
Time: July 20, 2010, 2:27 am

I detested Impressionist stuff too for many years. Lately though I’ve mellowed quite a bit and don’t mind it nearly so much. And then some of it is actually really very pretty (I’m thinking mostly of Monet here, Degas not so much).

Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: July 20, 2010, 2:30 am

Sigh. Your post has given me fizz-brain. . .

Are you by any chance familiar with the work of Morris Bishop? He was a professor at Cornell in the mid 20th century, who wrote splendid light verse. The book I grew up with (my father, who attended Cornell when I was very, very young, owned a copy and quoted from it a LOT) was A Bowl of Bishop, and one part of it, called “Museum Thoughts,” was devoted to commentary on various works of art.

Of Ingres’ “Le Bain Turc” http://www.artchive.com/artchive/I/ingres/ingres_bain_turc.jpg.html, Bishop had this to say:

Farewell to the representation,
Which Art used to take as its norm,
Its record indeed is sensation,
But it hadn’t significant form.

Now Art’s many-corridored palaces
The moderns have taken by storm
To install no-objective analysis
Possessing significant form.

So begone, O ye maidens of Ingres,
From your haren so cozy and warm@
I’m sorry to trouble your langour,
But you haven’t significant form.”

Oh. Oh boy. Now I REALLY have to control myself. . .because you probably don’t want to hear his thoughts on the Rubens. . .or. . .No. I will shut up.

Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: July 20, 2010, 2:44 am

And, oh yeah–what do you think of Turner? Because to my mind he out-impressioned the Impressionists long before they existed. The Sterling and Francine Clarke Art Institute in Massachusetts had an exhibit of his late seascapes a few years ago, and I couldn’t tear myself away. . .this comes from someone who detests museums on principal. I usually walk away from an art exhibit more-or-less disliking all the artists represented. That one was an exception. . .

As was an exhibit of Janet Fish’s http://www.google.com/images?q=janet+fish+artwork&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=univ&ei=dw1FTLjlMsL58Ab7pf0X&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CCQQsAQwAA paintings at the Southern Vermont Art Center a couple of years ago.

Comment from Pavel
Time: July 20, 2010, 4:20 am

My grandfolks had all manner of Victorian narrative art throughout their house. I loved it, and spent hours as a young child taking in all the details. You are right: it is technically excellent. Their use of light rivals the Dutch masters.

Comment from David Gillies
Time: July 20, 2010, 5:29 am

I’m a Waterhouse fan, always have been. One of my fantasies is to have enough cash to buy Echo and Narcissus for proud display in my hollowed-out volcano lair.

Having said that, I am a silly person who is susceptible to bouts of Stendhal Syndrome and the closest I got to making a real fool of myself was seeing a Corot* landscape in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I had to walk out and get some fresh air before I could return. I know the signs now and can defeat them, but it’s scary. There’s a Duccio triptych in the National Gallery that made me feel very ill, one time. Art galleries for me are like bees for apiarists who are prone to anaphylactic shock.

* I know he’s ‘pre’ Impressionist, but still.

Comment from Wiccapundit
Time: July 20, 2010, 5:40 am

I love the work of realist painter Don Troiani, who is renowned for his Civil War paintings. I believe he once said that when he was in art school, all his teachers wanted him to paint in the abstract expressionist style (a la Jackson Pollock) instead of his realist style (which requires real talent). He replied that the art in that style looked like a child did it, and the only reason a child paints like that is because they haven’t learned how to paint yet.

I once went to a meeting in an office that was loaded with expensive, original, “important” modern art. In one of the partners’ offices was a framed work under a spotlight that looked like a five-year-old did it. I asked him whether the work was by Willem de Kooning, or possibly Robert Motherwell or another artist of the New York School (thus demonstrating my extreme good taste and knowledge of really important shit like modern art). He told me his five-year-old had painted it.

My rule: if it looks like I could have painted it, it ain’t art.

My favorite of the Victorian period artists is Waterhouse. His work is positively luminous.

Comment from scubafreak
Time: July 20, 2010, 5:44 am

I have to admit, the only non-photographic art in my man-cave is an oil painting of a Spanish Dancer. It kind of caught my eye at the last starving artist sale I went to….

Comment from Wiccapundit
Time: July 20, 2010, 5:51 am

Technically, Waterhouse was a “modern” pre-Rapaelite, but he did live and work during the late Victorian era, so I was not really inaccurate.

Still and all, Weas, nothing beats a good Elvis portrait on velvet, dontcha think?

Comment from Wiccapundit
Time: July 20, 2010, 5:58 am

Mr. Gillies, I have a print on canvas of Waterhouse’s “The Magic Circle.” It hangs above my altar, where any good witch would put it.

As for other Victoriana, you can’t go wrong with Sir Frank Dicksee’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” I have a print of that one on canvas above the Victorian sideboard in my dining room.

I loves me some Victoriana.

Comment from bad cat robot
Time: July 20, 2010, 2:10 pm

Did someone mention velvet paintings? (First illo ever so slightly NSFW, so watch your six). A pity the Velveteria is no longer in Portland, I had been planning to make a pilgrimage.

Comment from Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Time: July 20, 2010, 2:15 pm

A beautiful Pre-Raphaelite exhibit with a focus on Holman Hunt passed through Minneapolis a couple of years ago. You could see the weave in the fabric of the models’ clothes. Love Turner and O’keeffe, too, so it’s not just photorealists.

Comment from Tom
Time: July 20, 2010, 2:43 pm

“And then there is Rothko”

Man, now there was a guy who knew how to paint.

I went to the Tate Modern once (it was enough) when I was living in London and I remember seeing one of his works. No, really, it was No.1. There might have been two but they were so similar I think my mind’s merged them to save brain cells.

I recommend doing a google image search for it and basking in the brilliance and technical mastery. Then search for, my prejudice is showing here, Van Eyck, Elsheimer, or Durer and ask yourself how Mr. Rothko could have ever answered the question “What do you do then?” with “I’m an artist” without breaking out into gut-wrenching belly laughs.

I am open to the possibility that Mr. Rothko did amazing work in his youth and then suffered a blunt trauma to his cranium which caused the quality of his work to deteriorate. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Comment from Some Vegetable
Time: July 20, 2010, 3:13 pm

I will, head hung in shame, admit to a fondness for some of the impressionists….

However, I draw the line (sorry) at the cubists. That’s where (IMHO) art started being about breaking the rules rather than using them to advantage.

As for modern art in general, DuChamps saw where it was going in 1917 and just cut to the chase. Knowing nothing about him, I like to wish he’d be horrified about the status of his most famous work today.


Comment from Wiccapundit
Time: July 20, 2010, 3:41 pm

Is it just me, or does it seem that there are some disturbingly literate people lurking here, masquerading as dumbasses most of the time?

As far as the DuChamps goes, it reminds me of the recent work of sculpture submitted to a juried exhibition, in London I think. The sculpture got separated from its stand, and the stand (by itself) won the exhibition. Tres embarrassment.

Comment from apotheosis
Time: July 20, 2010, 4:51 pm

No worries, Wiccapundit, I’m genuine dumbass enough to maintain the balance.

I like Michael Whelan and Bev Dolittle and that’s about the extent of my artsy-fartsy pretensions.

Comment from porknbean
Time: July 20, 2010, 5:52 pm

I do like some impressionist stuff but for the floatiness of it. Love technically excellent of Dutch/Victorian.

HATE modern.

Comment from Gromulin
Time: July 20, 2010, 6:16 pm

I’ve always thought the Impressionists were just nearsighted.

If I take my glasses off and look at a field of flowers, it looks EXACTLY like an Impressionist painting.

Best scam ever.

Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: July 20, 2010, 7:55 pm

You can’t really appreciate Impressionists until you see one of their really good works for real in a museum, in person. The pictures and prints do not and cannot do them justice.

That said, I’m a Hudson River school guy myself.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 20, 2010, 9:38 pm

It’s true, Christopher — the impressionists don’t reproduce well. I’m still not awfully fond, though.

I was fifteen before I ever visited a proper big art gallery — by which time I had definitely decided to be an illustrator. I went through that museum (the National Gallery in Washington) looking for all my favorites from the books. I was really shocked to find all the paintings that really knocked me out were by people I’d never heard of. And many of my “favorites” were actually kind of meh in person.

Wow — this thread took off more than I expected. And me not really around to make a conversation of it.

Comment from Allen
Time: July 20, 2010, 10:01 pm

Wiccapundit, could be. Weasel’s place is cool for dropping all pretense and letting your Short Bus Flag fly. It’s probably because Weasel herself has so much talent and doesn’t mind lettin’ her rip.

Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: July 21, 2010, 6:06 am

Christopher Wilson–

Ooooh, yeah! The Hudson River School! Yup.

And, OK, while we’re on the subject . .the Ashcan School? Hopper in particular, but there were some interesting folks in there.

Acourse, almost any artistic movement has its really cool members. . .

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