Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Painting as a Product or Hating Bouguereau

When people find out I am a painter, they inevitably ask me- what I paint and then most importantly where I sell it and much I get. It always baffles me because why I paint has never had anything to do with selling or money. The major reasons of course to have to sell what you paint is to keep body and soul together and to buy more paint.

When I was an illustrator by necessity, it was easy to get rid of them. I knew that they were products that I would have had little reason to do them except to get paid.

John Berger in his 1972 "Ways of Seeing"  BBC Television series and accompanying book discusses art through the millenia as product. Product for the ruling class. Even the decorations in the churches were paid for by nobles to ensure their place in a glitzy afterlife.  Berger, an English writer is someone I wish I had been aware of in 1972. We had Hilton Kramer and sticky fingered critics ( artists gave them freebies as tribute for good reviews) like Henry Geldzahler and  Clement Greenberg. A good read about these "critics" is in the latest Robert Hughes book "The Spectacle of Skill. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/books/review-in-robert-hughess-the-spectacle-of-skill-an-aesthetes-unsparing-eye.html

John Berger posits that painting as we know it in the west started in earnest around 1400 and ended 1900.  I have to say I agree with him except for a few rare exemplars.

His thesis is that much art as it has been practiced in the west is the art of capitalism, the art of possession including depictions of women and the objects of still-lifes. I was particularly affected, devastated actually, when he explored nude or 'naked' painting, as I paint them and wondered if I was complicit in making women simply as objects for men,  Many nudes of women were made to display a rich nobleman's or a king's  "possession" a beautiful women to envious onlookers. She was bought, it never ends. Donald Trump had a picture taken of his current wife  Melania in a bikini on a mock-up of the oval office sprawled on a rug and she posed nude on fur in his private jet.

Melania Trump

 John Berger "Charles the Second commissioned a secret painting by [Peter] Lely. It is a highly typical portrait of the tradition. Nominally it might be a Venus and Cupid. In fact it is a portrait of one of the King's mistresses, Nell Gwynne. It shows her passively looking at the spectator staring at her naked. This nakedness is not, however, an expression of her own feelings; it is a sign of her submission to the owners feelings and demands. (The owner of both woman and painting) The painting, when the King showed it to others, demonstrated this submission and his guests envied him"
Is there any difference in  point of view between the Nell Gwynne  painting and the image of Melania Trump other than the era and medium?
I have had to rethink my approach to the nude in the light of his observation below:
"But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men-not because the feminine is different from the masculine-but because the 'ideal' spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that it is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude.Transform the Woman into a man. Either in your minds eye or by drawing on a reproduction. Then notice the violence the transformation does. Not to the image but to the assumptions of a likely viewer."

The Bouguereau Nymphs and Gerome's "Slave Market"  are my own additions.
Agnolo Bronzino 1545 Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time
oil on wood panel 57" x 46"
Jean-Leon Gerome "The Slave Market" I particularly dislike the leaden Gerome and his faux history paintings, baths and slave markets- cheap thrills for the neo-pious Victorian men. Charlotte Bronte in her book "Villette" has a wonderful chapter on just this subject. In this post on my blog I have printed out a chapter referencing an art exhibition.  http://sharonknettell.blogspot.com/2015/10/charlotte-bronte-reviews-art-exhibition.html

Bouguereau "Les Nymphs"
He does say that just as there are a few truly great artists- there are a few great nude paintings. He calls the exceptionial paintings of nakedness as oppoded to nudes. It is a wonderful essay and it should really be read in full.
'Helene Fourment in a Fur Robe "Rubens

"Danae" Rembrandt

John Berger; "Almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal- either literally or metaphorically- because the sexual protaganist is the spectator owner looking in at it. The absurdity of this male flattery reached its peak in the academic art of the nineteenth century.

Bouguereau "Les Oreades"
Imagine a flying flock of naked men!

How women became man's property to exploit in art and in life is explored in Simone de Beauvoir's seminal book "The Second Sex". It is a complex subject with many points of views.

I love painting the figure, the naked, the nude. A naked figure has an erotic charge. It is what essentially makes the birds,birds and the bees,bees.

When I was younger I never questioned  the validity of painting, of being an artist or my painting choices. Judith Fairly, a writer from Texas sent me a delightful short story from the  January 18th issue of  The New Yorker, "The Story of a Painter" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. It is about a very, very, poor painter, destitute and homeless.His only wish is to find something to scratch a picture on the pavement. All his art supplies have been lost. It occurred to me that, that is it exactly, scratching something out is how I speak.

The book referenced on this post;
Further reading on John Berger.
Reviews of his latest book; http://www.amazon.com/Portraits-John-Berger-Artists-ebook/dp/B0162HIV4G/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8

Many,many thanks to Ian Warburton for enlightening me about this wonderful writer.

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