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A Ramble on 19th Century Artists and Critics

Ottawa in the summer –even if the weather is less than summery- is a delight: markets, galleries, the joy of walking by Parliament Hill. For me, an unexpected pleasure last spring was the show at the National Gallery that focused on Gustave Dore.

Doré aspired to be the Michelangelo of the nineteenth century, and was respected as illustrator and engraver of Rabelais, Shakespeare, Perrault, Cervantes and the Bible. Yet he was frustrated by his status, desiring to be taken seriously as an artist, feeling rejected and devalued by French society, especially in the salons that found his oil paintings wanting.

Remember as well, the Impressionists were also on the rise during the mid-19th century and much of their work was scorned by the Academy. Dore was embittered by the lukewarm critical reception that his paintings and sculpture received. Considered prodigious even as a child, he did possess talent. Established in 1725 the official art exhibition, the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France was the mark of approval all artists sought. Everyone in Paris, from the silk top hats to the laundresses attended: to view the works deemed acceptable for the show.

While the work of Monet, Cassatt, Seurat was breaking new ground in technique by illuminating canvases with dazzling light and fresh colour, and demonstrating new techniques ( the neo-impressionists believed in using dots –much like digitalizing colours; and the Impressionists painted brightly, local scenes out of doors), theirs was likewise dismissed by the salon although the odd Manet, Renoir, and Degas were included with the traditional classist pieces .

For me, Dore’s work forms an extension of the celebrated painters of his time such as Bouguereau, his cupids, and the mythological figure Venus, Dante and Virgil, these topics and images evident in Dore’s exhibition in Ottawa, themes well accepted and that echo back to the German Caspar David Friedrich, his allegories and notion of the Sublime. Friedrich’s work goes beyond to idealize the British landscape artists such as Constable and Gainsborough and even the inscrutable J.M. Turner.

However the Academies did in fact nod to the Pre-Raphaelites in England, and in France, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, although the latter’s was tinged with nostalgia, along with the brilliance of Édouard Manet: displaying their works for exhibition. Mary Cassatt like many others despaired of the rejection of her pieces, but was warmed by Edward Degas’s suggestion to paint for herself.

However, more often than not, it was the landscapes, allegories, notions of the sublime and sentimental religious paintings that won approval by the Academie as opposed to social realism. Interestingly with social and economic upheavals in society, and culture becoming accessible for all classes, everyone flocked to the salon. Viewers themselves, a new motif to establish their presence in a painting, was a new trend. Previously painting had been theorized as a window through which one gazed. Tissot’s opera attendees, the laundresses captured by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s, Renoir’s boating parties were all brash new subjects for painting. Degas’ pastels of the “petits rats” of ballet and the almost pinhole perceptions of women at their bath shocked the sensibilities of the art world, but confirmed the presence of a viewer both inside and out of these pieces.

In art, there are trends, often shifted by the critic’s diatribe: as suggested in Robin Oliveira’s novel, I Always Loved you. In a tense but powerful discussion between Emile Zola and Mary Cassatt, they clash on the power of whether words or paint exerts the stronger impact on mass audiences. I recall an art history class discussion in the 60’s that scorned Griselda Pollock’s psychological insights into Van Gogh’s painting of worn workboots, yet the same critic was the official voice of the AGO many years later.

Where the paintings of Matisse were once decried as being done by wild beasts or labeled “ fauves” by influential French art critic Louis Vauxcelles in the 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibit, we, the public now embrace and delight in his exotic design. Similarly Norman Rockwell, his work first presented in Saturday Evening Post first seen as capturing the homey quality of America and celebrating America with the 1943 Four Freedoms, later to be considered a kind of kitsch reproduced on teacups and acceptable for family display, is presently being reconsidered as a caustic commentary of the times. Examples cited showcase the integration of Ruby Bridges, a fourteen year old girl at William Franz School In New Orleans in 1960, her staunch attitude, her freshly starched clothes juxtaposing her deriders. So it seems, beauty or criticism resides in the reactions of the official perceiver, able with his or her words to provide interpretation, to sway, to make sense or cast aspersions.

Although Dore saw himself as an outsider of the elite and a misfit, he exists perhaps midway between the pack of accepted and those openly denigrated by the salons. Reading Richard Harris’s An Officer and A Spy casts light on the shallowness of French society. The wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus exemplifies the frivolous , corrupt world where coverup, anti-Semitism and pretense stand in strong opposition to honesty and the truth. Likely it is in this way that some artists are the canaries in the mine shaft, willing to provoke or alternatively ignore the forces that hold and maintain society. The Kathe Kollwitzes, the Max Ernsts, the Daumiers, Ai Weiweis and certainly Pablo Picasso’s Guernica moved art far beyond technique to outright challenge and condemnation of the evils of their world.

Changing thinking occurs through words and images, educating and opening the doors to re-conceiving previous patterns. So said Emile Zola, “J’accuse.”

I’m not sure about Dore. I can admire his work, understand his angst as being overlooked, but I think again of Oliveria’s book and Degas’ advice to Marry Cassatt to paint for herself. He says,

“…Everyone will have an opinion of your work… they will claim that your style parts too much from standard taste… these are people who cannot even mix a color…But they ( the critics) will believe themselves right and influence the public for the worse. They will be wrong, of course. What I want you to understand is that they should not allow their ignorance to destroy you…”( Oliveira, I Always Loved You,2014,187)

Something about a painting

Recently we bought a painting. We were in San Diego and furnishing the new condo. In my mind was something large, a Morris Louis Abstract Expressionism or an Andy Warhol with those massive pink flowers. But something to fill the wall and set off the space.

It had all begun with Howard’s red chair. We had nothing in the room but a red chair, a colour I would not usually choose as I go for those boring neutrals, beiges, warm ochres, whatever my elder daughter finds bland and uninteresting.

But a reclining leather red chair spoke to him and so we bought it on the spot. With a nondescript non-colour couch, I also figured a rug with slashes of red, gold, green, brown might work a little magic in the room. And then I considered that a painting might bring it all together.

As we meandered on the grass of the Festival Arts at UCSD I caught a glimpse of a painting. It was certainly large, 4 x 5 feet at least and it blasted red. I would never tell anyone to purchase paintings to match décor, but hell, we needed something red to work with that chair and brighten up the rest of the room. Something drew me towards that canvas that sunny green day.

There was evidence of a variety of brushstrokes: what looked like a red bag in flight, a group of doughnuts or maybe they were bagels, the top of a soaring perfume bottle also in flight and two strange doors caught in this frenetic piece. With a background in art history, I figured that if I was responding to this painting, it must have multiple levels of communication and actually communicate something of import. Not a starving artist deal at all. Plus, I learned that the title was “ Metropolis” and that certainly sparked my attention- and imagination.

We spoke to the artist from San Francisco about the price, but kept on moving, just wandering through the show. Her price was way more than I had expected to spend. But I was drawn back to the work, and offered the artist half- which I knew she would refuse and felt I was, in deed, insulting her. Her price was in truth, not unreasonable. We left the show but gave Anna our name.

Later that day as I was perusing her website, I noticed several charming prints that might do so I lay down for a nap and contemplated how the three simple attractive designs might look on our wall. I heard the phone ring and Anna revealed that the piece had not sold so perhaps we might like to see it on our wall. Again, we discussed price: we, moving up slightly and she ( I could imagine her lips downturned) down. All right, we thought, we’ll agree to JUST see it in our space. Of course, like a hand and a glove, it fit and we were hooked.

Later asking for her influences, I was not surprised to discover that both Matisse’s cut-outs and Paul Klee’s childlike drawing figured prominently in her work: both artists whom I adore for their simplicity, flatness and childlike innocence . Twice in my life I have gone to Vence outside of Nice in France to view Matisse’s Chapel where his famous cutouts were housed.

(Funny story- years ago when I wanted to introduce my young children to my favourite artists, we visited every church, museum and gallery in Europe and so, we headed towards Vence where we deposited coins in a machine for parking outside the chapel and discovered, that really, it was not a parking meter, but a dispenser of condoms. Oh those French!).

I could not put a reason on why Anna Choi’s painting called to me, but it did. It was the same experience in Alice Springs, Australia, when an even larger work by an Aboriginal artist’s almost abstract painting also whispered to me and made me weep. It combined the push-pull of Hans Hoffman with the aboriginal signs of the mandala, the artist’s son’s barefoot feet, hedgehogs and woven bags that popped and whirled on multiple levels of meaning, colour, form, reality, illusion: sacred and secular melding.

As interesting as the painting were the responses of people to it. Although I could care less, reactions reveal something of the viewers. Our new neighbor loved it as I thought it might as she seems to be intuitive and open. Our real estate agent who sold us the condo also approved and offered in exchange her own house’s artwork that is whimsical and “quirky”, as she calls it. My daughter-in-law pondered, not totally enamoured, what style it was painted in. Actually, a good question but I cannot pinpoint the style. Certainly not pure abstract expressionism or Impressionism. Maybe a bit like Jim Dine and Claus Oldenberg with elements of Matisse , Gorky, Klee, Debenkorn… I’m an art history person but I can’t give it a label. Truly, I hate labels anyway.

* * *

As I edit this piece written many months ago, I feel weepy. My youngest daughter has just had a little girl and so I think about motherhood: was I a good enough mother myself; what did I do as a mother…our trips to Europe with our children, the laughter, the French fries, the coughs, the gites where we stayed, times spent together.

I feel ancient.

I hope that some of the things I have loved such as the travel and especially the worlds and stories enclosed in the paintings will survive me and like the newest painting in San Diego one day recall memories.

Hardly beautiful

My dear friend Anne tells me she wants beautiful. This is now my mantra as well.

At this point in my life, I passionately want it. I’m not just thinking rich embroideries, silk, soft to the touch or pretty pictures by Picasso and Matisse; or even cheerful stories than end with heroes riding off into the sunset with faces turned towards the twinkling stars. Beautiful becomes a mental shield, a metaphor for what is good and sustaining in life as well as a place to rest one’s mind and heart in the midst of turmoil and crises.

For example, I am so sick of that stupid Rob Ford debacle. In my oil painting classes, in the press, on street corners, everywhere I turn, someone has something to say about that useless creep. Before he was elected, my husband and I happened to be in the small plaza at the corner of Bathurst and Lawrence, and Howard pointed out this fellow, standing by himself, alone, shunned, a Willy Loman type in a shapeless beige overcoat. We chortled a bit, thinking this is no man for the mayor of our great city.

Obviously the laugh was on us.

I used to find Mel Lastman and his pants-pilfering wife an embarrassment, but Ford makes Lastman look like a debutant. Besides Ford’s abusive behavior as he carelessly knocked over Pam McConnell in City Hall chambers, the drivel that comes from his mouth: not only the gravy train slogans and his excuse for apologies that are really not apologies at all – are all slobber. I will never forgive Jimmy Kimmel’s kindness when he interviewed the hulking excuse of a man, Ford, well rehearsed so he appeared not-so-bad.

No surprise that Ford’s attitude towards the arts is a nightmare. I shutter to think that Lord Associates based in Toronto is working on Chicago’s arts in schools and on promoting art on the streets there while our city is bereft of that necessary support. There is no place for art or culture here unless it is football, in Ford’s life. His attitude towards Gay Pride is clearly evidenced by his avoidance of the parade. And there is so much more, so un-beautiful, bullish about Ford and his brother. I cringe to think of Ford’s attitude towards the 14 year old who waited till early in the morning at City Council to plea for maintaining library services. The only person unmoved was Ford.

Recently Dougie in his car as he exited a parking lot almost ran over Howard who retorted that Dougie should slow down. The response: a finger pointed upwards. Seems the finesse runs in the family, but we all ready knew that.

But now I have become one of those I have deplored who has wasted even a second’s thought on the lout, giving Ford space and time in my life.

This is exactly why I want and need beautiful, a place to rest my head from the discrimination in India, the Putin power takeovers, the plea for Christmas dinner for poor children, the federal payoffs to people like Duff and Wallin, the senseless murders by gunfire on the streets, the corruption in Quebec, the impossibility of banning firearms, Sandy Hook: one could go on endlessly, targeting the lack of care and morals and self-satisfied politicians and false facades that circumscribe our world. No wonder we become Scrooges, crying out Humbug! and feeling helpless and powerless in a sea of awful :what is the point.

Last weekend we babysat Grandchild #1 and watched the Boris Karloff animated Grinch who stole Christmas created by Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel). In spite of feeling overcome with the lack of beautiful in the world, we had to smile at the Grinch and why his heart grew two sizes. Simple and clear, the idea of giving was beautiful. Similarly, as we lit the Channukah licht (candles) , chanted the prayers and observed the glowing dance of flames illuminating our grandchildren’s faces, we had a moment where the pure and truly beautiful shone out.

We have to believe that somewhere there is light in this muck of the world, that there is beautiful : otherwise what is the point?

Please note that I develop a germ of an idea and write throughout the year, but edit these blogs when I publish them, therefore, the reference to December’s Channukah. As well, Ford is finally in Rehab as I review this. Well, maybe he is and the province although deep into election slogans has replaced one kind of noise for another.

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