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Archive for the tag “Norman Rockwell”

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)

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Playing Catchup

I write my blogs when an idea hits me. Always the English teacher who demanded her students compose several drafts of their work and continue to refine their writing, I, too, play with a germ of a topic, see if it will grow into a paragraph, if it can go the distance of having something to say with a few examples that actually tie it to the topic of  “boomerism”.

So it is for that reason that my last blog on Kennedy was created near the anniversary of his death on November 22, and there was a lag between the so-called story I was sharing and the publishing of the piece here last week. And a few of my favorite pieces, some actually safe in my computer (others sadly lost) such as “Ghosts in the Glade” about returning to California for a wedding are narratives that have been stored after being rejected by journals or magazines. However, because I believe that these stories propel me backward to a notion of who I once was, I have not shredded or trashed them. Fortunately for me, they survive.

I chortle a bit, because even as a teacher at Northern Secondary and the advent of commandeering computers for mark-input, my department head suggested a perfect job for me was to be hired by a computer company: to demonstrate how to make any document disappear. So it was true, that my draft thesis, “ The usefulness of art in education in and out of the classroom” in 1996 hid unretrieviable somewhere in the bowels of technology. Gulp!

 There is much of the old teacher in me, the love of Bakhtin’s dialectic, for example. ( See Bakhtin, M.M. (1981).(ed. Holquist). The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.). I think of Bakhtin’s treatise as suggesting a vertical conversation. A writer/ speaker puts out an idea; a reader/ listener offers a response that ponders, adds, changes or critiques that idea, morphing it; thoughtfully the author of the idea also contemplates the new direction or the evolution of his/her original idea, and the conversation grows, swells, soars upwards, goes off in a new direction because a second consciousness has added depth, or prompted a new awareness to it. That is what I adore about a good discussion; it takes you to unexpected realms because someone else’s experiences enhances your own comprehension and your idea becomes fresh again because of another’s insights. In this way, a conversation spirals, veers and catches both/ all participants in a volley of cogitations.

Here I offer the feedback of a few of my readers to my blogs with their own memories in tribute to Mr. Bakhtin. In Blog 3, while describing the jaunts to the library and the milkshakes afterwards, a friend actually researched strawberries, saying that strawberries are sometimes associated with purity and freshness as they are the first fruits to appear in the summer and hint at hope for the future. He quoted, “Strawberries are also sweet, they might symbolize sweet personality, kindness, and childhood.” As well, their shape suggests a heart. He proceeded to discuss his ailing sister in palliative care in Florida who brightened when he brought her a milkshake. More than a drink, a milkshake instigates associations with cheerful days when we were young, even when we ourselves cannot physically perch or spin on bar stools at soda shops. I recall Norman Rockwell paintings that stand as icons of an innocent age and remind us that once we were free of fears and worries, where the rich sweetness of thick ice cream was all: the consuming moment in childhood. I can envisage my own childhood, clasping my mother’s soft hand, my heart bursting with love, skipping along Eglinton and savouring the taste of Saturdays, hoping they would never end.

Another reader suggested a reference to Katniss in The Hunger Games. Can you find strawberries?

Much like the icongraphy that I once studied in art history classes: fruit, particularly in 17th Century Dutch or Flemish work, symbolized death in life, the so-called “ vanitas” of life, that all things ripe will wither and die and our time on earth is fleeting.  Painters often inserted skulls into their work, but most comprehended that fruits and flowers concealed the metaphors of mortality and thus, morality.  Reflecting on this last reference again gives me rise to the giggles as sometimes- although it is so me to find the blight under the rose petal, the half full glass- sometimes a cigar is only a cigar. 😉

Another reader, Emma reflected surprisingly, or maybe not, “Your piece has evoked very powerful memories in me.” She contributed that for her, it was the Wychwood library, and very slowly sipping Vernors Ginger Ale at The Egg. She continued to ferret out one of those flashbulb memories, a day in Grade 3, walking home from school and finding a slightly muddied picture book on the road, encountering bewildering pictures of starving, wide-eyed people, naked bodies in mass graves: her discovery of the holocaust . ”To this day I remember the moment of picking it up and instinctively being strangely connected to these images”, she contributed in an email. I could imagine a shadow falling on her face and downcast, the taste of ginger ale souring in her mouth.

While I worked at the College of Teachers, presenting to many of our faculties in the province, one of my talks concerned which of all the days of our lives we actually retain strongly in our minds and emotions. I used that as a mental activity to engage novice teachers into contemplating what a “good “ teacher does, how a role model might act, and eventually I segued through their own personal experiences into the standards that we had developed as a guide for teacher behavior. So powerful are these triggers from our pasts.

Certainly it would be impossible to recall every single day and every single moment in our lives, yet the happiest and brightest days, such as birthdays, holidays; along with the abject sadness of other days do filter through our heads with stark details and vivid sense reactions so that you are able to restore the smell of pancakes, the sizzle in the pan, the delight in your mother’s voice, even the clothes you wore on your fifth birthday breakfast celebration. Such events impact so forcefully that they continue to fill one with the impressions and sensations of those days. Yet, standing back from those memories, we rationally must admit that we are remembering in present time and all of the years between may have actually warped the memories somewhat.

When I taught Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro’s short stories, contextualizing their fictionalized remembrances made me realize that not all of our images are literally true; that you can never really go home again because the home you fantasized about  is –not only gone, but never was ( half-empty again?).

And as I reflect more honestly, I never liked the clogging thickness of milkshakes; I was a chocolate soda girl even years back.

But to end on a more positive note, I will add Kerrie’s reflection, “”I too have wonderful, happy memories of visits to our local library–but it was my dear maternal grandmother (Nanny) who took us.” And the bare bones of going to the library, with a dear one , surrounded by love are a testament to the real and true, then and now, forever.

Whether created, collected accurately or not, these are the moments we go to, serene and supportive places that make our bodies actually relax and dream of a sweeter alternative that has built our present day realities in a good way. Half-full?

 

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