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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Doldrums

For better or worse, we have a tendency to take art and artists for granted. That is, art has always been part of our existence, and as far back as we can remember, any man or woman with a modicum of talent, a good store of persistence, a smattering of knowledge, and some spark of creativity, could be assured of some degree of personal and financial success. The range has generally been quite broad, from the talented amateur who sells an occasional landscape to a sympathetic relative, all the way to the professional artists who have achieved some degree of regional fame. It's hard to imagine a time when, to become what we now think of as a painter, was something of a dead-end. Families did their level best to discourage such career decisions and those who insisted soon came crawling back to whatever financial security might be afforded by the family business or an associated, art-related craft of some kind.

This was largely the case in the early 1800s in France of all places. We commonly consider the French nation as the cradle of all creative endeavors, yet from the fall of Napoleon until the Paris World's Fair of 1855 when Gustave Courbet rebelled at his not having work accepted (because of his radical tendencies), and opened his own Pavilion of Realism, the art of painting was in a period of the doldrums. It wasn't that there wasn't any painting being done. On the contrary, artist were smearing paint on canvas by the mile. It was the Romantic period, and while three or four outstanding painters (Gericault and Delacroix to name just two) who were making worthwhile statements in paint, something like ninety percent of all the work cluttering the walls of the annual salons was unmitigated, academic crap!

Part of the problem was that in France, since the days of Jacques-Louis David or before, art (and painting in particular) was a form of government propaganda. And, as one government fell and another one rose with incredible haste (even for France where they are use to such political turmoil), about the only artists making any kind of decent living were those courtiers who specialized in grandiose depictions of whatever currently prevailing government chose to emphasize as their crowning achievement at the moment.  Perhaps the one saving grace from this period is that the French paint manufacturers were turning out a product at least as bad as the artists using it.  Today, much of it has deteriorated into a sort of brown "soup" that simply can't be resurrected by even the best art conservators--even if they could find much of anything from the period worth conserving.

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