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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Genre Painting

From Leonardo to Lucy, genre painting depicts our lives.
It occurred to me today that, broadly viewed, painting has always been a lot like TV. Or, more accurately speaking, inasmuch as painting preceded TV by a few thousand years, maybe I should say, TV is a lot like painting. Whatever the case, it's interesting to compare the two. On the one hand, we have history painting, on the other hand, news and documentary channels. We have landscape painting and the Discovery Channel not to mention dozens of travelogues every night. We have the Romantic style and on TV we have everything from Gray's Anatomy to soap operas and reality TV. And perhaps most popular of all, there are the TV sitcoms, which would be analogous to what we call in art, genre painting. And interestingly enough, while this type of painting no longer seems very popular, its TV counterpart has never been more so. Perhaps that's more than just coincidence.

Aprile, 1470, Francesco del Cossa, a Renaissance sitcom?
Just as the sitcom is as old as TV, older in fact, if you consider that it grew out of similar radio shows, so too is genre painting quite ancient, dating back to at least the sixth century BCE when the ancient Greeks decorated their pottery and walls with scenes of labourers, athletics, and partying. In Medieval times, such scenes found their way into various "books of hours" or prayer books, serving as calendars, illustrating the work and play associated with the various seasons. In 1460, Francesco del Cossa took this formula out of the prayer book applied it to fresco, painting an amazingly realistic series of scenes from various months of the year (above). One of the more impressive is a painting depicting workers preparing a grape arbor. It can still be seen today in remarkably good condition in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

The Bean Eater, 1580-90, Annibale Carracci
On a much more intimate, perhaps even humorous level, Annibale Carracci's The Bean Eater (right) from around 1585 is an unidealized man caught between bites while on the table before him is a strikingly naturalistic still-life of food and drink allowing us an interesting, if somewhat unappetising, insight into the daily diet of the Italian middle-class during the Renaissance. Such works were often not intended for display but as painting and drawing exercises for art students. The Carracci family ran one of the first formal art academies.

The Dissolute Household, 1660, Jan Steen--definitely not Ozzie and Harriet.
Just as in TV production we have wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups, it would seem the electronic media learned their craft from painting, or more precisely from motion pictures, which took their cues from genre painting. The Dutch were fond of the wide-angle, room-size genre interior. Jan Steen in his 1660, The Dissolute Household (above) depicts no less than eight characters, a dog, and a monkey enjoying such pastimes as music, smoking, eating, dozing, courting, and card playing in a very much "lived-in" scene of middle-class domestic comfort. We're tempted to compare it to The Brady Bunch.

Woman Baking Bread, 1854,
Jean-Francois Millet
During the nineteenth century, genre took a very much more serious turn with the work of Jean-Fran├žois Millet’s various depictions of peasants in what has been termed the Realist style (right). By that time, genre had worked its way down the academic painting hierarchy to just one notch above pet portraits. At best, it was not deemed a fit subject for "serious" painters (though many of them indulged in it anyway) and at worst, attracted the suspicion of being vaguely subversive in it's holding up to light the harsh realities and desperate plight of the peasant class in all the subdued nobility of their tiresome daily labors. Genre painting, even in depicting the daily life of the upper classes, a common subject during the late 19th century, has always lacked much in the way of glamour. It wasn't portraiture, the momentary activity depicted always superseded the figures themselves as individuals. And, insofar as it does study humanity, Genre depicts stereotypes, in fact perhaps even going so far as creating stereotypes. It then invites us to apply meaning to the scene or event, implying morals, and/or wringing new, insightful messages from its images and activities.

The Street Enters the House, 1911,
Umberto Boccioni
In the 20th century, we immediately think of Norman Rockwell as the ultimate genre painter, though in fact, artists as diverse as Umberto Boccioni in his 1911 The Street Enters the House (left), and Roy Lichtenstein in his 1963 In the Car (bottom) have also employed various forms of genre in their work. But that was almost fifty years ago. Why is genre no longer popular today? Perhaps TV does have something to do with it. Genre has narrative elements, and along this line, television, with it's moving images, dialogue, plot-lines, laff-tracks, and incredibly efficient delivery system is vastly superior to the painted image. But that's no news to anyone, least of all painters. Today, if we still had a viable painting hierarchy, we'd have to place genre well below pet portraits, perhaps just a notch above pretty little cottages with candles glowing in all the windows. Apart from TV, is it our values, the painting market, changes in interior decorating tastes, the high level of technical expertise demanded of genre painters, why is it there's so little contemporary genre done today? Could it be--all of the above?
In the Car, 1963, Roy Lichtenstein--genre, no dialogue necessary.

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