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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Painting Nostalgia

Nostalgia, Bakhtiar Umataliev.
In terms of Modern Art, the word "nostalgia" has come to be considered something of a "dirty word" right up there with "sentimental," "sweet," "cute," "nice," and "lovely." Postmodernism is a little more tolerant, having as one of its supposed virtues a willingness to at least dip one toe cautiously into the past in search of eternal truths having to do with art as a whole. Except for abstractionists who claim no allegiance to any mantra other than "art for art's sake," very few artists have not, at one time or another, done far more than dip one toe in the vast sea of nostalgia. Some in fact, swim in it, wallow in it, live and die by it, having built entire careers around it. Perhaps second only to sex, nostalgia sells.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Staying in at Recess, 1991, Jim Lane--my dad's favorite.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Hers, 1997, Jim Lane
Nostalgia can be defined in several ways, starting with a "longing for the past." Another source defines it a "sentimental recollection--a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness." Another definition simply terms it "homesickness." (Don't they have a pill for that now?) Nostalgia can be categorized somewhat in terms of people, place, things, events, and more broadly--past times. Sometimes it's simply reduced to the trite expression, "the good ole days." As it has to do with art, it is not Modern Art and bears only an ambivalent relationship to Postmodern art. That is, Postmodernism, while not exactly antithetical, in any case pretty much ignores it. Meanwhile, the nostalgic pretty much ignore Postmodernism (if, indeed, they've ever even heard of it).
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Headline Hustlers, 1990, Jim Lane
Fileena and Jonathan, 1989, Jim Lane
Although I now consider myself a Postmodern artist, that's not to say that I've not swam in the nostalgic waterhole more than a few times myself. I'm a portrait painter. Almost by definition, portraits tend to be nostalgic (or eventually become so). Portrait subjects, live, love, laugh, and eventually languish in their graves. Their loved ones grow nostalgic in remembering them and encountering their portraits. The portraits of pets, with their shorter lifespans, more often than not are nostalgic, though the nostalgia fades more quickly. Sometimes, even the subjects themselves see their portraits as nostalgic (gee, I wish I still looked that good). Moreover, young children grow so fast, their portraits are especially nostalgic, almost before the paint is even dry.
Copyright, Jim Lane
'59 Caddy, 1990, Jim Lane. I get nostalgic over tail fins.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Winter Dawn, 1996, Jim Lane
The real gold mine insofar as painting nostalgia is concerned falls within the areas of places and things, quite often mixing the two--a familiar landscape with an historic structure featuring an old car out front. And, before you go picturing country stores replete with a Model T automobile, how about a garish drive-in hamburger joint with a '64 mustang convertible dominating the scene. All of which serves to underline the fact that what is nostalgic to one generation quickly becomes "historic" with the arrival of the next. History painting (what little of it still done today) is seldom overtly nostalgic. It eventually becomes trivia. Paintings by Jacques Louis David or Paul Delaroche of Napoleon Crossing the Alps (compare the two sometime) may have been nostalgic in the 19th century. By the 20th century they were historic. Today, in the 21st century, they have become "who cares?" trivia.
USMA Class-of-95 On the High Ground, Mark Churms
Perhaps the most virulent manifestation of nostalgia has to do with war. It seems to make little difference which war. I'm not sure if anyone still does battle reenactments from the French and Indian War, but pretty much all wars since have long been steeped in nostalgia of the worst kind. "Remember the Alamo?" (Okay, bad example.) Wars are horrible human tragedies for all concerned--winners and losers. The South has been re-fighting their "War Between the States" pretty much ever since Appomattox Courthouse (I just can't believe we didn't win). Publisher, William Randolph Hearst insisted we "Remember the Maine," while the "war to end all wars" is remembered mostly for doughboys, mustard gas, and the fact that it didn't. World War II nostalgia (quickly becoming history now) is bedecked with enough art and memorabilia, real and imagined, to fill hundreds of libraries and museums. Even wars as deadly as Korea and Vietnam have veterans still bent on reliving the "good times" of jungle combat (above). And despite the associated PTSD we're seeing daily, I presume the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually hold a similar "longing for the past."
Good Day, Thomas Kinkaid nostalgia--the "good ole days" that never were.
Nostalgia is likely inevitable. The human mind seems "hard-wired" to relive the past. And as long as there is art, there will be nostalgic art. That means, Modern Art be damned, there will always be nostalgic artists. Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkaid both got rich painting nostalgia. Kinkaid's was almost entirely imaginary--the "good ole days" that never were. Rockwell's nostalgia ran deeper, truer, flirting with history painting, yet with a candy coating that was, in its own way, almost as "sweet" as Kinkaid's. Although I still paint commissioned nostalgia from time to time, I also make it a practice to avoid the overt variety, or at least, I try to render it objectively like a good little postmodernist should.

Norman Rockwell Painting the Soda Jerk, 1953, Norman Rockwell