Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Folk Art Christmas

Christmas at Home, Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses
Around this time of the year even the oldest, most jaded of us find it difficult (or impossible) to not let our minds wander to Christmases past, present, and even those of the future. Depending upon your age, images of Christmases past may center on the wartime years of the forties or the creeping affluence of the 1950s and 60s. The latter of these is true in my case. I suppose younger reminiscers may harken back to discovering their first Atari under their tree. And of course, the older we get, the more choices we have as to eras from which to choose. For me, it's especially easy in that I have movies of Christmas morning dating back to 1958 (8mm) up through the Christmas present, all of which I've converted to DVDs. Just as an aside, if you are fortunate enough to have ancient home movies or even video tapes of Christmases past, please be aware, they DO NOT last forever. If you value them at all, by all means, get them digitized NOW...the sooner the better.

Sleigh Ride, Anna Mary Robertson Moses
Before there was Beta or VHS, before there was 8mm, even before there was Kodak, there was painting. Very often our images of Christmas past center around the paintings that have made their way to Christmas cards depicting scenes that have little or no basis in the "reality" of our memories. Very few of us living today have ever enjoyed anything even close to the "Grandma Moses" version of Christmas at Home (top) or had the thrill of a "One Horse Open Sleigh." Yet, insofar as folk art is concerned, Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses owns Christmas. She started painting Christmases at the ripe old age of 76 and didn't stop until her death shortly before Christmas in 1961 at the age of 101.
Blue Car Christmas, Wendy Presseisen--true Folk Art.
Since Grandma Moses' death, any number of artists have tried to assume her mantle as the pre-eminent Folk Art Christmas painter. (They should live so long.) None have succeeded, though one or two have come close. Many have tried to copy her style, which is the easiest thing in the world to do in terms of technique. Dealers and appraisers have to constantly be on the lookout for Grandma Moses forgeries. But quite apart from the legalities, are the copyists. By definition, folk artists are entirely self-taught, painting strictly from memory, with little regard for such niceties as composition, scale, perspective, or natural color. That, too, is easy to do, especially if the would-be folk artist makes a conscious effort to appear "naïve." Due to the popularity of Folk Art, especially around the gift-giving season, we thus have today "real" folk art and "fake" folk art.
Home for the Holidays, Catherine Holman, not true Folk Art.
In researching this topic I found that, even for me, it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference. Of course there's more to all this than the appraised value of the paintings, but the difference between the two can often mount into the tens of thousands of dollars. So how do you tell the difference? It ain't easy. Add to that the fact that some legitimate folk artist were instinctively adept at handling primitive forms of perspective, usually what we call isometric perspective (no vanishing points). The moment a folk artist begins dealing with vanishing points, the work veers sharply away from any designation as folk art. A similar criteria involves scale and detail. In true Folk Art there is little or no regard for either beyond that which is imposed by the limited space on the canvas. Tree limbs in the distant background are rendered with the same detail as those in the foreground. Likewise, as to backgrounds, the presence of much in the way of aerial perspective is a dead giveaway that the artist work is a little too sophisticated to be called Folk Art (above).
Snowy Winter,  by the Canadian painter, Sharon Eyres
--obviously bearing virtually every trait of primitive Folk Art.
Christmas Tree Hill, Bonnie White
With Folk Art, color is almost always local. That is to say, it is largely divorced from any environmental effects resulting in ambient color. A yellow house is painted bright yellow with a deeper hue on the shaded side (provided there is, in fact, a noticeable light source). Colors, if blended, are done so only minimally. Artists imitating Folk Art often find it difficult to break lifelong instincts having to do with color choices and manipulation. The Christmas paintings of Bonnie White (below and at left) appear at first glance to be Folk Art but upon closer inspection, a number of factors work together to suggest otherwise. How many can you identify? Though invoking the most traditional elements of Christmas past, In terms of style, at best, her work could be termed "folk arty." She isn't, and perhaps doesn't try to be, a primitive.
On Our Way To Christmas, Bonnie White. Though Folk Art busy with abundant detail, the modeling of the animals and figures as well as color use, shading, overlapping and scale perspective, suggest a conscious attempt by the artist to appear to be a folk artist.
So, the rule of thumb separating true Folk Art from crass imitation comes down to the "cruder" it looks, the more apt it is to be the real thing? Not so fast. If only it were that easy. Some imitators are wiser and more aware than others in their stylistic deception. The work of Medana Gabbard, as seen in her North Pole, frankly has me on the fence. On the one hand it displays a flatness, a reliance on simple primary colors and secondary colors, an utter lack of painting technique, and disregard for any form of perspective that would easily cause it to pass muster as Folk Art. And's too perfect in that regard. In fact it bears an abstract relationship to (of all things) Synthetic Cubism. Believe me, Pablo Picasso was no folk artist.
North Pole, Medana Gabbard. Is it or isn't it Folk Art?
The work of Renie Britenbucher (below) has an unsophisticated, childlike quality that once more would suggest the work of an authentic folk artist. The problem with that is, almost never is there a childlike quality to legitimate folk art. It may be compositional primitive, as well as bearing little understanding of color, perspective, anatomy, scale, and space, but the precisionist handling of the paint itself and attention to myriad details (often to a fault) is unlike the painting efforts of most preteen children. Technically and stylistically, Britenbucher's work appears to barely rise above that of a talented Kindergartener. It's a case of an artist trying too hard to be a primitive.
Christmas card art.

Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,
Cheryl Bartley. Christmas Folk Art from
the 1950s...complete with a boy-band.

No comments:

Post a Comment