I’ve written before about what I think is one of the larger issues affecting the current ‘traditional’, ‘representational’, ‘classical realist’ or whatever you want to call it movement: the utter accessibility of (often poor) reproductions of paintings. I remember pre-internet, paintings had to be sought out and researched in person at museums; in books, large and small. Reproductions weren’t better, they were most often worse, but there was an immediate understanding that you you had to see the painting in person to ‘get it’. As everyone says now in this globalized world, it felt more regional than today- when I met an artist from another area I looked forward to discovering whatever obscure hometown heroes they might have, and how the historic painters had affected the current taste in painting and sculpture. When visiting another artist’s studio the trip to their bookcase was often more educational than seeing their paintings.
Today, taste has gone more global. Through the influence of blogs and online magazines, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, books and print magazines about art – and (perhaps most notably) the advent of the ‘art convention’ we are beginning to arrive to a sort of global taste; modern masters, tastemakers of our day who set the standard of how swathes of students aspire to paint. This in itself is not a bad thing- except the students often have no contact with them except seeing their work reproduced online, or perhaps if they are fortunate, a workshop which lasts a few days. This is a marked difference from how people learned to paint and draw in the past. Sculptors are lucky. There is no argument that a sculpture can be adequately judged by a photograph.
As concisely as I can muster, the issue in a few words is this: in my experience, the work that looks good in a photograph may often look weaker in person. Work that does not necessarily speak to you in a reproduced image sometimes, just positively glows in the flesh. Of course, there is no set ‘right or wrong’ taste, so in eliminating this crucial step in our appreciation of painting we can cheat ourselves out of finding the peculiarities of our own personal attractions in paint. We look at more images in a day than someone 100 years ago saw in their lifetime, but we see most of them on iPads and cell phones. A painting that looks ‘painterly’ online may only look like a block-in when seeing it in person. And so on.
Today, competitions are judged from low quality JPEGs. Galleries solicit artists based on their online persona and perceived picture quality. On social media, artists can amass thousands of fans in a matter of weeks. The combined effect of this becomes a veritable marketing machine. Thus, the marketing machine in turn validates the artists whose work presents well in photographs.
Let me try to drive this point home with some images and close ups. The other day I visited a show called ‘The Boston School Tradition’ now up at Vose Galleries on Newbury St. in Boston. The show is full of paintings by artists I admire, many works new to me, fresh out of private collections onto the market. These are some of my own ‘hometown heroes’. When I was a little kid I had postcards by some of these painters on the wall in my bedroom. This Paxton was on my wall for years. It’s my favorite painting by him. I am not including Paxton’s images in this post- to be frank, the paintings in the show look better online than they do in person, so that wouldn’t really illustrate my point.
Winged Figure 36×35″ Frederick Bosley
The above by lesser known Bostonian Frederick Bosley, is a nice painting. Nearly Abbott Thayer like in theme, Whistlerish in design and color arrangement, seen in person this painting is a master class in the context of the late 19th century-20th century boston academic impressionist continuum. From the above image, however, I know many today may gripe at awkward drawing in the neck, arms and hands, the lack of focus on the face and simply put, they may swipe right past it on their iPhone screens. Look at the below details, though (the above is a professional image, I took some closeups in the gallery):
This is a painting in which every passage of paint is meaningful. There is no ‘use big brush here, small brush there’ trickery, no magic medium, only a bold, calligraphic use of unabashedly thick paint and color to describe very soft delicate forms. As he explains his subject, it’s as if he’s written poetry, not an essay. In my eyes, the greatest tool the painter has is the optical illusion of something that appears real slipping into an abstract arrangement of beautiful bits of color when observed up close . But I’m fully aware, that may not be to everyone’s taste.
The Blue Kimono 25.25×30.25″ Frederick Bosley
Here’s another Bosley. Professional image above from Vose’s website, couple of closeups below.
You can really see the influence of Tarbell and Benson in Bosley’s work. He took over for them at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts after they left. Here are a few of their paintings below.
My Daughter Josephine 48.5×36.5″ Ned Tarbell
Blue and Gold 26.25×26.25″ Frank W Benson
I marvel today at how well educated people are about painters; hard to imagine that everyone now is aware of who Antonio Mancini was, or that Isaac Levitan is becoming a household name in the plein air painting community. Of course, these things come in waves: speaking with older painters, say Daniel Graves or Charles Cecil who were painting throughout the 70’s, they’ll talk about the rediscovery of Meissonier- or the fact that no one knew who Sorolla or Zorn were. Paintings can live a lifetime in the stacks of museums before they become relevant again, brought back to the public.
Technology has brought some amazing things to painting – a less obvious one, perhaps, is the adherence to universal vocabulary: few (if anyone) called a one-shot oil painting ‘alla prima’ many years ago, that was a term reserved for fresco technique. Here in Boston, the older painters still today use the french term ‘au premier coup’- however no one used the french term ‘plein air’, it was just painting outside or landscape painting to them. Now both ‘alla prima’ and ‘plein air’ are basically universally used. I find these little developments to our syntax interesting, and they are very much the result of our immediate forms of global communication.
One thing has not changed, however- painting still absolutely needs to seen in person to be experienced, and I’m afraid people are slowly forgetting this. The discussion repeated ad nauseam in schools, painting studios and interviews is whether or not an artist uses photography in their work- rather than what the collective influence of high-resolution photography is doing to our appreciation of paintings.
For me, visiting an exhibition of lesser-known paintings like this is hugely important- in order to find your own masters, you have to see the works up close…and you’ll make discoveries. I had never heard of Bosley before this show. Benson did few still lives but in my eyes, he was the best out of the Boston school group- far better than Elizabeth Paxton who is known as the still life artist in this group of painters. But make your own decisions, you have to get out there to find your own hometown heroes.
Below a few more images from the exhibition.
Portrait of Edith, the Artist’s Wife 24.24×20″ Joe DeCamp
Our Nanny 24.25×20″ Joe DeCamp
Schooners Sailing in Winter 20×30 Theodore Valenkamph
If you are interested, Vose Gallery has catalogues of the above exhibition for sale, they are $25.00. To see it click here to be taken to a PDF of the entire catalogue.