Singing Praises

     In the previous post, I sang the praises of the Great Artist, a hero who exemplifies a type of high achievement toward which any serious artist should aspire.  My song related to a little trip I took to the National Gallery of Art yesterday where my reacquaintance with a particularly wonderful landscape painting by Claude Monet, set my mind into nostalgic reverie about the meanings of art.

I tried to define the activity of the great artist and to distinquish him (or her!) from the conventional world of images.  Many of the pictures in the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit on Fontainebleau are of this other type, which is to say: they demonstrate the conventions.  However, despite their conventional qualities, they are amazing, fine pictures.  And this fact brings me to another notion about which we hear too little talk in today’s art world.  We have plenty of convention in our own time.  Think about any famous museum of modern art that you’ve ever visited.  Ask yourself (be honest now) how different are any of these from their kin?

Museums in our time have come to resemble another institution prominent in our world:  they are like fast food restaurants.  Indeed, most of the modern institutions that have the de rigueur alphabet soup name (MOMA, MOCA, LACMA, MOCAD, et al), are like McDonalds Restaurants of Art. (Can I get that in a Happy Meal?)

They are the BIG TREND places.  Their official motto is edgy-ness.  They claim to be “cutting edge,” they “break the rules,” “push the envelop.”  Purportedly they are boldly going where no one has gone before.  So how come they all look alike?

Convention serves a useful purpose as a medium for communicating ideas — when ideas are real and worth communicating.  Whether the ideas found in every modern museum in the world are worth it — I really think they’d put these museums on every street corner if they could — I’ll leave for others to judge.  But in regard to the art of the past, the art that deals directly with life, certainly the convention carries some weight of its own.

I have admired great art for so long that I forget how much beauty the “second category” of art conveys.  There were certainly some great paintings in the National Gallery show that are not household names.  Yet their pictures transport you to beautiful scenes of everyday life, to a time before “global warming,” to a time when people felt Nature was more at their doorsteps.

To be able to paint like the best of these conventional painters would satisfy most artists.  We could certainly do worse than to emulate them.  Do worse?  Why we could be living off those Happy Meals and getting nothing but a steady diet of junk art!

You know, that’s got to be bad for you in the long run.  Real art, like real food, takes more thought and more work.  But in the long run, it’s worth it.

Ars longa, vita brevis.  Remember, you are what you eat.

[Top of the post: Théodore Claude Félix Caruelle d’Aligny, Rocks at Fontainebleau, c. 1842
Musée du Louvre, Paris, Gift of Maurice Bourdot-Lamotte, 1951]

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Without pictures

Away from my home computer, I cannot load the pictures I’d like to use to illustrate these entries.  And it feels very strange, for me, to be writing about art without pictures.  Perhaps the strangeness can be useful.  I need to write in an evocative way and let the reader’s own visual imagination be the illustration for these posts.

I wrote yesterday about my visit to the National Gallery of Art where I saw an exhibit of the 19th century artists who painted at Fontainebleau, a place that was once a beautiful and wild forest in a suburb of Paris.  I was struck by the conventionality of much of the art I saw, in the works of certain lesser known artists.  There’s a reason why some artists become famous and others, while good, sink back into a historical background.

Artists of the superior type — in this case it was Claude Monet — use visual skill with keen directness to record their ideas, and they are so visually adept that — well, let’s just say — they have a lot more visual ideas to record.  An artist of Monet’s caliber takes such a penetrating look at the whole world around him. He thinks more deeply about it.  And he translates these dense ideas back into a personal visual idiom.  Living as we do at a time when there’s so much confusion and misinformation about what art is and what makes a person an important artist, I think coming into contact with something like Monet’s painting helps clear the air.  It leads us toward rediscovering true originality in art.

True originality is not what many people today think:  it does not consist in doing something “nobody has ever done before.”  That standard applies more to adventurous activities of the famous Guinness Book of World Records.  True originality is really just an authentic expression of the self.  The self is, after all, Nature’s stamp.   Whenever one manages to create a true mirror “copy” of the self, one makes something truly “real” and living.  That order of creation possesses a categorical mark of Nature’s own types and designs and schemes and imprint.  All this sounds a bit too much like dusty philosophy. All I really mean is that Claude Monet hit pay dirt.  He contrived, as all really great artists do, to make images that tap into persistent, enduring ideas and experiences, things that resonate with this reality in which we move and breathe and live.  He discovered, in short, life and life-likeness in his art.

Back to the source

Visited the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit on artists of Fontainebleau today and saw the Met’s famous, early Monet The Bodmer Oak again with, of course, numerous other paintings and drawings by well-known and not so well-known artists and photographers.  I look at exhibits like this one so differently now after thirty years of painting.  When I was young, exhibits like this were the keys to the universe.   When I was young, I didn’t know how to do anything, so I would stare at paintings for long intervals hoping somehow to memorize them almost brushstroke by brushstoke.  

Now, I can look at paintings in a glance and understand rather a lot of how they were made.  The best paintings, however, still amaze.  What I find most notable about Claude Monet, especially in an exhibit like this where he is placed along side his regular contemporaries, is that the intelligence that lifts his works above the others stands out so clearly.  One could compare him with artists like Narcisse Diaz de la Peña or Robert-Léopold Leprince and see quite clearly how most artists of his era, doing the same genre of picture, think out their pictures in conventional ways, in contrast to which Monet’s image is full of direct perception, thought and incident.

Another artist of the more conventional type is Théodore Claude Félix Caruelle d’Aligny, who besides possessing a name that is a real mouthful, produced some quietly charming and well ordered scenes very much after the manner of Corot.

Certainly one surprising fact one walks away with is the observation that painters of Fontainebleau seem to excel at landscape in inverse proportion to the lengths of their names.  Thus one really shouldn’t be surprised to find Claude Monet among the best.  Still, all said it’s a lovely exhibit and a regular timeship ride back in time, back to an era of open fields, clean air, raw nature and dramatic, dense and beckoning forests.