Wednesday, October 15, 2008
As for my work, I havn't posted in a while because I have about 6 paintings going at the same time now. I've decided to spend a lot more time building the paintings up through layers of glazing rather than working 1 from start to finish. I'll post some in progress pictures shortly. My ideas are the same, but my approach has changed a lot.
Friday, October 3, 2008
After hearing from dozens of people that I should watch it, I have finally seen a few episodes of "Mad Men", which is the big TV show right now- it just won best series at the emmys. The show centers around the high profile world of advertising executives in 1960 New York. There's all sorts of great stuff about advertising, but the real story of the series is that point in history where all the optimism and idealization of the 50s started to change. The characters know how to put on a front, but they are all messed up and wrestling with who they really are versus what they are supposed to be. There are many moments of shocking political incorrectness, especially in regards to the role of women in society. Elements of the story can be a downer, but all in all I am really enjoying watching it. Most of all, it is beautifully produced and shot, and every character is smoking constantly so there are amazing photographic shots. It's all about nostalgia vs. real life, and its convincing.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Rockwell and Beckmann
“If you want to reproduce an object, two elements are required. First, the identification with the object must be perfect; and second- it should contain, in addition, something quite different. This second element is difficult to explain. Almost as difficult as to discover one’s self. In fact, it is just this element of your own self that we are all in search of." –Max Beckmann
When I think about the ideas of artists closest to my work, Norman Rockwell is an obvious choice. His beautifully rendered paintings of children and families speak to idealized American nostalgia like no other. As I am working with 50s imagery, I find his ideas unavoidable. I have recently looked much deeper into his work. I am amazed at his abilities as a painter and storyteller, but often feel put off by the accessibility to his images. Max Beckmann remains among my favorite artists for his raw approach to subject matter and paint. He is the anti-Rockwell: Rockwell allows the viewer to look from a safe distance, while Beckmann’s works ensnare the viewer in a world of chaos. In this writing I will attempt to compare and contrast the styles of these two vastly different influential artists, and dissect 2 paintings from each to get to the core of what their art means to me.
Max Beckmann’s art is undeniably powerful. I am most drawn to his early work made shortly after WWI, where he served a medical orderly and witnessed daily the worst of humanity. This experience forever changed the way he saw space in his paintings. Beckmann “had experienced his own weakness and the irrationality of life. He could not make sense of it, but he could use his art to live within its horrors and to find a way through.” (Beckett 34). His early work is chaotic and pulsing with dark energy. Objects seem dislocated and contorted, and the space appears buckled and illogical.
Beckmann “Descent from the Cross” 1917
Beckmann’s take on the traditional theme of Christ’s decent from the cross is a direct reference to the twisted bodies seen in late Gothic paintings and the carnage of WW1. I am most attracted to Beckmann’s use of line and space in his work. He outlines his figures with strong black line, which gives them an angular quality. He uses the lines to play with the space of the picture. There’s an absence of unifying depth in the background of the work, which leaves the figures as the only reference for space. Beckmann elongates hands and limbs, unnaturally contorts specific parts and dramatically foreshortens the dead Christ’s bloody feet.
His figures are simple and defined by line, but somehow he keeps them from becoming cartoons. There is a confrontational weight to the dead Christ and pained grief on the face of his mother Mary. Even though the painting is chaotic and strangely composed, Beckmann conveys violence and loss through the use of paint. There are portions of the picture where the paint has been hastily applied to fill in the negative areas, and others where Beckmann adds detail to faces and hands. Upon closer look, there are small strokes of bright yellow, blue and red against the black outline of Christ’s body. From a distance this gives the skin a sickly color of death while further accentuating the movement of the line. I am equally drawn to the ways negative shapes are affected by the positive shapes.
Beckmann’s “The Night” 1918-19
“The Night” is a chaotic and brutal painting, depicting the scene of an atrocity. A mother has been tied and raped, her husband strangled, and her daughter kidnapped. Once again, line defines every part of the painting and parts of the figures are foreshortened, but this time the figures are mashed very close together in a tight space where every limb, object and fold of cloth carries the eye across the piece to another point. There are no dead zones in the painting. Beckmann makes the viewer a willing participant in the violence rather than a distant viewer. Extra emphasis is again given to key areas, specifically the horrified face of the strangled man gasping for air and the goofy pipe- smoking man to the right, who seems unaffected by the pain he is inflicting by twisting his arm. Beckman even articulates the veins bulging out of the tortured mans legs. With all the movement in the piece, you cannot help but be drawn into the violence of the situation. I envy Beckmann for the power he brings to painting. His work does not hinge upon the realistic depiction of figures, but rather upon the motion he attains through lines and shapes in the work. I appreciate Beckmann for the way his painting style conveys his views. This has to be the highest goal for a painter- to discover that perfect method in paint of getting your idea across. I think Beckmann’s methods are among the most gripping.
The works of Norman Rockwell are everything that Max Beckmann is not. His paintings are safe, warm and cozy. They are meticulously rendered and tell a self-contained story. Both artists approach space in a unique way. Beckmann allows space to disintegrate to madness- a point where figures become contorted or weightless. Rockwell sometimes flattens the space around his figures, but he always uses the space as a means to tell a story. Most importantly to Rockwell, scenes are idealized and play upon the nostalgic tendencies people have for simpler times. Beckmann presents the truth of human evil, while Rockwell presents an idealized view of perfect human happiness. Rockwell stated, “Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative… We find that it is not a new scene which is needed, but a new viewpoint” (Hennessey 33). It’s the new viewpoint on a commonplace theme that draws me to Rockwell.
Rockwell’s “Going and Coming” 1947
In a career that spanned over 60 years, Norman Rockwell almost never painted a picture that wasn’t intended to be an ad or magazine cover. “That is the essential paradox of Rockwell’s life: he was America’s best-loved and most famous artist but, according to the gatekeepers of the institutional world of art, he wasn’t an artist at all” (Marling 7). Today his works are appreciated for the works of art that they are. What I appreciate most about Rockwell is the way he stages his compositions with expressive figures and unique viewpoints.
One of my favorite Rockwell images is “Going and Coming”. The painting is equally divided into two panoramic scenes depicting the same family of 7 people and their dog going on and coming back from vacation. Between the two scenes the work is all about observing the changing expressions on their faces, with happy excitement above contrasted by fatigue below. Only grandma in the back seat remains unchanged. Around the family are objects that give clues as to what the family did. What makes the work particularly engaging is the obsessive attention to detail. I am particularly drawn to the piece for the way Rockwell frames his figures within the geometric shapes of the car windows. His choice to crop in on the car is unconventional, which catches the viewer off guard at first before inviting them to piece together the story of the picture.
“Christmas Homecoming” is an example of Rockwell at his most nostalgic. In the center, a man with his back to us is welcomed by a large group of elated family members young and old. Only the presents under the man’s arm and a small glimpse of a Christmas tree in the upper right corner speak to the title. So strong is Rockwell’s ability to tell a story, that we instantly know this homecoming was a complete surprise to the family. The look on their faces is pure joy. Rockwell arranges the composition with the man dead center. Every other figure fits within this space, even if it means that their heads are cropped off at the top of the picture. It brings the viewer to the center of the happy reunion.
I really admire Rockwell for way he communicates through paint. However I find myself tired by the sentimentality of his work. There’s only so much Rockwell I can take. There are works of his that force you dig deeper for details in the story, and then there are straightforward images like the “Christmas Homecoming”. At times, I almost feel insulted by them.
For my work, Rockwell is an essential example of paintings ability to provoke nostalgia and longing. I like to think that I reject sentimentality in my work in favor of vagueness to make things more open ended than Rockwell. Still, I have much to learn about composing an image to tell a story, even if I wish to leave that story open-ended. Beckmann truly inspires me, not so much in the violence and darkness of his subject matter, but in the way that his style allows him to bypass realism in his figures in favor of paintings that have a life of their own. This strange coupling of two such different artists begs an interesting question. Could there ever be a Beckmann painted by Rockwell, or a Rockwell painted by Beckmann?
I don’t believe Max Beckmann ever had the capacity for nostalgia or sentimentality. Everything about his work is dark and brooding, so I cannot picture a Beckmann Rockwell. However, Norman Rockwell did work with disturbing and violent imagery towards the end of his career. Paintings such as “The Problem We All Live With” (1964) and “Southern Justice” (1965) depict the violence and madness of civil-rights era injustice in the classic Rockwell way. They too tell stories, but also confront the viewer with the madness of humanity. So perhaps, Rockwell made his Beckmann after all.
Beckett, Wendy. “Max Beckmann and the Self” Prestel, New York/Munich. 2003.
Hennessey, Maureen Hart and Anne Knutson. “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People”. Harry N. Abrams, New York. 1999.
Hughes, Robert. “American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America”. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 1999.
Lackner, Stephan. “Beckmann.” Harry N. Abrams, New York. 1999.
Marling, Karal Ann. “Rockwell: Americas Most Loved Painter”. Taschen, Köln, 2005.
Rainbird, Sean. “Max Beckmann/Museum of Modern Art”. MoMA, New York. 2003.
Rockwell, Norman. “My Adventures as an Illustrator”. Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1988.