Up until the manufacture of the camera, all of Europe's artwork had been consigned to illustration, portraits or paintings of domestic life. Artist's themselves were considered tradesmen. If a child showed artistic talent, they would be turned out to apprentice at an early age. When Michelangelo first joined Ghirlandaio's studio as an apprentices, at the ripe old age of 11, he was considered a late starter.
A Genre of IllustrationThe bulk of work from the old masters consists mainly of canvases and frescos depicting scenes from the Bible, the lives of saints, mythology, portraits, domestic scenes, landscapes and still lifes. More risqué paintings of the undraped human form were also marketed.
However, a certain distain is placed upon "illustration", even though our much-hallowed old masters were simply turning a buck painting "pictures". Those pictures may have been depictions of a battle, a coronation, or in many instances, a portrait to illustrate the illustrious rise of a simple shopkeeper to a respectable merchant. On such occasions, a formal portrait was required to assert this newfound need for respect.
By the time the first Impressionist painters appeared on the scene, around the dawn of the 20th century, the artist quest for reality had morphed to the quest for the moment. Instead of pure representational renderings and illustration, art had become paint for paint's sake. Still, the modern concept of "fine art" had yet to be conceived.
|Monet's "Bain à la Grenouillère"|
The New Masters
As an artist, Monet had the technical paint handling abilities of a Rembrandt and actually continued paint developed where the older master had left off. To the impressionists, paint quality was paramount when capturing "the moment".
Still, this new school of artists suffered because the academic painters of the Paris Salon's continued to rule the day in sales. Monet and his friend Renoir would be forced to un-stretch many a canvas, role them tightly with twine and then burn them to keep warm, in place of the coal they could not afford, all the time commenting to one another on how great a heat yield their little flax log inventions provided.
Modern ArtArt for art sake would grow from Post-Impressionism to later include Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and even Futurism. Braque, Kokoschka, Matisse, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Klee and dozens of others would join in the new movement of expressive arts, an art form no longer restrained by realistic picture making. However, few of these artists would become financially secure in their chosen careers. Fewer still would reach the soaring heights of Picasso.
|Picasso: The Dream|
This was true. While still unknown, Picasso would adorn himself in the required "evening wear" and invite himself to garden parties held by Paris society. Unlike most artists of his day, Picasso was gregarious, well-read, and a great talker. He was also quick to befriend the wealthy inteligencia and learn where the real buying public resided.
"Fine Arts" is (finally) Born
|Stolen Art Treasures|
Esthetic CollateralHowever, equally valuable, and in far greater demand, was the modern artwork dating back to the Impressionists. Though the Nazi's considered this work to be unsuitable for the Führer’s museum, and even classified it as "degenerate", they were acutely aware of its monetary value, as well as the eagerness of Westerners to purchase the works, stolen or otherwise obtained.
Consequently, GI's started to catch on and even began to help themselves, when possible. However, most of the valuable pieces remained in the hands of the élite during and after the war.
Paris had lost its flame as the world's art capital during Nazi occupation. Like the Olympic Flame that passes from one host country to another, it was in the process of seeking a new home.
King of the WorldThe U.S. had always played second-fiddle to Europe in culture. Now that it was a world power that had to change. The GI's had returned from Europe with their tales of palaces, castles and museum quality private collections of artwork and precious objects.
|1950s Art Appreciation Classes|
Soon after war's end, Art Appreciation and music classes would become required studies in public schools. Museum outings would replace fishing meets, and New York galleries would hire Madison Avenue marketing agencies to created and promote the "Avant-Garde". Fine Arts was born!
|Pollock: Tornadoes (detail)|
New York SchoolEarly greats to show their works in renowned New York galleries would include Jackson Pollack, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and others. The New York Avant-Garde portolio, then known as the "New York School", would be totally modern and included Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Color Field. Representational artwork was taboo.
Rise Before the FallAgain, it was difficult to survive as an avant-garde artist, unless you were a well-known commodity within the New York School. However, even those artists had to deal with high commission rates. Often times, the galleries would negotiate a monthly payout, rather then handing out large sums.
|Rothko: Blue, Red & Green|
ScandalIn a court case extending from 1971 until 1979, Rothko's daughter successfully sued Marlborough Galleries in a landmark lawsuit, which forced the gallery to pay tens of millions in damages as well as retuning hundreds of paintings they had essentially helped themselves to from Rothko's garage after his suicide. Obviously, "Fine Art" had become big business. Like the oil and the automotive markets, Fine Arts had now emerged as an industry.
Death in New York
Post 9/11 AmericaSometime after 9/11 the rich in America gave themselves a raise and a tax break. Consequently, New York's high priced paintings became even pricier. Around that time, European buyers and many elsewhere in the U.S. began to feel the stakes were getting to high and turned to other schools of art.
|Milkmaids Novella, by Nikolai Baskakov|
Since, they made it a point to not tolerate "decadent Western" art forms, there was an air of originality to these works, though nothing edgy or non-objective. Instead, what had developed was an enormous school of Post-Impressionism.
Even if the work was out of touch with modern trends, everyone loves impressionism, and the subjects and compositions were simply gorgeous to ignore. The paint quality alone rivaled anything in the New York School.
Subsequently, Russian paintings are today drawing the largest audiences abroad and even elsewhere in the U.S. 20th century Russian paintings are regularly being sold in auctions (i.e.: Sotheby’s, Christie’s). Over $1 Billion sold in Russian art at just Sotheby's in the past 10 year.
|Chuck Close Self Portrait|
Trading-in the Blue Jeans
|US Ground Troops|
America's military, political, and even agricultural (i.e.: Monsanto) bullying has been a real turn-off. In addition, the Euro-Union, so similar to the government structure of the United States, has been a total bust. Add to this America's international image as a debtor nation as well as deadbeat and Europeans are ready to trade their U.S. designer blue jeans in for just about anything homegrown.
Wait a minute! Those Old Master paintings, they're homegrown! There may be some life in those old canvases yet.
Return of the Old MastersWhat's to become of the art industry? The two major buying entities at US galleries today are specialized collectors with big budgets, and the nouveau riche which includes the executives who write themselves big bonus checks (remember when that used to be called "embezzlement"?). This latter group only buys art after they've purchased their third or fourth home and are looking to decorate. In this instance it's usually more quantity than quality that counts.
After recent and ongoing scandals with doctored-up Giclée canvas prints (textured gels and some arbitrary strokes of colored paint) in non-mainstream galleries, the upper middle-class (always looking for a bargain) now only purchase works from artists they know or from a wealthy neighbor who has picked up the brush. The middle-class that used to purchase the least expensive local works, and then discard them along with their used televisions 6 or 7 years later, simply can't afford to purchase artwork anymore (though television sales remain brisk).
As for the eventual demise of New York, no one can say where the next art capital of the world will reside or even if there is to be one. For that matter, its impossible to know what the future of the 20th Century's invention of "Fine Arts" will be, especially with the emergence of "fine" computer generated art reproductions.
|Rembrandt: Self Portrait|
The Real DealOne thing is certain. We are only a few short years away from museum certified, hi-definition, relief etched, Giclée reproductions of Museum paintings. These will be unlike any printings to come before. Brush strokes and high-definition inking will make these copies indistinguishable from the real deal. There already exists an emerging market for computer-generated copies of museum sculpture. Perfectly textured paint renderings cannot be far behind.
With government funding to museums gone, and subscriptions/memberships at an all time low, it isn't a stretch to imagine perfect computerized replicas of Old Masters selling for tens of thousands of dollars apiece. Reproductions with replicated colors and textures that can only be distinguished as copies with a powerful microscope.
Imagine, you're a bright executive and you just received (or wrote yourself) a fat bonus check after purchasing a second (or third) home for $2.4M. Doesn't an exact, almost foolproof, replica of your favorite Rembrandt self-portrait sound just perfect right above the mantelpiece?
What then becomes of the millions of struggling contemporary painters and sculptors is anyone's guess.
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