Thursday, January 23, 2014

When Art Travels Full Circle

Commercial Trade Roots

Simple Tradesmen

The term "Fine Art" has been around for centuries, but not in the same context employed today. Fine Art, as it is utilized today, was actually a mid-20th century invention.

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 Illustration

The 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.

Biblical Illustration
Subsequently, the more a painting represented real life, the greater its demand and subsequent value. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescos are a biblical illustration of the Book of Genesis. Today, a similar approach to art is referred to as "illustration" in publications or "new realism" when hung on gallery walls.

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.

Enter Technology

Early Camera
The camera only began to make its presence known in the 18th century. It was an expensive and laborious process. Portraiture was hard work for both the artist and the sitter, as the subject would often times have to remain perfectly still for several minutes, and even then, the results were not always certain. When everything was perfect, the results were still monochrome. Artists would begin to work with photos if only to color and doctor them up.

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.

Bain à la Grenouillère
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.

Kandinsky

Modern Art

Art 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
The Making of a Giant

Braque, who once shared a studio with Picasso and whose Cubistic paintings were often indistinguishable from one another's, was once asked why Picasso had gone on to world fame while he had not. Braque's reply was simple, "He owned a tuxedo".

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

Victory Party

Stolen Art Treasures
It wasn't until the return of the GIs from Europe, at the end of WWII, that the commercial prospect of Fine Art would reach its zenith. The Nazi's had claimed much of Europe's artwork when the Reich holdings extended from Russia's borders to the English Channel. Much of this was being horded and stored for Hitler's new Berlin Museum of Art, which was to be built at the conclusion of the war.

Esthetic Collateral

However, 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.

New York
The New Paris

At war's end, it was the United States and the U.S.S.R. who emerged as the new world powers. The Nazi's had been purged and the remainder of Europe, including the U.S.'s closest ally, Great Britain, was war torn and broke.

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 World

The 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
If the U.S. was to truly become a world power, it had do replace its fairly modest, home-grown customs with a new culture to eclipse the old has-been capitals of Europe. Finally, artwork would reach a new level of appreciation. It would have to be reinvented to surpass the work of mere tradesmen. It would become "Fine Art".

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 School

Early 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.

Big Business

Rise Before the Fall

Again, 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
The prestigious Marlborough Gallery was exposed selling paintings to its own overseas buyers at low prices and then placing them into storage so as to keep the value and artist payments down until the artist would die. At which time they would then resell or auction them off for several times the original sales prices.

Scandal

In 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 America

Sometime 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
Russian art in the 20th century had been a well-kept secret. During the Stalin years, the U.S.S.R. had subsidized countless artists, writers and musicians.

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
Resurgence of Realism

The backlash to all this sudden interest in Russian Post-Impressionism was that representational art again began to find a home in prominent galleries and auction houses. In recent days, many New York galleries have made a radical switch to drop non-objective works for "New Realism" (Nouveau réalisme), a movement that had actually begun in the 1960s (see painting to right), but could no longer be ignored by the stubborn N.Y. trendsetters.

Transfiguration

Trading-in the Blue Jeans

US Ground Troops
It's unlikely New York will ever get its overseas audience back, or go away as an art center. It is also unlikely that non-objective and abstracted artwork will ever go away. However, post 9/11 USA is not as popular on the "places to visit" lists of most Europeans these days. The Japanese still visit in number, but they may just be using their outing as an excuse to get away from Fukushima.

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 Masters

What'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 Deal

One 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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