Archive for the ‘Virgil’s Thoughts’ Category

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The Alex Colville Gift to Mount Allison University

January 29, 2014

The Owens Art Gallery
Mount Allison University
Sackville, New Brunswick
(2 November 2013 – 16 March 2014)
This article was originally published in
Vie des Arts #233, Winter 2013-2014

Mount Allison University”s Owens Art Gallery recently received a magnificent gift from the late Alex Colville, a complete set of the artist’s serigraph (silkscreen) prints. Colville made the gift to the university in March of this year shortly before his own death in memory of wife, Rhoda, who had died in the Fall of 2012. To the gallery’s and the artist family’s knowledge this is the only complete set of Colville prints in a public or private collection, which makes the Owens Art Gallery, more than ever, the centre for the study of the artist’s work as they already own several of his paintings and a large collection of his drawings. Mount Allison is also home to the Colville House which was the artist’s former home and studio in Sackville, New Brunswick and is now a museum and archive.

The thirty-five prints in the collection, that date from 1955 to 2002, will be on view at the Owens Art Gallery until mid-March of 2014 and it is unlikely that they will be exhibited as a complete collection again for a long time. This is a rare opportunity to see an important artist’s lifetime body of work in a particular medium.

I first met Alex in the mid-1970’s when I moved to the Maritimes to become Head of Mount Allison’s Fine Arts Department; at that time I wrote a long article in this magazine on his work that appeared in the Fall 1976 issue. I said, at the time, that there had not been enough study of his prints and I still believe that to be true. He completed many prints since that article and what they all demonstrate was a continued growth both in the medium and artistic vision.

When Alex studied art at Mount Allison (1938-1942) and later taught there (1946-1963) the department did not teach printmaking. He wanted a method of making multiple images and he thought that silkscreen would be an easy solution. However, it presented him with a whole set of problems as it is difficult with silkscreen process to get the kind of detail that was common to his painting with egg tempera and, since 1963, acrylic, but true to his meticulous nature, he found a way to make the medium his own. I try to make it a habit, if possible, to observe artists that I write about working in their studios and I was fortunate to be able to do this with Alex on more than one occasion. Unlike many painters who work with master printmakers in print shops to make prints of their work, Alex did the whole process by himself in his home studio. He cut each screen by hand, one for each colour, that could number up to seven or eight screens. Then, after very careful registration, printed each colour on each sheet of paper of the edition. The editions, from 1968 on, were limited to seventy copies. Tedious, exacting, time consuming; yes, but the results are stunning.

It’s difficult to pick favourites from this body of Alex’s work as they vary greatly in subject and size ( from 11.4cm x 11.4cm to 43cm x 70cm), but there are some common themes and the most common of all is animals. A nice bookend to his animal print works are his second print, Cat on Fence, 1956, and his penultimate print, forty years later, Black Cat, 1996. He has always brought sensitivity and nobility to his images of animals and these cat images are no exception. I remember him telling me that animals, in particular, cats and dogs, have noble qualities that humans often lack.

Sleeper

Courtesy of The Owens Art Gallery

Another common subject in his work was his use of himself and Rhoda as models, but almost always anomalously. To my eye, every woman in this set of prints is based on Rhoda even if she is identified in a 1978 print titled as, Hotel Maid. With few exceptions every man in his print was based on himself. The obvious are Cat and Artist, 1979; Artist and Blue Jay, 1993; and, the before mentioned, Black Cat, 1996. There are prints where they appear as a couple like Sleeper, 1975, although all you see in this print is the artist’s foot, and Morning, 1981. Morning, a circular print, 54.5 cm in diameter, is a favourite of mine, it shows a nude couple sitting on a bed with a front view of the female figure and the back of the male. The woman is holding an antique mirror which blocks her face. The mirror image was borrowed from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, as I remember Alex telling me, and if you look at wall in front of the male figure you see a fragment of the Cat on Face print which places the location of the image squarely in Alex’s and Rhoda’s bedroom. The artist, through his imagery, lets you into his personal life, but only if you know code.

Cat and Artist

Courtesy of The Owens Art Gallery

Thirty-five print editions is not a lot over a career that spans over sixty years and Alex’s painting production, as well, was not large. This was because he always chose quality over quantity. One of my best memories of him was sitting in his immaculate studio and watching him paint dressed in a cashmere sweater, grey flannel slacks and beautiful polished shoes. Compare that to photographs of Francis Bacon working in this studio, where the artist was knee deep in trash. Mind you, I like Bacon’s work as well, but their ways of working couldn’t be more different. I ended my 1976 Vie des Arts article on Colville with the words: “In short, Alex Colville is a gentleman.” with the exception of changing is to was, I have no reason to change my ending.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Thursday, November 14, 2013.

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A Taste for Modernism

January 22, 2014

The William S. Paley Collection:
A Taste for Modernism
Portland Museum of Art
Portland, Maine (May 2-September 8,2013)
Musee national des beaux-arts du Quebec
(October 10,2013 – January 5,2014)
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Bentonville, Arkansas (February-April 2014)

This article was originally published in Vie des Arts #232, Fall 2013, pgs. 48-49.

There has been a long standing confusing between the terms modern and contemporary art. This exhibition provides a textbook explanation of Modernism and modern art and its fit in the history of art. All art at the time it is being done is contemporary for its time, thus when modern art was being produced it was contemporary art, however, the art of today is not modern art. It may be Postmodern or something else, but it is not modern or modernist. Confused? In classical art history terms, modern means from the end of the 18th Century (Jacques Louis David) to around 1965 or so. To most art critics, we mean from about 1863, the first Salon du Refuse, to about 1965, the end of Abstract Expressionism. The art in the Paley collection fits quite nicely into these later dates.

Bridge Over Riou

André Derain (France, 1880–1954), “Bridge over the Riou,” 1906, oil on canvas, 32 1/2 x 40 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection.
© The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection

Most, but not all, of the works in this exhibition from the Paley Collection are French and they are virtual alphabet of the gold standard of French Modernist artists of the late 19th. Century to the mid 20th. Century: Bonnard, Bourdelle, Braque, Cezanne, Dega, Derain, Gauguin, Giacometti, Gris, Lachaise, Moillol, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Redon, Renoir, Rouault, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vuillard. Add to that these mostly small scale works are first-rate examples by these artists and this gives a very good reason for my Quebec and Ontario readers to plan a trip the Musee national des beaux-arts du Quebec to see the exhibition at its only Canadian venue. Even if you were to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York, once this exhibition has completed its tour, you would not see so much of Paley Collection at one time as they only show parts of the collection on a rotating basis.

Boy Leading a Horse

Pablo Picasso (Spain, 1881–1973), “Boy Leading a Horse,” 1905-1906, oil on canvas, 7 feet, 2 7/8 inches x 51 5/8 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection.
© The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection.

Several of these artists are presented in depth in the exhibition like Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Roualt. It is difficult to pick individual works from so many masterpieces, but I might start with Picasso’s iconic, Rose Period, work, Boy Leading a Horse, from 1905-1906. One of the largest paintings in the exhibition at over two metres in hight, it is an image that is familiar in the history of art and an early work by the Spanish born artist. The Rose Period, 1905-1906, was a transition for the artist from Symbolist motifs drawn from other artists like Puvis de Chavannes to the art of his own invention such as Cubism which was to follow in less than ten years. I have seen this painting a number of times and it always stops me in my tracks as I am dumbfounded by Picasso’s youthful genius. He had no right to be so good so early and go to so many, even better, things over a long life.

On the subject of Cubism, one of Picasso’s great works, The Architect’s Table (1912), from this period is included in the exhibition. It is hard to understand that this painting is from the same artist who painted Boy Leading a Horse and that is the magic of the artist as because every time he reaches a high point in his career he changes direction and it’s sometimes one hundred and eighty degrees. While other artist will find a niche and stay there profitably their whole life, Picasso was like a bull, and a bull is an apt metaphor for the artist, in a china shop, breaking things, mainly the history of modern art, and coming up with new forms to confuse the public. Cubism was certainly something that not only confused the public, but angered them as well. Cubism is now over a hundred years old and many people still are befuddled and, hence, unhappy with paintings like The Architect’s Table.

Cezanne’s small still life, 53cm x 61cm, from 1979-80, Milk Can and Apples, stands out and is an excellent example of why this artist was so important in the development of Modernism. What shows through in this small work is the sheer act of painting rather than an attempt at traditional realism. The struggle to create a new form of artistic expression is self-evident and it easy to see why so many artists at the beginning of the 20th. Century looked to Cezanne for inspiration. There are just so many paintings in the Paley Collection that are outstanding that it would take a book to do the exhibition justice and, indeed, there is one, a catalogue of the collection from the Museum of Modern Art written in 1992, which is still in print, and on sale at the exhibition that is worth reading.

I like Modernism because it is what I think art, mainly painting and sculpture, should look like and perform in society and by that, I mean provide a backdrop of a civilized culture. I assume William S. Paley shared my view, but he had the money to pursue his passion. All the works in this exhibition were from his personal collection and ended up as a gift to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where he served as a longtime board chairman (1937-1990). What a gift, what a collection, I doubt that it could be repeated very easily today as it was not just money he spent, it reflected his taste and a half of a century of collecting.

Seated Woman with a Vase

Henri Matisse (France, 1869–1954), “Seated Woman with a Vase of Narcissus,” 1941, oil on canvas, 13 x 16 1/8 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection.
© The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Wednesday, 7 August, 2013.

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Around about seventy-five

January 15, 2014

Funny thing about life, you really don’t recognize its worth until you’ve used most of it up. Take me. I have just passed seventy-five and I am only now beginning to figure it out. All of my life I have had this interest in art, no, it really is an interest in beauty, and art, good art, that is, and there is precious little of that. Art is a window, a glance, into the nature of beauty. I have spent my entire life in pursuit of beauty. It has been a perpetual carousel ride always reaching for the brass ring and never quite grasping it. Not that I am sorry. It has been interesting and there have been highs as well as lows. I should go back to the beginning. My life, like most, has not been exceptional. I was born in southern California, but spent most of my youth around San Francisco and the Bay Area. My first two years of high school, however, were spent in England where my father was working for an American company that was doing an engineering project for a British oil company. Certainly those two years changed my life and are responsible for what I am or am not today. Now this is a story about art and not about me, but it is hard to do one without the other.

I should mention one other thing. My sight. I was about as nearsighted as you can be. Before my cataract operation a few years ago, I would, without my glasses, walk into walls. I have always had a morbid fear of going blind. Indeed, years ago I suffered a detached retina in my then ‘good’ eye and came within hours of totally losing sight in that eye were it not an emergency operation by an exceptionally skilled eye surgeon. As it was I lost thirty percent of my vision in that eye. So I have always thought that I had better see things while I could. I viewed myself as a sort of collector. A collector of visions that I could store just in case I needed them at some later date. Early on I saw art as magic. It appeared to me as a child as a method of living vicariously off the talents of others. How wonderful it was for a nearsighted little boy with thick glasses to look at reproductions of paintings in books. When I looked into the eyes of a sitter in a portrait they looked back at me and told me, silently, their story. Landscapes opened wide vistas of places that I had never been and could perhaps never go. In my world of imagination I was never laughed at, as I was in real life, I was part of the picture; I was in the picture. If this sounds like escapism—it was, but what better place to be? Did I say that I was left-handed? This further added to my feeling of being different. Not only couldn’t I see, I wrote, awkwardly with the wrong hand, nor could I spell very well. The words just didn’t seem to want to stand still for me. Dyslectic? Probably, but they didn’t use the word much in the early 40’s when I started school. Two things that I could do well as a child, I could draw and I could talk. Boy, I could talk a blue streak and big words too, only I couldn’t spell them.

Then into my little world came Europe and a chance to see those pictures for real and to see some of those places that I had so firmly fixed in my mind. I would like to say that I was disappointed, but, to my great joy, the real thing was, well, the real thing. In reality the only two places that I saw then were London and Paris. We lived just outside of London, in Surrey, and we visited Paris twice, but that was quite enough to change my life forever. Those pictures in books turned out to be painted by real people who lived, loved, and died. They, the paintings that is, were much nicer in person than in books. You could touch them (only when the guards weren’t looking) and the colour was certainly different from the books. Some of the paintings were big, real big, and, others were much smaller than I had imagined, but big, it turned out, wasn’t necessarily better. These revelations happened to me between 1952 and 1954 and, the beauty of it was, that this was before art galleries and museums were so damn popular that you can’t see the pictures for the people, nor were there ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that turned staid museums into carnival sites so I could have my pleasures in relative solitude. My elitism came at an early age. I never saw painting as for everyman, not to mention every woman, I knew from the start that the appreciation of painting was very different than real life. I saw it as a secret language from artist to viewer. You need not be rich to be this type of elite, only responsive to the language. I was thankful that the rich generally made it possible for the artists to do their work and thankful that the state somehow got hold of the work and put in it to places where I could see it for free. It is a pity that today most galleries and museums are no longer free and a kid of today would have a hard and expensive time spending as much time looking at pictures.

It is a good idea to start young if you are going to love art. Look how easily children pick up a language. In no time a all a young child placed in new country speaks the language as well as a native speaker and without a trace of accent while an adult, in the same situation, if they can learn the language at all, invariability ends up with an awful accent. The language of art is no different. The problem is that society, at least ours, is generally blind to this language. This is a world of words. One person’s dog is another’s chien or hund. These animals look remarkably alike in paintings regardless of where they were painted. I am not convinced, however, that art is a universal language. Dutch painting is Dutch painting as is French painting French, regardless of canine content, but it is possible to have a pretty good understanding of both Dutch and French painting without understanding their written languages because painting the world over does have much in common.

Let’s go back to me as a boy coming into contact for the first time with great art. Here I go being an elitist again because, by great art, I mean art in the Western European tradition. After all it was 1952 and Post Modernism was some years off and I was thirteen or fourteen at the time. So, here I was in the National Gallery in London. It was quiet, dusty, and I was quite alone. On top of all of this I really didn’t know a hell of a lot about art except that I was keen to learn, but I was in the candy store with a nickel in my pocket. Where do you start? There are thousands of pictures in the gallery most by people I have never heard of. A good place to start is to find pictures you like. It really doesn’t matter if you are nine years old or ninety years old or if you are an expert or someone in the gallery for the first time—view with your eyes and feel with your heart. My taste at this time was rather saccharine, but it was mine and probably more honest than it is now after two degrees and thirty-seven odd years teaching the subject.

MadonnaThe choice at the National Gallery ranges from Fra Angelico to Francisco de Zurbaran. While they have a particularly rich collection of Italian Renaissance paintings many of which are from what I call the Bambino School. I found it difficult, even at fourteen years old, to take the subject matter of these paintings seriously. Raphael’s (1483—1520) very small Madonna and Child with the Infant Baptist is good illustration of the problem. While he has never been a favourite of mine, Raphael was certainly a fine painter. Typically, in this sort of painting, the Christ child (and in this example, the Baptist as a child as well) is presented as a miniature adult and the Virgin in a plastic Barbie Doll fashion. The subject is a means to an end. Artists painted pictures to order, be they religious pictures or portraits of notable citizens. This is not to suggest that Raphael, or any other Italian artist of the period, did this picture with tongue in cheek and laughed all the way to the bank. I am certain that there were artists who had firm and conventional religious beliefs as I am equally sure that there were artists who could care less if they painted a nude or the Virgin Mary as long as they were painting and getting paid. We tend to forget that while genius was recognized in a few artists during the Renaissance, painting was a trade, even a union job. You paid your dues by completing a long apprenticeship with an established artist, or master, eventually painting your own ‘masterpiece’ and were admitted to the guild as a master craftsman.

I did spend a lot of time in front of this Raphael, and other paintings of his in the collection because he is one of the best known artists in history and I figured there had to be good reasons. Many people know the name Raphael even if they have never seen one of his works. To understand why he is a great artist I needed to look no further than his painting of Pope Julius II. Here was quality, not that I counted myself as a connoisseur at the time. In this remarkable picture the sitter, a very old man, does not look at us, but appears to be lost in thought as if contemplating his own mortality. Corny take? I don’t think so. Julius II was the warrior pope, the pope who commissioned Michelangelo to do the frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. He was a man whom I am quite sure did not take thoughts of his own mortality very easily. It well may be a mug’s game to second guess what was in the mind of an artist or his sitter especially those dead for hundreds of years. It’s not very fashionable these days to talk about meaning in pictures in the way that I describe Raphael’s painting of Julius II. One should properly do a post-modern take or formal analysis. My description echoes Victorian sentimentality–looking for noble meaning in noble pictures. I guess that I am guilty, but there are greater sins.Pope_Julius_II

What makes one painting better than another? Why is Raphael a better painter than a host of other artists of the same period? Two qualities stand out that he shares with other great artists. One, there is generally some bit of originality in the work and, second, a great painter is almost always just technically a better artist. I am very guarded here because it is dangerous to say that anything is always true. There are great artists who are not very original and others who are not technically great, however, you can be sure that any great artist will be outstanding in one of these areas. Let me get this off my chest at the start. I do not believe that taste in art is totally subjective and that one person’s opinion is as good as another’s. A majority of the qualities that make a work of art great are objective and can be categorized. You would not ask your butcher’s opinion on whether or not you were ill nor would you want him to perform major surgery on your person based on his opinion. You would be happy, however, to ask him about various cuts of meat and how to lard a roast. Ill informed opinion on art is just that, ill informed, and it is likely, at last analysis, to be wrong. I can temper all of this by stating that in the Middle Ages the barber and the surgeon were likely to be the same person, but one can assume that a hair cut was a lot safer than surgery.

There are large measures of both qualities, originality and technical competence, that separate great art from the commonplace to be seen in Raphael’s portrait of Julius II. I knew it intuitively as a child when I first saw the work that it was something special and my intuition has been reinforced by what I now know as an adult. I have already commented on the unusual composition. The sitter is placed diagonally to the picture frame rather than perpendicular to it which is the more usual practice. The sitter looks not at the viewer, but at someplace over the viewer’s right shoulder. There is a powerful psychological content. All of these qualities can be called originality. Technically Raphael was a boy wonder doing absolutely amazing paintings by the age of twenty such as the portrait of Angelo Doni (Florence). His use of colour is quite outstanding as is his brushwork; both of these qualities are self-evident in the Julius II portrait.

I have gone on at some length about Raphael and he is a painter that I really don’t like that much, however, he is certainly a great artist of the first rank. My liking him or not liking him has little do to with it. There is always the possibility of recognizing a great art work without liking it. The liking of a work of art is the subjective part while the greatness is objective part of the equation. I never apologize for my taste, however, I should temper this with the fact that my taste is forever changing. At any given point in my life, my taste is my taste and I am stuck with it. To look at art is to learn and I have learned something from every work that I have seen be when I was fourteen or fifty.

I have come to the conclusion that I am firmly mired in the past. This does not make me a reactionary but it does reflect on my doubts about the inevitability of progress in art or, for that matter, anything else. The mantra that every day, in every way, we are getting better and better does not stand up to the lessons of history. The ups and downs of human progress are well documented—golden ages followed by dark ones, civilization replaced by barbarism, the banquet years of the belle époque followed by the horrors of the First World War and the list goes on. It is not possible to go back, bridges have already been burnt. We march towards our own decline like every other civilization has in the past, convinced somehow that we can avoid the mistakes that other societies made. If all of this sounds rather grim let me assure you that it is. I have used art, in particular painting and drawing, as an escape from reality. In art one can see the genius of the human condition. Through art I can see the things that people can make with no more than their hands and that, most wonderful of all things, is human imagination. Escape is not a bad thing as long as I recognize what it is I am escaping from and my reasons for my flight.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Thursday, January 9, 2014.

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Se Camoufler à l’ére de

January 8, 2014

Jeffrey Poirier
Se Camoufler à l’ére de
Centre des arts et de la culture Dieppe
331 avenue Acadie
Dieppe NB E1A 1G9
(29 November 2013 – 28 February 2014)
This article was originally published in
The Saint John New Brunswick Telegraph Journal Salon Section
on Saturday, December 28th. 2014.

se camoufler largeWhen I walked into the gallery space at the Dieppe Arts and Culture Centre and saw Jeffrey Poirier’s installation, Se Camoufler à l’ére de, my first thought was that it was made of plastic and was some sort homage to Lego, but, as I got closer to the work, I realized that it was something quite different and much more interesting. Rather than plastic blocks, the work was constructed of folded cardboard and coloured tape; more a homage to origami than to Danish toy blocks. I am not generally a big fan of installation works which I often find boring and, more often than not, sloppy in their execution. This work is strikingly beautiful both in its construction and installation and it is certainly not boring. The gallery is, first, a very handsome space for this type of art: a glass fronted box which allows the viewer to see the work from outside the gallery. As well, the space provides for dramatic lighting that is done very well in this exhibition. I think that this is the nicest small exhibition space that I have seen in the greater Moncton area.

Poirier is a French born, young Quebec artist with a recent MFA, 2012, from Laval with a rather impressive record of installation works in Quebec and, as far as I can tell, this is his first exhibition in outside the province. Se camouflager à l’ére de is, to its credit, labour intensive and, I am told by Luc Gaudet, the director of Dieppe Culture Centre, is a cooperative effort by the artist and his friends, with Poirer’s ideas being realized by a joint effort in its execution. A rough translation of work’s title, a sentence fragment, is: ‘to hide or camouflage oneself in the age of’ which certainly speaks of ambiguity and that is the installation’s primary quality; what you think you see is not actually what is there. The term trompe l’œil comes to mind which is a fancy term, generally about painting, but works here as well, to fool the eye. I don’t mind being fooled when the result is enjoyment.

An element of this installation that works in its favour is its scale. Large is not necessarily better, but here the size is just right. Poirier says, in his online artist’s statement, that he enjoys constructing his sculpture is situ or on site to fit where they are made. He needs to think about how can he use the exhibition space to maximize the effectiveness of the work, tailor it to space. This is very different from hanging paintings on a wall or placing sculptures in a fixed gallery space. Lighting, as I said earlier, is certainly an important part of this exhibition. Here the light isolates the work within the darkened gallery giving it a sense of drama that would be lacking in a uniformly lit space.

There is a playful qualise camoufler detailty to the work as well that illustrates the artist’s sense of humour, as I looked closely at it, I came across an adhesive price tag still stuck to the folded cardboard material used in its construction for $3.99. If you take your time with this work you well be rewarded. Another element, I found interesting, which links back to its ambiguity, is the material wrapped around the installation’s right side. I cannot tell if is supposed to wrap around the back of work and appear, like a piece of tape, in the cut out window of the white wall or the opposite, the leftover from the stuff in the window, trailing off and falling on the floor. Either way, it is an interesting coda that completes the work.

In the end, Se camouflager à l’ére reminds me of a modern take on Piet Mondrian and Constructivism if nothing more than both artists use of coloured tape and little more than primary colours in Poirier’s case yellow, blue, red and green. As well, Poirier shares both simplicity and clarity with the Dutch master. Of course, Poirier is a young artist just starting out on his career and it might be unfair to saddle him with a comparison with Mondrian, but it is good to come across a young artist with a fresh vision who is not afraid of hard work.
I certainly look forward to seeing more exhibitions at the Dieppe Arts and Culture Centre and I recommend that people in the greater Moncton area take the opportunity to see this exhibition. It is worth it.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Sunday, December 22, 2013.

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So let us be Finns

August 28, 2013

“We are no longer Swedes, and we don’t want to be Russians—so let us be Finns.”- 19th century Finnish saying.

(This article was originally published in Artsatlantic #64, Summer/Fall 1999, pgs. 45-48)

Any country with an identity crisis should be of interest to Canadians as much of our history has been a search for our own identity. So when a Finnish friend of mine, art critic and artist Antero Kare, invited me to Finland last fall to give some lectures on Canadian art I jumped at chance to learn something more about this Nordic nation and, in particular, what role art plays in Finnish identity.

Late October in Finland is not tourist season. Daylight hours are already short and, at least while I was there, the sun never shone. But then Canada isn’t famous for its weather either and while the skies might have been grey while I was in Finland, the hospitality was anything but. I had told Antero that I was interested in finding out all I could about Finnish artists, art galleries and art education. I wasn’t disappointed. I had a full schedule during the two weeks that I was there, visiting many different places and meeting the key players of the Finnish art scene.

It had been arranged for me to give lectures at the Helsinki Academy of Fine Arts and at the Satakunnan ammattikorkeakoulo in Kankaamnpää—the latter being a new art school in a town about four hours by bus from Helsinki. One thing that I have noticed over the years is that art students everywhere are very similar and those in Finland are no exception—they dress the same, most of their work looks very similar (right out of current art magazines), and they think that their teachers are ‘old hat’.

However, there is one major difference from Canada. Post secondary education in Finland, while highly selective, is free. Not only does the state pay tuition, it provides students with a stipend to cover some of their expenses. The results of this policy are that the student population more closely mirrors that of the general population than it does in Canada and that students can finish their education free of debt. Further, more students choose to study subjects such as fine arts rather than those which might be seen as directly related to the job market.

Finland, like other Scandinavian countries, spends quite a bit of money on culture.

This is because culture is taken very seriously not only by the government, but also by the people on the street. There is considerable support by all levels of government right down to the municipalities. Cities and towns give their own artists grants, supply studios, and have active contemporary galleries and sculpture parks. Certainly there is more active support for the arts from the middle class and above, but as well there is an appreciation of culture from all levels of Finnish society.

Finland has been an independent country since only 1917 after centuries of rule by Sweden and Russia. One factor that has saved their culture over a thousand years of foreign domination has been their unique language. Words such as the before mentioned Satakunnan ammattikorkeakoulo and Kankaamnpää do not easily roll off the tongues of non-native speakers of Finnish.

Their epic saga, the Kalevla, has also reinforced a national identity. Late in the 19th century Finnish artists, in particular Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Pekka Halonen, used landscape painting as an symbol of nationalism. The artists in the Group of Seven are synonymous with the issue of Canadian nationalism and there is a direct connection with Scandinavia art from the late 19th and early 20th century. The Group needed a model for their nationalistic art and they found it in an exhibition in January of 1913 as Lawren Harris recalled in 1954: “ (J.E.H.) MacDonald and I had discussed the possibility of an art expression which would embody the varied moods, character and sprit of this country (Canada). We heard there was an exhibition of modern Scandinavian paintings at the Albright (Knox) Gallery in Buffalo—and took the train to Buffalo to see it. This turned out to be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences either of us had. Here was a large number of paintings that corroborated our ideas. Here were paintings of Northern lands created in the spirit of those lands and through the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved them. Here was an art bold, vigorous and uncompromising, embodying direct first hand experience of the great North, and our conviction was reinforced…From that time on we knew we were at the beginnings of a great adventure.”

I was not sure that national identity was still a problem in Finland but, as I found out, there are new worries on the subject now that the country is becoming a full member in the European Union. There very well might be, in some peoples minds, a loss of a measure of their uniqueness. The EU demands uniformity in many regulations. One example that was repeated to me more than once, was that in Finland there is something called the rule of first sale which means that when an artist makes the first sale of an art work, be it through a dealer or a private sale, there are no taxes on the sale. No small thing in a country whose version of HST is 22 ½%. Europe wants this rule changed, but so far, in a fight led by the Artists’ Association of Finland, the rule remains.

One of the first places that I visited was the Artists’ Association of Finland office in downtown Helsinki which is located in a handsome block square 19th century building called House of the Art just kitty-corner from The Academy of Fine Arts.

I spoke with president Kari Jylhä and acting secretary general Liisa Murto. The association is an umbrella organization for the visual arts in Finland and has over 1500 members. The membership is divided into separate groups: the Finnish Painters Union, the Association of Finnish Sculptors, the Society of Finnish Graphic Artists, the Society of Artist Photographers, and Union of Finnish Art Associations. The Artists Association was founded in 1864.
Kari told me that the Association is a strong voice for the visual arts in Finland and that nearly all professional artists in the country are members. Individual membership in the various sections of the Association is by election. Artists must have a certain number of professional level exhibitions before they are qualified for membership. The number of exhibitions varies from union to union, but the emphasis is on professionalism. Certainly artists can operate outside of the Association, but very few do as opposition to unions is rare unlike it is among North American artists who generally see themselves as rugged individualists.

The Artists’ Association of Finland championed ideas such as the tax free government grants that are given to artists for one, two or three years. The current grant is worth 70,000 FIM (about $22,000C) per year. They also administer copyright laws that apply to the visual arts. These laws give Finnish artists far better protection than do our copyright laws in Canada. Finnish laws provide compensation for the reproduction of art works, artist fees for exhibitions, fees for works shown on other media, and a droit de suite law that gives artists 5% of the resale price when one of their works is resold in Finland. Further, the copyright protection continues for seventy years after the death of an artist.

The following day I visited Kiasma, the brand new contemporary art gallery in Helsinki. This new five storey building was designed by the American architect Steven Holl. I spoke with director Tuula Arkio who told me that the gallery’s mandate is Finnish and international art from 1960 on and that the collection was formerly housed in the Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery. The gallery opened its doors in May of 1998 with a major exhibition called This Side of the Ocean which was concerned with the question of identity in Finnish art. What I found strange was that when I visited the gallery in October of 1998 that Finnish art was notably absent from all of the gallery’s walls and the major exhibition was of the work of the American artist Bruce Nauman. I was not sure if this was due to the gallery’s desire to encompass internationalism or if it showed a lack of confidence in contemporary Finnish art. I was assured by the director that what I saw that day in the gallery was an anomaly and that the permanent collection had yet to be installed. Nevertheless, this left me in the position of seeing very little contemporary Finnish art in an institutional setting in Helsinki.

The new building itself, like so much new museum architecture—such as Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain—is more an architectural statement than a functional building. Kiasma looks more like a giant outdoor sculpture than an art gallery. This is rather the opposite of the old modernist adage of form following function, but these are post-modern times and I wouldn’t want to get into the way of an architect’s ego. Nevertheless, I found the interior layout of Kiasma to be very confusing. Just getting from point A to point B proved to be quite a task. However, there is no denying that the metal clad building stands out in its setting amidst the more traditional architecture of its downtown neighbors.

During my first weekend in Finland I took a train to the city of Lahti to meet the sculptor Olavi Launi. He is one of the best known senior artist in Finland. Now in his early seventies he represented Finland at the Venice Biennial in 1978 and his work is in many collections in Scandinavia and elsewhere. What I wanted to see was Launi Park. It is a sculpture park in Lahti that is dedicated to the work of the artist. Here some twelve large sculptures wind around a wooded hillside at the edge of the city. The works were completed between 1989 and 1995. To say that he is highly regarded in Lahti is an understatement. While walking through the park with the artist and his wife Tarja—who is a painter and acted as a translator to the non-English speaking Olavi, we were approached by a young Finnish woman and her American boy friend because they had heard us speaking English. Lahti, it appears, is not a place where you find many tourist at least in late October. When she found out that I was interviewing Olavi Launi, she said, in her excellent accent free English, that it was “awesome” to meet the famous artist and insisted that she have her picture taken with him so she could show it to all of her friends. It would be difficult to imagine such an event taking place in North America where most people would be hard pressed to come up with the name of a sculptor much less hold an artist in the high regard as this young woman obliviously did Launi.

During the next week I met more artists, museum directors, curators, art critics and editors. I travelled to Tempere and visited the city museum of art; the Sara Heldén Art Museum of Contemporary Art; the Lenin Museum (this museum shows contemporary art, but is the place where much of the planning for the Russian revolution took place and where Lenin first met Stalin); and Museokeskus Vapriikki where there was an outstanding exhibition on Arctic shamanism.
I spoke with Kimmo Sarja, a Helsinki artist of a younger generation than Olavi Launi, whose work was included in Kiasma’s exhibition This Side of the Ocean. Kimmo had studied in New York in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, but he also has a degree in Political Science from the University of Helsinki. He is currently completing a Ph.D. at University in Aesthetics. I was interested in his ideas about the issue of Finnishness in contemporary Finnish art. His work in This Side of the Ocean, which was done with film-maker Kimmo Koskela, was a video of interviews with senior Finnish intellectuals on the subject of what it means to be a Finn. Those interviewed included writers, artists, composers, philosophers, psychiatrists and art historians. The youngest of this group was sixty-five years old and the oldest had died in 1997 at the age of ninety-seven.

Kimmo was concerned that the voice, and the image, of these people be preserved for future generations. These people such as artist Aleksanteri Ahola-Valo and philosopher Sven Krohn were, in Kimmo’s opinion, the foundation of Finnish culture. His fear is that their voices and ideas might be lost in Europe’s headlong rush into gobalisation and in tandem, some of what it means to be a Finn. Kimmo also believes that the voice of the old, along with their experiences, are often over-looked in a world obsessed with youth and technology. His video is a testament to the belief that we are results of our collective histories and that without a shared past we face a doubtful future.

My host, artist Antero Kare, like Kimmo Sarja, studied at the University of Helsinki rather than at an art school. Kare combines science, principally archaeology and microbiology, with painting and sculpture with interesting results. His ‘living’ paintings, which are works that are painted with live, and I might add harmless, microbes, have been exhibited in both Europe and the United States. These paintings are quite literally about life and death. The large abstract paintings change in colour as the microbes go through their short life cycle. The colour only becomes stable with the death of the microbes.

Antero’s most recent work are installations that combine video images, sound and sculpture. An installation in an exhibition in Austria last fall was of a carved moose head within a closed glass environment. The moose head was coated with microbes which grew during the course of the week long exhibition. The piece, complete with video images and sound, was about the wilderness and the place of nature in a northern country. I thought that this piece was a perfect demonstration of the similarity between Canada and Finland. We may not be world powers nor are our artists world famous, but we do have moose in some abundance.

On my last day in Finland I had an interview with Soili Sinisalo the director of the Finnish National Gallery, the Ateneum, in Helsinki. This gallery is responsible for Finnish art prior to 1960. Sinisalo is an art historian who not only knows historical Finnish art, but is very aware of the contemporary scene as well. I was interested in what had influenced Finnish art over the last century. She told me that the major influences were from Russia, through St. Petersburg and Paris. I could see the French influence in much of the art, but was less aware of that coming from Russia; it made sense as St. Petersburg is very close and Finland was controlled by Russia until 1917.

Sinisalo also knew of the Scandinavian influence on the Group of Seven as her museum lent works to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s 1984 exhibition, The Mystic North. This exhibition, curated by Roald Nasgaard, showed the similarity late 19th and early 20th century of Scandinavian and Canadian landscape painting. I came away from the interview with Sinisalo with the strong conviction that Finland was a country with a short history as an independent nation, but with a long history as a people because they have a sense of themselves through their culture and art.

The high regard that average Finns have for all their artists is because of their excellent education in the arts and the subsequent importance that culture takes on in their day to day lives. Would that it were the same in North American, but I am afraid that what culture means to most Canadians is, at worst, the latest American television situation comedy or, at best, Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. Both of these examples, one low brow and the other, middle brow, are imported and reflect our reoccurring belief that if it is from someplace else, it must be better than anything that could be done here. I have often thought that if we had our own unique language—and I don’t mean French which is fraught with its own problems—and a currency that was called something other than a dollar, then we would have a much stronger culture than we have now. At least it would be ours, just as Finland’s is theirs and something that they take pride in.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB Canada, 11 January 1999.

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Surely, You Jest, Professor Hammock?

August 7, 2013

Recently I received a link from a friend. The video gave me pause and clearly my friend, a professional sixty-one year old artist, was upset over the absurdity of it. The child in question, Kieron Williamson, while not untalented, is no genius. The paintings are B flat landscapes which were they done by an adult would, if they sold at all, go for a fraction, very small fraction, of what Williamson received. I am happy for him and his parents. I can see by the video of him playing football with his chums that he is just a normal boy who in his spare time flogs paintings for ₤50,000 a pop. His lifetime earnings, all five years of it, far outstrip that of most famous Canadian artists that come to mind.

Of course, if I were one of his parents, I would take the money and run and hope that kid keeps turning them out. I would set up a trust fund in his name, which I am sure has been done as ₤1,500,000 is a lot of money, but that begs the question that something is really wrong with the art market. The old adage of a fool and his money or victimless crime spring to mind. If somebody is stupid enough to pay that kind of money for mediocre art who am I to stop them and Williamson’s paintings seem to be a bargain compared to the idiot who paid eleven and a half million quid for British artist Peter Doig’s maybe canoe painting. What’s with these Brits like Doig and Hurst, leaving wunderkind Williamson aside, who make so much with so little talent? I am fully prepared to be proven wrong by history. If fifty years from now these artists and their works are deemed masterpieces by masters, you may use my name as an example of a narrow minded twit who didn’t know genius when it was in front of him. Of course, I will be dead for at least thirty years by then and sticks and stones may my hurt my bones, but names will never hurt me.

Durer-self-portrait-at-the-age-of-thirteenI am not against child genius artists, Albrecht Durer turned out a pretty wicked silverpoint self-portrait at the age of thirteen and Mozart was knocking them dead at seven. I would like to think that they were exceptional, but I have been assured by many parents that I know, particularly university colleagues, that their children are all exceptional as well and destined for great things.Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_2 A golden age will surely emerge and we will live in a bright new world. It’s too bad we couldn’t have all had exceptional children a few generations ago and the world would not be in the mess that it is in now. We should leave things to progress (Capitalism), leave old ideas and old people behind, as the future is always going to be better. I, like everyone else, can hardly wait for the iPhone6. Although, my iPhone4S is already smarter than I am, but it is not about using it, but owning it

Detroit, in case you have been living under a rock and missed it, has filed for bankruptcy. There is talk of having to sell off all its assets which included the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts. If there was ever a dumb idea this one would have to top the list. The Institute is (or was) one of North America’s greatest art museums with a collection to match its reputation. Yes, the collection is worth billions, but not nearly enough billions to get the city out hock. Once sold, they could never be bought back at a price the museum could afford, in fact the real masterpieces of the collection, if sold at auction, would not be affordable to other major institutions. The works would end up in the private collections of the same sort of morons who pay eleven million plus pounds for canoe paintings and, very likely, stored in vaults in Switzerland never to be seen again.

I understand that if I were relying on a pension from the city of Detroit and had the choice between continuing to get my pension or viewing masterpieces that I would opt for my pension and that is the way this issue is being played in the media. Would that it were it that simple. Money collected from the sale of assets in this sort of bankruptcy go first to the needy like the banks and bondholders with the pensioners far down the list. All in and all, not a happy picture and likely to end badly for all concerned. Perhaps, the best thing is not to think about any of the issues that I have raised and hope that they will go away. We have, after all, the world we deserve as we, in North American, at least, have elected the successive governments that have created this mess, our mess.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Sunday, 4 August, 2013.

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Is art necessary?

July 31, 2013

Is art necessary? The short answer is no, but it is desirable, even beneficial. I live in a small university town in rural Canada where there is a wide divide between town and gown. I spent a long time, some thirteen years, trying to bridge this gap by serving on the town council where I championed arts and culture. All of this came to a rather ignominious halt last year when I was turfed out of my seat in a run for my fifth term by an electorate who where unhappy with my arts bias or at least that was my take on the situation. It could be that they we just tired of my smiling face and wanted a change.

The fight was over the question of buying art for our new town hall. We have a bylaw that says that up to one percent of the total cost of new construction should be spent on art. This was a bylaw that I helped push through council years before the new building was on the table. The motion was passed easily because there was no new construction and it sounded good at the time, however, there is a big difference between theory and practice. When the new building did come along I pushed very hard to have it include public art within the budget. A messy public debate ensued which wasn’t helped by being bushwhacked by fellow councilors who were playing a populist role to appeal to what they correctly identified as their base. My base, on the other hand, offered their support, but, as it turned out, were too busy to vote in the following election. Unhappy people are the ones who are most likely to vote in municipal elections while my non-voting friends assured me that I was a shoe-in.

Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2

Sour grapes? Maybe, nobody likes rejection and it is natural to try and justify your defeat. It wasn’t like I went down in flames as I lost by about sixty votes and, in retrospect, it was a good thing as I could rethink my life and do things like focusing on my writing. Still, I was unhappy with the debate as it was art that suffered and not myself. It took, believe it or not, over seven motions over a period of over a year to get the art budget for the building approved. Every time I thought that it was in the bag, I had to counter a motion to cancel the project. The arguments, which played out in the local press, centered on the usual stuff: art was a luxury that we could ill-afford; art was elitist; the money could be better spent on filling pot-holes and that, if we did buy art, it should be by local amateurs or artists who lived within the town limits and children. It should be noted that we are a town that is noted for its arts community. Many professional artist live in and around our town, we have a famous university art gallery, an artists-run gallery and a good commercial gallery.

I did prevail and, to its credit, a majority of council supported a public art budget for our new building. A public jury was formed and there was a call for proposals. It was open to all artists in the country and stated that the projects had to say something about the town. The jury members, with the exception of myself, were not arts professionals, but local people who had an interest in the arts. I served as chair of the committee and provided professional advice, but did not vote. In the end they came up with a half dozen projects, all by artists who had a connection with the town and we ended up spending less than the one percent budget.

The art was produced and installed. Most people who look at the works seem to like them. The building would work as well without the art and it would not be missed if it had never happened. In our neck of the woods it is possible to live a full life without the benefit of art, public or otherwise. It is not a lesser life only it is an artless one. Our university art gallery is the oldest in the country and one of the largest. It is open free of charge to the public, they have an active outreach programme and many outstanding exhibitions, yet a majority of the non-university population of the town have never stepped foot in the gallery. Our artist run gallery runs quality programmes for the youth in the community yet most local people don’t even know where it is and it is right downtown.

Was it worth the efforts of these two galleries and my own to promote art in our town? Yes, of course it was, but I have come to the conclusion in my case that it is time that I took a rest and concentrate on my own work. Not a word has issued forth from town hall on the subject of art and culture since my defeat and that is OK. Life will go on just fine. I am reaching the end of my life, I will be seventy-five next week, it is high time that I have a close look at my life in the arts and try to figure out if it was all worth it. It’s not all that bad, I have good friends, my mind still sort of works and art is still a good thing as it has been over the last two or three thousand plus years. I am reasonably sure that when I am dead and forgotten that there will be stuff around, art, that will endure and will enrich at least some peoples’ lives. Tempus abire tibi est.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Friday, 26 July, 2013.

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The Philosophy of Selling Watermelons in the Big City: Part Two

July 24, 2013

Starting where I left out on how to make a living as an artist in Maritime Canada I suggest that we throw out traditional marketing practice and start anew. The best possible solution would be to eliminate the need to sell your art. The very best way to do this is to be born to wealthy parents. This has worked very well for some artists in past such as Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Whistler and Sargent, however this is difficult to do after the fact. The next best method is to marry well and use their money. I, on the other hand, married often with disastrous results. The third way is to have a tenured appointment in fine arts at a good university. This allows you to advice your students to stay true to their art while you take no risks yourself. This I was able to, but it is becoming harder as universities close their fine arts departments or hire teachers for peanuts on a course by course basis. Failing these three admirable choices, you are left with trying to flog your work.

Galleries often refer to their artists as a stable. Note to artists: a stable is a place where they keep horses or, perhaps donkeys. I know that Jesus was born in a stable as well and although it was a beginning of a great religion, it did not work out well personally for him. In this age of the web, we need a new way of selling art and, perhaps, one where the artists are in charge. It is common knowledge that visual artists are unable to tie their own shoes much less take charge of their commercial lives and need the wisdom of others to keep food in their mouths. There is a model from New York City in the 1960s that failed, but was interesting in its revolutionary ambition and that was the Park Place Gallery. It was an artists co-op where they hired their own director and put on series of important exhibitions of their members. It was one of the first galleries in SoHo and was to be a whole new direction in the marketing. I knew some of the artists, Dean Fleming, Forrest (Frosty) Meyers, Peter Forakis and Leo Valledor who were either teachers or fellow students who had been in San Francisco and had moved to New York. I did visit the gallery a number of times and, like its members, I thought that we were on the ground floor of a new order of marketing art, but that was not to happen. Why?

A group of artists like those in Park Place are difficult to control, rather like a clowder of cats. There is the issue of egos. While we do have trouble with our shoe laces, we do often have a high opinion of our own artistic talents. Co-ops need people to co-operate and there is the problem, if visual artists were co-operative they would likely not have become artists in the first place. Most visual artists and writers are hermits when it comes to their production and do not work well in groups. I hang out in my basement office with my dog, who provides company, and bang away on my computer. When I need to talk to people, I go to the local coffee shop and converse with the usual suspects. However, artists, myself included, do need an audience and a way to make a living.

Struggle_session_poster_wikimediaThere needs to be a whole new class of people to promote and sell the work of visual artists. They need to act as agents, managers, who work directly for the artists. Some of these people very well might be existing gallery owners, but the business model would be very different. The web does give visual artists a world wide audience, but most buyers want to see actual works of art before they part with their cash. Traditional commercial gallery models are not really efficient in a world market in particular if the artist lives in a rural area like Maritime Canada. Artists have better things to do than deal directly with customers in far away places, but there is the need to know who might be interested in your art nor would it be a good thing for an artist to send an art work away to an unknown buyer on approval and hope that money will follow.

There needs to be another person or persons in the equation; someone in the area of the purchaser who physically shows them the art work and, if there is a sale, collects the money, takes a modest cut, and sends it to the artist. These agents would work for a number of artists, be knowledgeable about art and be bondable. There should be, via the web, direct communication between the artist the would be buyer before there is any contact with the artist’s agent. Remember, in this model the agent works for the artist. The agent is not selling the artwork and passing half to two-thirds of the price to the artist which happens in the gallery model where the dealer has overhead and actively promotes the artist. In my model the artist must take an active role in their promotion. This means having a good, usable, professional web site and that means hiring professionals to set up their sites. Empowering visual artists to take active charge of their professional lives requires a radical shift in thinking. Artist are not taught in art schools about business, but they are assured that quality will out and that is just not true.

Another idea that a rural artist, or a group of artists, might explore with an agent, or agents, is pop up exhibitions in major centres. These exhibitions need not be for more than two or three days and would need to be carefully planed to be successful. They would act as a showcase for the artist or artists and be controlled by them not the agents. However, this is the subject for another post. I also realise, not being an original thinker, that many of my ideas on watermelon retail are being done here and there already, but what is apparent is that if artists, both rural and urban, want to make a full time career as visual artists there has to be a radical rethink in the way that things are done.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Monday, 15 July, 2013

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The Philosophy of Selling Watermelons in the Big City: Part One

July 17, 2013

The other day I was speaking with an artist friend of mine about the difficulty of selling art works in Maritime Canada. Truthfully it was about selling art anywhere, but we were sitting in a cafe in New Brunswick and the situation here is particularly hopeless. The market is flat, we have the highest unemployment rate in the country and the middle class, as elsewhere, is going down the tubes. Not a pretty picture for traditional commercial art gallery sales. What to do? There appear to be no easy answers.

Now my friend is a senior artist who has been making a modest living as a professional painter for the last thirty-five years. From the day that he graduated from my department I had no doubt that he would remain true to his vision of being a full time artist. He was then, and remains, a realist painter and continues to live mostly in New Brunswick. I am proud of him and the hard work that he has done as an artist. However, it has not been easy for him or for other full time artists I know in this part of the world to make living off their work. He could have moved to a major art centre and tried his craft there, but if all our artists did that, this would be sadder place. My friend has lived and worked extensively in other places in the world, but has always returned here where he feels he belongs. Art is often about a sense of place. Unfortunately some places support their artists better than others. Canada does not have a good record of doing well for her visual artists. Some regions, like the Maritimes, are particularly bad in their support. Why?

Lack of a large population is a major problem. There are fewer people living in Maritime Canada (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia) than live in the city of Toronto: 2,615,000 to 1,836,700 give or take a person or two and that doesn’t count the area around Toronto which brings the population to over five and a half million. There is a serious lack of people here who have the remotest interest in the visual art living in the region with the possible exception of Halifax and even there it is a tiny number in the scale of things. The rich collectors in a place like Halifax, and there are a few, tend to buy their art in major centres outside the region and even outside of Canada. The commercial galleries are not generally of high quality. There are only two quality civic galleries; the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in Halifax, and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick. There is also the Confederation Art Centre in Charlottetown, PEI, but it is not in same class as the other two. If people don’t see first class art as part of their lives, then they are unlikely to want to buy art for their home and many people in my region struggle to put food on their tables much less buy art. The provincial governments support of the arts leaves much to be desired and federal support is not much better.

Why, then would any sane artist want to stay and work here when the odds against making a go are so remote? For some it is a sense of place; I was born here, I belong here, it is my home; for others, it is place I want to be because of the quality of life. The latter want to be here because it is not Toronto and they like a scale of life and, indeed, the people here. It is possible to like the life style and people even if those same people don’t give a damn about your art. In my own little town, which is perhaps the most arty small town in the Maritimes, a majority of the population don’t give two hoots about art and high culture, but I love them nonetheless and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Red_Guards_wikimedia
All of this brings me to the title of this post: The Philosophy of Selling Watermelons in the Big City. Back in the very early 1960s I subscribed to the Peking Review (It was Peking then not Beijing.). God knows why, but I think I was testing the FBI to see if they cared about what I was reading. It was a hell of deal if you managed to get the five bucks to them for the one year subscription they kept sending it year after year hoping that reading it would make you a Maoist. I viewed it more for comic relief from mainstream right wing American newspapers. When I spotted the article on watermelon selling, I cut out the headline and used it in a collage, but not until I read the piece of wisdom from my Red friends. It all boiled down to the Red Book and Chairman Mao’s thoughts on the subject of selling stuff which was rather along the lines of ‘build it and they will come’ and, of course, you need a good watermelon.

The most obvious answer to coming up with a different model of commerce for my artist friends is dragging them into the early 21st. Century. We all now live in McLuhan’s Global Village and have the means, the web, to make ourselves known to a whole lot of people some of whom might still want to buy old fashioned wall art. Another problem is getting artists to give up on the traditional artist/gallery model: put pictures on the wall; hope people come to the gallery (some galleries work hard to make this happen and others less so); hopefully sell some pictures; and divide the money between the artist and the gallery. Most visual artists, even if they are wild-eyed avant-garde in their own work, are very conservative when it comes to changes in marketing their products. It is time, my friends, to throw everything out and start anew, but I am getting to my self-inflicted limit of around 1000 words per post, so I will continue this with part two of watermelon selling next week.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Friday, 12 July, 2013.

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Girl With a Pearl Earring

July 10, 2013

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (26 January-2 June 2013)
High Museum of Art, Atlanta (23 June-29 September 2013)
The Frick Collection, New York City (22 October 2013-19 January 2014)
(Published in Vie des Arts, #231 Summer 2013 pg. 64-65.)

There is much more to this exhibition than a chance to view Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl With a Pearl Earring as it is accompanied by thirty-four other paintings from Holland’s golden period from the collection at the Mauritshuis in the Hague. The Dutch museum is closed while it undergoes a major renovation and this has given the opportunity to tour some of its collection to North America. San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum, where I saw the exhibition, was its first stop; it is now at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and later this year a group of ten works from the exhibition will be at New York City’s Frick Museum. It would certainly be worth a trip to either place to see this remarkable collection as such pieces seldom travel from their home museums.

The work in the exhibition is divided into five parts, or themes; portraits and thonies (idealised portraits of non-existing subjects like Girl with the Pearl Earring); landscapes and seascapes; genre paintings; and still lifes that, through their execution, illustrate the triumph of the bourgeoisie in 17th Century Holland. It is the commonplace made concrete that made these paintings revolutionary in the history of art. The short lived Dutch Republic, a golden period, was the result of a hard fought bloody revolution with Spain which split the Spanish Netherlands into what is now Holland and Belgium although the later remained under the Spanish yoke for a long time after Dutch independence. It was as well a fight over religion; Protestantism in Holland and Catholicism in the south of what remained of the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) and that too played itself out through art of both regions.

Johannes_Vermeer__The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring_wikimediaWhat, of course, draws people to the exhibition is the painting of its title, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and they will not be disappointed. Many of the viewers have seen the film of the same name and are drawn to the fictitious romance around the painting and others, myself included, just want to see a painting that is so central to their understanding of the history of art. Like the Mona Lisa, Girl with a Pearl Earring has become a cliche that has taken away from its value as a work of art. Vermeer’s paintings stand out in the crowded art history of accomplishment of the 17th. Century. There are only thirty-six known paintings by Vermeer and the Girl with a Pearl Earring is perhaps, along with the View of Delft, his best known work.

Why is Girl with a Pearl Earring a good painting? There are many reasons and chief among them is its composition; odd by the standards of its day, she looks at us by turning her head to the viewer bathed in shaft of light setting her apart from a dark background, lips slightly apart. Our eyes are, indeed, drawn to the single large pearl earring on her left ear. She wears an exotic turban that was not common to the time. She is, by any standard, an object of desire. Historians cannot name her and many think that she is a thonie or an idealised combination of many women. There is the speculation, notably by David Hockney, that Vermeer used a camera obscura to help him master realism, I think not, but that is a whole other subject and, in the end, doesn’t effect the quality of his painting. We like Girl with a Pearl Earring because it is a drop dead beautiful work of art.

There are thirty-four other outstanding 17th Century Dutch paintings in this exhibition and I would have been happier if the show had been called something like Thirty-Five 17th Century Masterpieces from the Mauritshuis Museum, but that would be mouthful and not the good marketing ploy of its current title. You have seen the exhibition, now buy the coffee cup or necktie.

There is an excellent early Rembrandt, another thonie, in the exhibition, Man with a Feathered Beret. We have two imaginary people with ‘a’ something, an earring, a hat; they make a nice couple. One wishes they could go out on a date, he in his hat and she with her earring. Another favourite painting of mine that is included in this exhibition is the small work by Paulus Potter, Cattle in a Meadow. Potter is simply the best Dutch painter of animals, in particular cattle, of all time. What a tragedy that he died in his twenties. Another artist in the exhibition who died far too young is Carel Fabritius whose most famous painting The Goldfinch is included. Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, died at the age of 32 in massive gunpowder explosion in Delft in 1654 the same year The Goldfinch was painted. This very small, 33.5 x 22.8 cm, work shows, as does the Potter, that great paintings need not be about great or important subject matter, but can reflect the everyday things in our lives.

I could write at length about every painting in the Girl with the Pearl Earring exhibition as they all have something important to say, but that would take a small book. What is important is that Dutch painting of the 17th Century, and this exhibition has great examples, is a mirror of what, in the following four centuries, has become the modern Capitalist life we now live in Canada; certainly far from perfect, but better than what went before it. These paintings are a celebration of lives lived well and their beauty is also a celebration of art done extremely well.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Wednesday, 15 May, 2013.