Thursday, November 25, 2010

In Defense of Decorative Painting

"That man who is without the arts is little above the beasts of the field." 
Haldane MacFall, The History of Painting
Well, if that's not a sweeping generalization I don't know what is. Fortunately, 'the arts' in this case is such a broad term as to render this comment weak: Is any of us not 'with the arts'?

Things seem to have changed a little since 1911, however. There is an effort (mostly from the marketing department) to compartmentalize these arts into high and low, drawing an arbitrary line in the sand between Decorative - and/or Commercial - and Fine Art.

This distinction is a relatively recent trend. William Morris would not have agreed with it, that's for sure, nor would a whole host of others who were perfectly at home with their work hanging in a gallery, or printed on a plate. Yet since the advent of Modern Art the notion of the decorative element in painting has been sidelined as irrelevant, even beneath contempt. God forbid your work is described as 'pretty'.

One glance at Islamic Art and Architecture and it becomes obvious that Art can be both 'Decorative' and 'High' at the very same time. So why is it that a simple Google search of 'decorative painting' yields not much, if anything, in the way of crossover between high and low Art? Why is it that the headlong race to separate from populist art has left a vast dustbowl in its wake?
"This apparent absence of internal critical writing may be because many lowbrow artists began their careers in fields not normally considered fine art, such as illustration, tattooing and comic books. Many ... are self-taught, which further alienates them from the world of museum curators and art schools.
Many in the art world have deeper difficulties with lowbrow's figurative focus, its cultivation of narrative, and its strong valuing of technical skill. All these aspects of art were deeply disparaged in the art schools and by curators and critics throughout the 1980s and 90s." Wiki
Yawwwn, I'm sleepy. 'Everyone I have ever slept with' by Tracy Emin

And yet, so much Art these days seems to mistake being brazenly incoherent for some sort of street profundity, dusting off the art-terrorist tag to protect against accusations of being pointless and just downright ugly. Take Tracy Emin. No really; take her.

But let's face it; who wants ugly Art? As far as I'm concerned, all Art has a major decorative element. The market tends to bear this out: despite annual protestations over the 'death of painting' it is the very sale of paintings that keep the galleries afloat. In hard times, galleries fall back on their roster of painters to help pay the rent, leaving the fiscally riskier work of video and installation in the back room until times are good enough again to wheel it out. Doesn't that seem kind of, I don't know, Commercial?
Some of the 16,400 Google image results for 'Jasper Johns Flag'

There's a great story about Jasper "the flag guy" Johns who, after realizing great critical success in the Art world by stumbling upon the decorative use of the American flag as High Art, decided to put all his early works in a pile and burn them in effigy. It always struck me as a great Wizard of Oz moment: terrified lest someone draw back the curtain (or flag), and reveal his art as 'merely' decorative, he scrubbed the trail leading up to it and left the critics to hail him as a genius.

Takashi Murakami

Yet somehow, certain artists such as Murakami manage to slip through the critical net and get away with creating purely decorative painting, while being at the same time lauded as ironic commentators on the nature of decoration and consumerism. It's a handy critical trope that enables them to neatly sidestep accusations of being shallow. But what's wrong with their just being pretty pictures? Perhaps exhibiting his work in Versailles is less a juxtaposition than it is a perfect match.

Critics seem to have forgotten the answer to the question that every child knows instantly: What's your favorite color?

People like paintings on their walls, it's as simple as that. They add a splash of color, and we like what they say about us. We project meaning onto them, adore them as at an altar, and sit back as they reflect at a dinner party that we are wise, cultured and willing to throw money around. But they better not put you off your meal, so for goodness sake make them pretty.
"The over-scaled compositions being produced by so many abstract painters, which are full of movement and use of color, are ideal example, ideal transformations of an entire wall and entire room.... There is no denying that one of the major attractions of these successful large compositions is their structural decorative use in the contemporary scene... That these large canvases can be superbly decorative may not be considered complimentary by some of the artists involved"
Van Day Truex, Interiors, Character, and Color
So what if they don't find it complimentary: here's to Decorative Painting! Thank you, and good night.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Modular Ornament, past and future...

 This gorgeous ceiling was created with en feuille printed papers, made by an unknown Parisian manufacturer around 1780. Une feuille de papier literally means a sheet, or piece of paper, and in this context means that the entire design was created by cutting the design from individual sheets of block-printed paper.

The dark and light grounds, the borders of flowers and fruits, the medallions and even the figure of Diana in her chariot were all cut out separately and pasted on the ceiling to create this wonderful image.

This method of creating custom, one-off installations was the best way at the time for clients and designers to bridge the gap between the bespoke mural and the printed image.

Print Rooms, as they became known, were a highly individual way of decorating walls in the eighteenth century. It seems to have been a trend limited in large part to Ireland and England. The charming and whimsical room at Castletown House in Ireland, above, is the work of the lady of the house; fifteen year old bride, Lady Louisa Connolly. That she took great pleasure in her design is evident in the balanced design of octagons, ovals, circles and squares, all embellished with garlands and bows for a fanciful effect.

These days, photocopies and clip art are substituted for the original mezzotints of old. 

But why stop at cutting up scraps of paper?

Along with my business partner Mark, we saw that there was room for much improvement and advancement of the technique. I firmly believe that the artisans of a few centuries ago would have absolutely loved the digital revolution. The means they used were simply a reflection of the limit of the technology they had available at the time, nothing more.

So we developed the idea of modular designs created entirely on computer, then printed out in large sheets as custom installations. Why bother painting 60 rosettes on a frieze around a room when you can paint a single one, scan it into the computer, then print out rolls and rolls of the stuff? I mean; they're all supposed to be identical anyway, right? 

I started developing my own library of hand-painted shapes. These were little individual sections of ornament, painted in black and white, that I then scanned into the computer and colored and jigsawed together at will on my screen. Anyone interested in those early experiments can check out this blog post on the topic.

Instead of the traditional 'cut-and-paste' technique of the Print Rooms, where the jigsawing of images was done by hand and on-site, we did all the jigsawing of our artwork directly on the computer screen. When we liked what we saw, we simply printed it out on rolls up to five feet wide, and pasted it onto the wall.

The experiment was working! 

We decided to take it all a step further; to create artwork entirely on the computer, without any other tool whatsoever. Scanning hundreds of sheets of veneer, we quickly amassed an incredible library of wood textures. Then, using computer software we drew out our designs in the same way any artisan would lay out a design for marquetry: in simple back-and-white line drawings. These drawings were then 'colored' on the computer using our wood texture library, and custom printed onto sheets of Class A fire-retardant wallcovering. 

In the image above, you can see the 'before and after' of the room.
When we got there, every surface was primed white. We started by hand-painting all the raised moldings in traditional faux-bois. This was because our printed sheets of paper would only adhere to flat surfaces. Then we simply pasted our custom printed papers into the panels, and along the stiles and rails to create this stunning look.

This image shows the incredible authenticity of the effect. This is not a photograph: It is a computer rendered design, imitating wood inlay. The wood textures, colors, even the blemishes and worm-holes, are all added in layers to create the effect of marquetry. This piece is then printed out onto any substrate (including plain maple veneer) and applied to your project. Make sense?

We feel as though we are just at the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more we can be doing to push Decorative Arts into the new century. I really hope this might serve as some small inspiration to those artists out there looking for new ways to rejuvenate a (let's face it) pretty antiquated field. 

It's natural, when new technology comes along, to use it to simply re-create the style that came before. But what would happen if we were not limited by staid historic mimicry? What would it even look like if we took this new technology, this digital evolution, and cranked up the ambition to 11? 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Richard LaBarre Goodwin

What a master of trompe l'oeil! Yet surprisingly it is relatively difficult to find information on him on the Web. These are details from his painting Cabin Door Still Life, purchased by the Smithsonian.

They are beautifully treated and worthy of close study for those students of the art. I particularly love the way he 'carved' his signature into the wooden door:


Monday, November 8, 2010

Jean-Baptiste Pillement, Chinoiserie

Known primarily as the artist responsible for the popularity of Chinoiserie, Jean Pillement was quite the dark-horse. He somehow found time between designing for Gobelin and painting for the King of Portugal to invent the solar-powered electric chair and the straight banana, write Limericks (including the classic "There was a young man called Eenis..."), and fashion a remarkable likeness of his ex-wife out of shaving foam and a dagger. Despite losing all his limbs in a bizarre gardening accident at the age of eight, he once impressed Marie Antoinette by playing 'Flight of the Bumblebee' on the nose flute while stopping a rapidly spinning drill bit with his lips.

Thirsty for more? Check out this gallery of fifty-six of his fanciful Chinoiserie designs that I posted on my Flickr page. And if Chinoiserie is your monkey, this gorgeous panel by Pillement entitled 'Chinoiserie, un couple dans une barque' is worth a closer look.

Nicolas Lancret created panels and folding screens somewhat earlier than Pillement, and it's interesting to compare their styles. Lancret being flatter and dryer than Pillement, whose work shows much of the frivolity we've come to associate with Rococo.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Alphonse Mucha, 'Le Pater' Part II

Stunning 'aquarelle originale', by A. Mucha,  from the frontispiece of Le Pater
You might think that a goldfish, if granted one wish, would choose 'Strength of the Bear' over 'Invisibility', but you'd be wrong. Goldfish would rather be invisible. Sometimes they just get tired of being stared at.

Here's something besides my goldfish that I like to stare at: Alphonse Mucha's illustrations for Le Pater. I did a short post earlier on the same book, but I'm coming back to it with some more detailed photos of individual plates. They really are quite stunning, and he was a master draughtsman, so let's take a closer look.

Drinking a river of milk from the triple-breasted mother of plenty

Incurring Godly wrath for bludgeoning people with a rock. Bad boy

Actually, there's a great story related to draughtsmanship and Mucha: In 1898, the American (ex-patriot) artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler combined his teaching class with that of Mucha and together they taught painting, Illustration, composition and decorative drawing over the course of three years, ending amicably in 1901. According to Jiri (Mucha's son and sole biographer); years later when a student asked Whistler why he had so many of Mucha's posters hanging about, Whistler retorted, "So that I can show fools like you what it means to be able to draw."

Today, I had the very great fortune to study this original copy of Le Pater with a magnifying glass. What an absolute thrill. There were only ever 510 published, on the 20th of December 1899. The first ten containing original hand-painted watercolors by Mucha himself. The second set, numbers 11 through 60 (the set I studied), are listed by the publisher as being "sur japon, avec une suite en couleurs sur papiers spécial à la forme du Marais et une suite en noir sur chine."

It's interesting to me that, in the 1870s and 1880s, so many American artists went to study in Paris (e.g. Sargent, Whistler, Cassatt, Eakins, Homer) because American academic training at the time was generally considered so inadequate. Combine this with a mesmeric American fascination with the Old World, and we can begin to see why Mucha's early trips to the States were so rapturously received. And yet Mucha seemed reluctant to lap up the attention that the gentry and grandes dames of American Society were determined to bestow. Indeed, he was sick and tired of his obligations, as evidenced in a hilariously melodramatic letter he wrote in 1904:
"You've no idea how often I am crushed almost to blood by the cogwheels of this life, by this torrent which has got hold of me, robbing me of my time and forcing me to do things that are so alien to those I dream about"
Poor dear; how hellish it must have been to hang out with the likes "the beautiful" Mrs. McKay, Anne Morgan, Grace Vanderbilt, Elsie De Wolfe and Sarah Bernhardt, not to mention the President himself, sipping tea and cashing checks all day. In hindsight, his relatively earth-bound fame when compared with the likes of the stellar Whistler may possibly stem from his dislike of associating with "vulgar business society". You probably shouldn't have put that one in writing, Alfy. Once again artistic ego gets in the way of enjoying a well-lived life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to draw the Acanthus, Part II

The above image is from the NYPL digital archive.

This is Part Two of what was supposed to be a Trilogy of One regarding how to draw the Acanthus, but then I got confused and added another Part, so I'm not sure where I am at the moment. And besides I've had a couple of those Dogfish Head IPAs. Anyhoo, these amazing images are direct from the source, as in an original 1886 copy (!) of James Page's book about how to draw the Acanthus, called Guide for Drawing The Acanthus.

I read this on a grave from 1812 in Newburyport, Massacussetts:

'To limits fix'd our disten'd course we bend,
And with resistless haste, to death's pale empire tend,
From scene to scene, o'er shifting moments go,
And then return the grave the dust we owe.'

What's the connection? Well, it's a pretty tenuous thread I admit but I happened to really like that poem and hey, this is my blog. The link between acanthus and gravestones is the story told by Vitruvius in De Architectura IV of the architect and sculptor Callimachus, who is said to have invented the Corinthian capital. Here's the tale as told by Vitruvius himself:
"A freeborn maiden of Corinth ... was attacked by an illness and passed away. After her burial, her nurse, collecting a few little things which used to give the girl pleasure while she was alive, put them in a basket, carried it to the tomb, and laid it on top thereof. This basket happened to be placed just above the root of an acanthus. The acanthus root ... when springtime came round put forth leaves and stalks in the middle, and the stalks ... were forced to bend into volutes at the outer edges.
Just then Callimachus passed by this tomb and observed the basket with the tender young leaves growing round it. Delighted with the novel style and form, he built some columns after that pattern for the Corinthians, determined their symmetrical proportions, and established from that time forth the rules to be followed in finished works of the Corinthian order."