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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Is it art? Should that be the question?

In 1946, R.H. Ives Gammell published his book "Twilight of Painting". In the Preface, he stated that the purpose of the book was twofold. First, an attempt to present from an artist's point of view those factors that brought about the decline in the art of painting. Secondly, an attempt "to analyze those factors for the benefit of the genuinely talented young people who, sooner or later, will address themselves to the task of rediscovering for their own use the now all-but-lost craft of picture making. Gammell's words have proved to be prophetic.

The time has finally come, we are now seeing talented young people addressing themselves to the task of rediscovering the craft of picture making. Ateliers around the world are rediscovering the teaching methods that produced some of the greatest artists this world has seen. and students are soaking it up, taking top awards in many of the important shows.

Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904)  -  Public Prayer in the Mosque of Amr, Cairo  -  29.5"x 35"

Many factors are involved in the creation of art and in the formation of public taste. Political, spiritual, economic, and technological changes have the greatest impact. Because of these, what is in vogue today will be out tomorrow.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)  -  Number 5  -  48"x 96"  -  1948

When "Twilight of Painting" was published, the art world was steeped in abstract expressionism. That movement is rapidly waning, now being replaced by various types of realism. Quality workmanship in every aspect of a paintings creation is now becoming a prime consideration.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)  -  The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise  -   48"x 37"

 Ives Gammell speaks very poignantly concerning workmanship in the excerpt below, from "Twilight of Painting", page 31-32.

Art lovers often forget that pictures were formerly painted to fulfill certain specified requirements, such as telling a story, recording the appearance of an individual, or enhancing the interior architecture of a building. Such things are only achieved effectively by the intelligent application of a vast amount of trained skill and acquired knowledge to the particular problem in hand. The pictures most successfully fulfilling these or similar requirements are the ones which were later rated as works of art.

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779)  -  The Remains of a Lunch  -  1763

 The working methods traceable in the pictures themselves, the surviving records, and the traditions of the studios, all indicate that the men who painted these pictures were chiefly concerned with turning out good jobs. If any of them were consciously trying to produce "art," they held this as a secondary objective. The main concern was the job. If the job were sufficiently well done, in every respect, it would be, sooner or later, classed as art. But the painters knew that unless it was a good job it had no chance of being "art" at all and not much chance of being paid for.

Lord Frederick Leighton (1830-1896)  -  Lachrymae  -  64"x 24.75"  -  1895

 Painters learned to consider pictures in terms of good and bad jobs before even raising the question of their being good or bad art. And there is ample justification for this attitude. Fashions in taste and aesthetics change continually, and with their flux pictures go in and out of fashion. But it is noteworthy that pictures which fulfill their purpose supremely well - in other words, the good jobs - have a way of coming back into favor again and again. The bad jobs disappear at the first shift of fashion and do not return.

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)  -  Donkey Ride  -  96"x 42.2"  -  1878

That is why workmanship, in the fullest and broadest sense of the term, remains the persisting factor common to all the pictures which have been highly prized as works of art over long periods of time, regardless of when or where they were painted. Workmanship of a high order is the viaticum lacking which a picture will not get very far in its journey through the shifting fashions and fads which accompany the passing years. Of course, a picture may have such workmanship and still fall short of being a work of art. But, unless it displays purely pictorial qualities - and all these qualities come under the head of workmanship - having genuine intrinsic merit apart from their supposed intellectual or emotional content, a painting is invariably discarded as worthless before three or four generations have gone their way.

Robert Hale Ives Gammell (1893-1981)  -  The Seamstress

The ability to recognize and evaluate such pictorial qualities and to judge them impersonally is acquired with the ability to paint pictures and, apparently, in no other way. By belittling this sort of trained judgment and subsequently eliminating it from their deliberations altogether, the amateurs and art experts of our time have started the art of painting on an uncharted sea where it has drifted without pilot or rudder. The result is to be seen on the walls of our museums and picture galleries. It is labeled Modern Art.

More from Ives Gammell in future articles. Read the 11 Dec 2011 blog for more about Mr. Gammell.

Photo acknowledgments
Google Images

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