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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Factory Art

An unknown artist's depiction of factory working conditions
during the early years of British industrialization.
Yesterday, I dealt with Farm Art (the item below). Such art dates back hundreds of years. That is not the case with factory art. Such early images, most commonly found in painting, date back only to about 1790 in England. (In the U.S. industrialization came mostly after the War of 1812.) There were many artistic movements during the period of British history, each of which was a reaction to the times, as well as to the movement which preceded it. By the time the Industrial Revolution really took hold, some artists were at odds with the ideals which it espoused, ideals such as discipline, temperance, structure, and views of the Enlightenment. Such feelings translated into the Romantic movement, which encouraged individualism, freedom, and emotion. Romanticism was by far the most important artistic outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution. Even today, its broad effects and artistic achievements are still seen, and nowhere more than in our painted depictions of modern-day industrialization.
Now mostly relegated to museums, this was the opening
shot of the Industrial Revolution--the steam engine.
The Industrial Revolution changed the British social structure dramatically. Before this revolution most people lived in small villages, working either in agriculture or as skilled craftsmen. They lived and worked as a family, doing everything by hand. Three quarters of Britain's population lived in the countryside, where farming was the predominant occupation. However, industrialization changed all that. Machines capable of huge outputs made small hand weavers and others uneconomical. This forced upon them the need to work at the new factories, and required them to move to growing cities to be close to their new jobs. In doing so, they found themselves making less money and working longer hours. Factory owners took advantage of this new work force, with working conditions barely one step above slavery.

In Germany, the Industrial Revolution had but one name.
That name was KRUPP!
There was no social safety net, no industrial regulations, and few in the upper classes who even cared to know about worker abuse, which often effecting women and children most harshly. There were no photos to document their plight. Only artists had it within their power to depict the abhorrent and dangerous working conditions the lower classes faced daily. Yet even they were inadequate in their role as a social safety valve. Large scale worker violence erupted. For a time, law enforcement and the military tried to contain it, but eventually, in no small part due to artists an other socially conscious individuals, laws were passed (below) which today, seem to us grossly inadequate, but in effect, sowed the seeds of the 20th-century labor movement and the regulations in force today preventing the "near slavery" of the Industrial Revolution.

Though heavily regulated, child labor (except on farms) was not totally abolished in the United States until 1949.
For artists, factory art had long been far less about ugly buildings and faceless machines than those using them. Worker abuse, pollution, dehumanization, and (in recent years) computerization and robotics arouse the interests and ire of artist now as well as then. The French painting icon, Claude Monet saw the steam engine in terms of greater freedom to escape to the countryside to paint, though he also seems to have been fascinated with the means to do so as seen in his La Gare Saint-Lazare (below), from 1877, and his A Tranchée des Batignolles (The Trench of the Batignolles). Despite the rampant social ills it fostered, the Industrial Revolution brought many positive changes (at a cost) to each country it touched.

Monet's French version of the Industrial Revolution.
England enjoyed a sort of head start on the rest of the world when it came to both factories and factory art. England had two vital resources which were invaluable for industrial development, coal and iron ore. Moreover, they had the engineering know-how to combine the two and the shipping capacity to export them around the world (below). British artist William Bell Scott captures all these valuable assets in a single painting.

Iron and Coal, 1855-60, William Bell Scott
England also served as a social testing ground for the alleviation of many of the negative consequences accompanying such a social upheaval. One of these upheavals was the advent (spurred by two world wars) of women and their place in a factory environment. The moment women began inhabiting factory floors, everything from their political relevance to their trousers and the way they wore their hair began to change. Artists such as Stanhope Forbes and Sir John Lavery (below) recorded these changes, and may even have had apart in triggering them.

The factories of the Industrial Revolution, in England, the U.S., and all around the world, changed the role of women forever.
Today, Americans and industrialized nations around the world are left with two disturbing images of factories. One is a symbol of the overwhelming industrial strength and power they provide, while very often doing great harm to the air we breath, the land we inhabit, the clean water we demand, even our health and psychological wellbeing (below). The second is that of a desolated battleground where another revolution is taking place, where factory men and women are becoming interchangeable with integrated circuitry and robotic artificial intelligence (bottom). Like the Industrial revolution, which made it possible, the data revolution (or whatever you want to name it) carries with it both the dysfunction of those unable or unwilling to adjust to a new social and economic order, as well as unimaginable benefits to human existence.

Ohio Pollution, watercolor, artist unknown.
Old Factory, Tukap88


Friday, February 24, 2017

Farm Art

Folk Art Farm, 2012, Toni Grote.
She lives on a farm in Iowa, by the way.
Very often we take for granted that which is most critical to our survival. We assume that when turn the faucet, water will come out, and that it will be safe to drink. We assume that somehow, somewhere, someone is designing and making our clothes for us. We buy or rent a house or apartment and take for granted that whenever we unlock the front door everything will be as we left it. We don't even think about the very air we breathe. We know our food comes from farms, but when was the last time you even thought about a farm, much less set foot on one. Yet this nation (the United States) was founded as a fundamentally agriculture society. Today less than one percent of our total population live or work on a farm. In 1790 (counting slaves) the figure was ninety percent. That radical change is reflected in all aspects of our daily lives. And since I, and those who read what I write, are involved in art to some degree, it is also reflected in our notions as to farm art. But if we seldom think about farms, it's a good bet we're even less likely to think about farm art. Quite apart from art, we think nothing of any of these vital items until our life-giving supply chain is interrupted or broken.
Farm art by Walt Curlee
If and when you think about farm art, you picture images such as those above by the popular rural artist, Walt Curlee, then you've fallen into an antique stereotype that is at least two or three generations old. Absolutely none of Curlee's images (above) reflect farm life in the 21st-century. Occasionally you'll spot an antique pickup truck or a tractor in one or two of his works, but for the most part, this Georgia artist and his art wallows in agricultural nostalgia. It's not surprising that his art sells so well, half of America is wallowing with him (yearning for the way things used to be). On the other hand, if you found the painting by Toni Grote (top) somewhat jarring...welcome to today's Postmodern farm art. (She's from Iowa and lives on a farm.)
Almost four-hundred years of farm art.

Today artists don't paint pictures of
barns so much. They paint pictures
on barns.
For those wanting to see farm art of the past, then check out the work of those famous artists (above) which records farm life from the era in which it was painted, starting with Pieter Bruegel (the elder) dating from 1565 and ending with the "oh, so neat and trim" work of Grant Wood in the 1930s and 40s. A more accurate representation of farm life in the past can be found in the little known work of F.H. Shap-leigh and his Old Barn in Eaton, New Hampshire (below) dating from 1878. I love it when a painter resists the temptation to dwell on surface details and in-stead goes inside, in this case probing behind the weathered barn siding.

Old Barn in Eaton, New Hampshire, 1878, F.H. Shapleigh
Although no farm today could get along without one, I've purposely omitted paintings of tractors and all the other mechanized labor-saving equipment responsible for the drastic decrease in our farm population over the years. Today, you're just as likely to see farmers (or their wives and kids) riding a bicycle or a motorcycle to and from the barn to do their chores or to round up cattle for milking. Today, it's quite likely the most important piece of equipment the farmer owns sits in the kitchen with a glowing screen, mouse, and keyboard.

Digital painting of an old bicycle against a barn by Sandra Lise.
Just as farming has changed over the years, so has art.
Even that computerized kitchen, perhaps the most used room in the farmhouse, and arguably the most important fraction of acreage on whole farm, looks nothing like the "thoroughly modern" kitchen as seen below from the 1930s. Perhaps the raw produce on the kitchen table is the most anachronistic. If the farm is small, very often the farmer and his wife have second jobs making in or farming a part-time endeavor. Whatever the case, who has time to pick and preserve fruits and vegetables when both are available cheaper and almost as fresh at Walmart?

Farmhouse Kitchen, by Gayle, Southern Maine.
For farmers, now and then, the road to the present and future has not been easy. Artists such as Terry Redlin and Thomas Hart Benton have portrayed the travails of rural life from the from the romantic sod-busting days marking the end of one century and the beginning of the next, to the "dust bowl" era of the Great Depression (below). Their paintings are marked by nostalgia, myth, folklore, trials, tribulations (disastrous weather), hard work, inspiration, and fortunately, a good deal of humor. This is what farm art is all about...not trucks and tractors.

Hard work and hard times.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Out Behind the Barn, ca. 1980, Jim Lane,
my version of farm art.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Joseph R. DeCamp

The Hammock, 1895, Joseph DeCamp,
the artist's wife Edith, daughter Sally, and infant son Ted.
In times of relative peace and prosperity, the arts flourish. Figuratively speaking, art loves money. Literally speaking, so do artists. However, during such times of social and economic stability, the arts also have a tendency to stagnate stylistically. The perfect example of this would be the period following the Civil War in the United States up until the start of WW I. It was a period of tremendous growth in all aspects of American life, not the least of which was painting. The problem is, in reviewing the art of this era, there are a tremendous number of outstanding painters to cover and discover, but not much to discuss in the way of innovation among them. It's as if tastes in art among those affluent enough to buy art, had become set in stone. Artists painted what sold. Moreover, in doing so, they had little incentive to pursue anything new and different. During this entire fifty-year period, only the importation and gradual acceptance of Impressionism stands out as a marked change in American tastes.

Joseph R. DeCamp

The Cincinnati-born painter, Joseph R. DeCamp (right) was typical of the type of artists I'm referring to. Born in 1858, he came of age near the beginning of Mark Twain's "gilded age." As with virtually all such artists of this time, early in his academic career, DeCamp "decamped" for Europe, specifically the Royal Academy in Munich (Cincinnati was heavily German at the time), then later spent time in Florence. Upon return to the U.S. DeCamp gravitated to the Boston School (below), led by Edmund C. Tarbell, where he focused on figure painting, before adopting the style of Tonalism during the 1880s. Although their styles differed somewhat, and to the trained eye, their works are distinguishable one from the other, as a group, these "Ten Men" (as they came to be called) formed the backbone of American painting during the latter half of the 19th-century. Moreover their similarities make it difficult to study this period of American art without a distinct feeling of deja-vu.

The Boston School (The Ten): Seated (left to right): Edward Simmons, Willard L. Metcalf, Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, Robert Reid. Standing (left to right): William Merritt Chase, Frank W. Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, Thomas Dewing, Joseph De Camp.
In the Studio, 1890-95,
Joseph DeCamp
If you click on the links above and look closely at the type of work each artist did during this period, you'll notice much of what they had in common, and that drew them together, especially as to content. Second only to portraits, as represented in De-Camp's offspring (below), you'll notice a tremens-dous number of landscapes, many (but not all) bearing the indelible influence of French Impres-sionism. Unfortunately, most of DeCamp's land-scapes were destroyed in a 1904 fire at his Boston studio. They painted their wives (top), and of course, competed one with the other for com-missions to depict the upper crust of New England society at the time. One item conspicuously absent in the work of "The Ten" is the presence of self-portraits. I could find only one of DeCamp (right) while many of his peers left behind only two or three. Perhaps this is due to portrait photography coming of age around the same time.

DeCamp's portrait renderings of three of his
four children are especially sensitive and loving.
In the portrait work of Joseph DeCamp I came across two quite similar but also quite different portraits. The first (below, left) that of a very dignified Steward, also titled Louis of the Porcelain, dates from 1919. The second (below, right) an equally dignified commissioned portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt dates from 1908. Despite their vastly different stations in life, DeCamp painted them as strong individuals, each comfortable within their own skin, each firmly grounded in the American sense of God-given equality.

Two of a kind--Lewis of the Porcelain (1919)
and President Theodore Roosevelt (1908)

Venice (also known as Becalmed), probably
from around 1883, Joseph R. DeCamp.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Charles Harold Davis

The Old Homestead, Charles Harold Davis
When it comes to landscape paintings, I set a pretty high bar. I think the reason for this is that over the years I've painted quite a number of them and, on the whole, never felt really challenged in doing so. As compared to portraits, genre scenes, still-lifes and most other types of painting, I find them to be "easy" art. In fact, I highly recommend them to beginning painters for that very reason. Except for the medium of watercolor, when painted under some degree of instructional supervision, it's very rare that even a first-time painter doesn't come up with something they'd proudly hang over their couch. And therein lies another reason I have minimal respect for such works--they very often (the vast majority) are "couch" paintings. Aside from the innate beauty of God's green earth, they convey little as to meaning and message. You could get far more satisfaction by simply cutting a hole in the wall and installing a window (with the added advantage of having a framed landscape that changes with the four seasons).

A Clearing, Charles Harold Davis
Charles H. Davis, 1914
I'm not saying landscapes don't have their place in art. They do; but most often as backgrounds for some more interesting item or element (they don't such things "centers of interest" for nothing). Charles Harold Davis was an American landscape painter born in 1856. He grew up in Amesbury, Massachusetts, and studied at the schools of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts before tripping off to Paris to study at the Academie Julian. From there it was just a short trek to the Barbizon Forests and his first flirtation with Impressionism. When he returned to the U.S. in 1890, Davis settled in picturesque Mystic, Connecticut. There he made a permanent shift in his style to the Impressionism, except that rather than concentrate on the landscapes of his Impressionist peers, he took up painting the varied cloudscapes overhead (above). It was for these that Davis became best-known.
Twilight over the Water, 1892, Charles H. Davis
Even though Charles Davis was American, his landscapes, perhaps owing to their Impressionist roots, seem to me more French that "New Englandish." Davis's Twilight over the Water (above), dating from 1892, seems quite reminiscent of Monet's famous Impression, Sunrise of 1872. Although Davis' cloudscapes do have a certain degree of interest, as seen in his Clouds After Storm (below), from 1900, to me they do not "carry" the painting, much like a beautifully filmed motion picture with little plot and no characters. Compare the work below to The Old Homestead (top). Both are landscapes but one has a center of interest. The other doesn't (beyond some colorful clouds).

Clouds After Storm, 1900, Charles Harold Davis,
Even with the addition of a road through the forest and some colorful (if somewhat monochromatic) fall foliage, they do little to rescue Davis' Golden October (below), from the realm of bland. Roads were intended for travel. Where's the traveler(s)? Perhaps a group of hunters, or even a forlorn cow would serve to lift this work from the mundane to the modestly interesting.

Golden October, Charles Harold Davis.
When Davis makes up his mind to do so, he is quite capable of injecting various elements of human interest into his paintings, such as seen in his A Ruined Homestead (below) from around 1915. The painting remains a landscape, but one loaded with pathos, and no doubt history and a lingering human presence despite it's deserted present. Even though the landscape is rather dull and uninteresting, Davis' dilapidated farmhouse is anything but.

A Ruined Homestead,  ca. 1915, Charles H. Davis.
One of Davis's best-known and most-beloved paintings is The Oak (below), dating from 1903. It's only when Davis steps back from what he knows and does best, moving outside the realm of what we've come to call a "safe zone," that his work becomes in any was exceptional and thus memorable. During his lifetime, Charles Harold Davis met with critical acclaim and commercial success. He was represented by several galleries, including the Macbeth Gallery in Manhattan, where he had eight solo exhibitions and a memorial retrospective. He was inducted into the National Academy of Design in 1906, and in 1913 he was a founder of the Mystic Art Association (now Mystic Arts Center). His works are in the collections of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. At the time of his death in 1933, Davis was likened to Millet and to great literary figures like Hardy and Tolstoy. Though such accolades were impressive, soon thereafter he was largely forgotten. Mundane landscapes have that effect upon artists. Some claim Davis did not promote himself enough. He is often thought of as shy and diffident. If that was the case, this same trait is evident in most of his landscapes as well.
The Oak, 1903, Charles Harold Davis
All Hallows Eve, Charles Harold Davis

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What Were They Thinking--Interiors

No matter how stunning, you know the designer has gone
too far when you can no longer tell what the room is used for.
Here in this country (the United States) we have a moral and legal concept claiming, "A man's home is his castle." It's ironic that, in Europe, where most castles originated, that's not so much the case. Here, the occupants of the castle have long had the right to defend their abode with lethal force if they feel their lives are threatened. If, on the other hand, the castle is deemed by their neighbors as simply too weird or too ugly for the neighborhood, then lethal force is a much more problematical defense. That's where zoning laws come into play, and in general, the bigger and more costly the houses in a given neighborhood, the more restrictive the rules governing virtually every aspect of their existence. In London, for instance, new zoning laws are taking effect preventing the remodeling of historic homes into "Iceberg houses" (below) in which owners go underground to construct multi-level basements housing multi-car garages, swimming pools, bowling alleys, home theaters, gymnasiums, even climbing walls. In the process, foundations of nearby homes are sometimes damaged as well as other subterranean infrastructure. Yesterday I dealt with the communal aesthetics and property value aspect of designing and building strange looking "castles." Today, we move inside.
Iceberg houses--out of sight, out of mind? Not quite.
However, once one moves inside the castle, "what will the neighbors think" bears little weight and things can get pretty...weird. Strangely enough in perusing hundreds of photos of the really...really weird, I've come to realize that weirdness is room specific. That is, the private areas, bedrooms and bathrooms tend to be the most outlandish while kitchens and especially living rooms seem quite tame. And even in these two rooms, when unusual designs present themselves, they tend to be in relatively good taste and in some cases, strangely beautiful. They're not without personality but not the type you'd find in a loony bin.
The axiom, "What will the neighbors think?" extends from
outside into the living room, the least loony room in the house.
Kitchens can sometimes become quite radical, but for the most part, when kitchens become strange is when they begin to cease looking like kitchens. The word "sleek" keeps popping up in describing them. Kitchens are natural "clutter collectors." Sleek is the natural enemy of clutter, thus more often, when kitchens take on a strangely alien appearance, it's due to a lack of the expected clutter of cooking items lacking permanent storage, or left exposed for the sake of convenience.
When a kitchen no longer looks like a kitchen.
Having presented relatively moderate strangeness as seen in kitchens and living rooms, neither are immune to the really radical "What were they thinking?" label, especially when you turn a really bored interior decorator loose with a brush, some masking tape, and a bucket of godawful bright pigments and primer. In many cases, the effect is to go so far as to lose the actual identity and purpose of the room. The rooms below seem to have been done in the style of Late Abstract Expressionism (which, despite appearances, means they're fifty years out of date).
Strange to the point of disorienting.
Bedrooms become radical when it becomes obvious that their primary design motif has absolutely nothing to do with sleep. When they take on the purpose to impress, surprise, and seduce, they can best be termed "sexy." Moreover, one of the strongest components of "sexy" is beauty. Very rarely do you find a designer bedroom which, though sexy to the point of blatant eroticism, is not also sensually beautiful. The examples below take this element to the extreme. Even though I'm getting a bit old for the seductive aspect, I could sleep quite restfully in any of them (or rest quite sleepily).

I don't know why, but I've always dreamed of having
a round bed (better still, one that would slowly rotate).
Anything I've said about sexy bedrooms goes double for bathrooms, I suppose because there's the element of nudity involved in bathing. At the same time, ninety percent of all bathroom functions do not involve bathing (and are far from sexy). It would seem that the two rooms in which designers are most likely to go overboard, indulging in luxurious decadence, if not outright bad taste, are the two most private rooms in the house. Bad taste or not, I wouldn't mind a leisurely scrub in any of the vats of warm, soapy water seen below.

We've had one of these aquatic fixtures in our bathroom now for more than twenty years. I use it for an hour or more about every day.
Stairways are an open invitation to weirdness.

The weirdest of the weird, a tribute to the
artist M.C. Escher. I'm not sure exactly
what the room is used for.


Monday, February 20, 2017

What Were They Thinking--Houses

The Conch Shell House, Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
This home was built with a mixture of recycled, found, and traditional materials.
Whoever said architects don't have a sense of humor? I don't know, maybe nobody. I only know that I would strongly disputed such a blanket criticism. Then again, maybe they're just crazy...or their clients are. In any case, perfect examples of such lunacy, whatever it's source, can literally be found all over the world. It must be a pandemic. Take the strange creation above. At first glance, it appears to be some sea creature washed ashore. Yet, it has a certain alien beauty that is all the more evident in the video at the bottom.
ICD Itke Research Pavilion, Stuttgart, Germany. Though not actually
a house, I couldn't resist using it as an example of the work of a
mad architectural "genius."
The German creation (above) also tends to remind me of a sea creature--a beached whale, having gorged itself on marine ova of some sort. Of course, the most acclaimed architects in the whole world are those commissioned by the gang at Disney. And though virtually everything the create is either retro, whimsical, or otherworldly. Disney's theme park "Toon town" domestic abodes (below), designed for each of their highly-paid "movie star" characters, have a tendency toward all three of these elements. Are the Disney architects required to be crazy? No, but it helps.

The Disney rodent residences (I'm not sure precisely what genus of creature Goofy might be), never had it so good until old Walter Elias made them box office stars.
Perhaps taking his inspiration from Disney, or maybe Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, the owner of what's come to be known by the locals as the "Spaceship House" in rural Tennessee, appears to have been his own architect and builder. Maybe he returned, having been kidnapped by aliens. Let's hope the neighbors don't mind the daily "close encounters."
The Spaceship House. Notice the out-of-context colonial street light in the front yard.
If the examples of architectural humor (above) seem strange, they also seem strangely beautiful in their own contextual element. However, that can't be claimed for what I've labeled the "just too weird" practical jokes below. When architects begin designing ships out of water and beehives with balconies simply to attract attention to themselves (and attract tourists), then what they create is no long architecture but an affront to the aesthetic sensibilities and personal lifestyles of those living nearby. We have a word for such works--eyesores.

It's no longer simply "good, clean fun" ala Disney, but
anti-social impudence.
Of course, architects must share the blame for "over-the-top" neighborhood travesties of good taste with owners--those with more dollars than sense. As artists, architects should offer their clients guidance, not squelching honest creative expression, but also not allowing themselves to become conduits and facilitators of bad taste, seemingly motivated only be their clients' urge to do little more than anger others living nearby. The domestic monsters below are prime examples of prime real estate being turned into communal liabilities.

"Oh, that's right, you live out there by the house with the stupid grin." When does Postmodern cross the line into silliness?
On a street in Sopot, Poland, stand two nearly identical buildings (below) known locally as the Crooked houses or the "cuddling" houses, depending upon how you feel about anthropomorphic architecture. They raise the question most succinctly: Should architects strive to inject an element of humor, even craziness, into their works? Should they try to "warm" them by giving them human traits. Remember, Bartholdi's Liberty Enlightening the World (the Statue of Liberty) standing on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, is actually little more than an (inspirational) sculptural, lighthouse, in effect, a "building" shaped like a woman. Though Bartholdi was no architect, in order to insure his enlightening "lighthouse" was structurally sound, he did employ a famous French engineer--Gustave Eiffel.

The Crooked (or cuddling) House,  designed by architect, Szotynscy Zaleski, Sopot, Poland.

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at some of
the outlandish interiors which architects, their clients, and interior designing
co-conspirators have created.

Here's a sneak peak. Does anyone really
need a red carpet to get into bed?