A Love Letter to Nature and American Art(ists)-

Once upon a time it was enough to simply look at a painting or other art, and admire and enjoy it- now I have to know more, I have to understand what is behind it, what is in the soul of its creator. The desire to go further, why I read about these writers and explorers, that through my understanding of them, the single piece of art or words they have written , discoveries, expeditions- in doing that I also explore, create, discover. I find myself many times by chance, coming upon something/one I want to learn more about, and watching the A&E special is not enough. I know that it is rather late in the game to become an “expert” on art, the various “schools” , techniques, etc- that is not my goal, nor do I have the time or that much interest- I’m not starting from a premise of “I have to learn all there is about (whatever). I’m simply starting from things I already have an affinity/instincts for, and digging deeper. In doing so , I certainly got more than I bargained for, and then some (there will be more to come on artists and ‘correctness” or lack of same).

I noticed this painting in yet another book discarded by the library the painting “Gulf Stream” (below). I was struck by the fact that many of these realistic works will fall out of the public consciousness because of libraries pulling them from their shelves because they are not “correct” enough. That is ‘revisionism” en masse. Unsure what to call it in the made-up language of correctness. “Art deniers”? Homer’s comments remind me of disclaimers I have seen in movies: No rabbits (or whatever) were harmed in the making of this film…I have long admired Homer since coming upon old Harper’s Weekly ( http://www.harpweek.com/) many years ago.

In that time, the emphasis was not upon “politically correct” but rather realism, nature. Many don’t see a connection between realism and beauty, but Homer has managed it. My digital camera seems weak compared to Homer’s eye, his brush. Some might say photos are more “real” but I am unsure of that, for the artist gives much more than “capturing images”. Technology is wonderful but has limitations without something backing it, perhaps especially so. I’ll say again ,so as not to incense those with far more art knowledge than I, that I am no art-scholar, yet I do know that in photography, one can go fairly far with technique and then after the fact, the software that lets you work with colors and shading. However, with photos the moment is usually over fairly quickly- with painting- and one assumes most painters of this era would be sitting there for hours , not simply working from a photo. I’m sure much are places conjured from their imagination, such as Cole’s “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” or Durand’s “Desolation” but much of the art of the time at least appears to be the result of constancy and familiarity -it is personal- not , as Durand says, for the “tourist”.

Though they may or may not have realized what they were doing in another context- what I was speaking about on a radio show a couple weeks back, these artists were doing what many of us do as we sit and stare out on the horizon, or trees- the communion with nature, the necessity and acknowledgment of that- how tied we are to nature, how through nature , our environs, how we find the “peace and quiet”, ( http://www.quiet.org/  ) , recover sanity, refresh ourselves. How we need not MTV , gazebos , makeovers, or BBQ grills and fashionable clothes, but how our soul hungers for this almost religious “touch” ,for lack of a better term. Perhaps our language does not have a word for what I am trying to describe. I only know it is there. To place art upon ones wall,(or simply appreciate it, or create it) is not really about the decoration, but about recognition. A place that is outside us, and in at once. A kind of synchronicity of sorts or symbiotic relationship. The two things, art and nature, so closely intertwined- without the sense of the real, the art becomes false- the reverse can be true- the work is missing something, cries out for the artist’s touch to bring it to life.

Homer was a self-taught artist, one could say he had “no master” , though his mother was also a painter . He also turned down a job on the Harper’s staff , though many of his wood engravings were featured within. It is written his philosophy was that he was not very interested in having a trademark or particular style as much as he was in the final result or the effectiveness of what he was trying to get across. He agreed with Hudson River School (yes, the very same Catskills) that skill should be used not to impress the viewer with an artist’s virtuosity or temperament, but more that the means should fall away , and only the ends are perceived. It is also said he was “indifferent” to the “Old Masters” in a time when the US was obsessed with Euro-art, that was presumed the “real art”, but there was also the thinking that the American artists were doing something just as valid and real, if not as fancy or dramatic as Europe.

The Europhiles tended to turn up their nose at this, theirs were the “real art”, the highly stylized and easily recognizable. the other side of this were artists like Homer , Thomas Cole, and Asher B. Durand, who believed God manifested in things as they were- and did not seek to tamper with nature and believed the artist did not seek “servile imitation” Durand was irritated with what he must have seen as overblown or ‘gaudy’ representations of either historical figures, or as far as landscapes- the fixation on nostalgia for ancient ruins , historic reconstructions, the obsession with the indoors rather than nature, and even that “accessorized”. He called such “studied artificiality and imbecile attempts better suited to the tourist and the historian”. In other words, he may as well have been calling it “mall- schlock” . Because I am not altogether familiar with the art world, I find it hard to see the context, can only glean the overall concept of what these American artists were saying, at least this particular group. Durand’s criticisms made me think of those mall painting stores , which sell either knockoffs of actual works or near exact imitations , seen by the mall goer as a ‘step up’ from the framed prints store.

While it is true I also admire some of what Durand might today call “schlock”, though I am unclear what exactly he would say was an example of such. Would he have contempt for this? While I am not religious per se, one does not need to be able to see what is already there. The spirit of the thing can be told.

hand of Adam and God, Vatican

One could describe this to a blind man and he would know what it means, and the context of who , when and where it was created. One could even liken it to what I said earlier about art and nature, how one ‘breathes life” into the other, how we need a sense of the beautiful and the sacred- that which is created by us, and that which is bigger than us, yet makes us each i”more” when combined, and how we suffer when this is missing from our lives.

I don’t see how the two worlds that stirred such controversy at the time need be polarized completely- the Old World and New- USA and Europe. I do admire the spirit of these early American artists to have something of their own, especially for something that wasn’t simply a rip-off of someone else’s gig and to a degree I share in some of their sentiments though I say this still having an appreciation for what the criticize. It highlights the differences between who are generally the same ‘peoples’ , but how the early Americans were different on some level than their European predecessors. The respect and appreciation for rugged nature and simplicity over lace collars and dancing cherubs. Finding the beauty in life “as is” rather than the continual worship of the ideal, the ‘fairy tale’.

One might even be so incorrect as to say the Euro style of art (as compared to this group) is more “feminine” , concerned more with posed portraits, indoor life, a sense of the “comfortable”. It seems the further east one goes (in style or subject) , the truer this is. It is too bad that the Euro-style has been , as is the modern-day “American” way, overdone to the point I tend to associate it with the Liberace-esque , hair salon decor accompanied by boys who flutter with scissors. I used to know someone who bragged of owning a “real Kinkade” (you know, the soft focussy paintings of lighthouses ,colors that are reminiscent of romance novel book covers- the knock offs and mini-statues that are sold in TV Guide inserts by royal-sounding companies) and contrast that to the work of Homer, they are in different worlds. One the value lies in the sense of the real, the other the sense of the unreal. The real however , is rooted in personal experience, a life lived, the other- fantasy, dreams. In a world of McMansions, marble butter-holders, of utter waste, greed, pretentious hipster displays juxtaposed with endless war and despair, I realize I love these “cranky old salts” for their innovative spirit , respect for independence and freedom, that went much deeper than the actual “Constitution” , it was part of their innate constitution.

I just love this comment of his, which is nastily “correct” (for its time, hence the word “Negro” which  has fallen out of favor),  but in those days it is hard to imagine would have had to come up with something like that.  It just seems out of place in several ways, the time period, the idea of artists (or ‘artsy’ type people) being “liberals”,  which makes it all the more appealing. This idea of mine is surely solipsism and inaccurate, consider Samuel Morse,  another artist , who  at some point lost his inspiration to paint, and went on to invent the telegraph!   He said about slavery:

My creed on the subject of slavery is short. Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom. The mere holding of slaves, therefore, is a condition having per se nothing of moral character in it, any more than the being a parent, or employer, or ruler. (Morse)

-letter to his dealer on the painting Gulf Stream
The criticisms… by old women and others are noted. You may inform these people that the Negro did not starve to death. He was not eaten by the sharks. The waterspout did not hit him. And he was rescued by a passing ship. (Winslow Homer)

http://quote.robertgenn.com/auth_search.php?authid=393  that quote and others

a larger version of the painting can be seen here:

http://img174.imageshack.us/img174/786/winslowhomer004dz0.jpg 

Gulf Stream, Winslow Homer

gulf stream

Other works by Homer, Cole, Durand:

Study from nature -Durand

Cole -expulsion from the garden of eden

Watermelon

Cole Desolation

Ocean

Couldnt find title

Gale

life lines

Look out -Homer

summer squall

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