Is big, vacuous work giving way to a more personal, intimate and authentic art?
By themaclean, Nov 9 2016 05:02PM
In spite of its size, Duchamp's (or was it Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s?) “Fountain” which measures a mere 61 cm x 36 cm x 48 cm, has had a profound effect on art for almost 100 years.
It is doubtful that many of today’s bombastic, large-scale paintings and sculptures will have much of an effect on the art of the future.
Instead, will they end up like Bouguereau and Meissonier work in 100 years to come? In 1890 William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier were the darlings of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. They were the then superstars of the art world. Their large-scale work sold for vast sums to eager collectors throughout Europe and the USA.
And yet who remembers them today?
By comparison, most people remember the artists and the movement that Bouguereau loathed. As a leading member of the establishment, he did everything he could to exclude the Impressionists and their work from the salons.
Van Gogh dismissed him as a painter of “soft, pretty things” and Degas referred disparagingly to his highly-finished paintings as “Bouguerated.”
In 1926, American art historian Frank Jewett Mather wrote. “I am convinced that the nude of Bouguereau was prearranged to meet the ideals of a New York stockbroker…”
The phrase sounds familiar in today’s art market. Jeff Koons, who was formerly a commodity broker, meets not so much the ideals, as they don’t have any, but the visceral needs of current stockbrokers with his huge, shiny, meaningless, gaudy baubles.
There’s nothing wrong with big work – if it’s appropriate to the subject, meaning, or location such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, or Turner’s sublime (in the original sense of the word) paintings.
However, all to often it’s a prop for a weak, or vacuous idea. Make it bigger then they can’t help but notice it. Make it bigger and it has to be important. Make it bigger and has to be rich in meaning. Make it bigger and it has to be beautiful. Make it bigger and it has to be more valuable.
Seth Godin said that if you want to be famous you should do something remarkable and cited the example of Jeff Koons’s 30 foot high plant dog. Yes, it stood out because of its size, however, ultimately, iike Hirst’s huge, Hirstorectomy sculpture in Ilfracombe, it said nothing of any worth.
He who pays the piper, calls the tune (and determines the size).
It appears that the history of art is as much that of the patron, as of the artist. For many centuries, the patron, not the artist, determined everything from the subject matter, price and size, to the materials and location of the painting or sculpture.
There are many examples in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome where the powerful have paid for symbols power, such as Trajan’s column in Rome which, completed in 113 AD, stands 38 meters high and commemorates the emperor’s victory in the Dacian Wars.
Between1400 and 1600, art was financed primarily by the Christian Church but also by secular rulers such as the Medici and Gonzaga families in Italy. So, most paintings and sculptures were large.
Michelangelo’s paintings on the Sistine Chapel cover 12,000 sq ft 1,110 sq m. They were commissioned not only to instruct, but to overawe the masses and to demonstrate the power of the church.
The Medicis and other rulers around the world were not above demonstrating their temporal power too, through their buildings, monuments and portraits.
Back to personal, more intimate art in the reformation.
However, with the advent of the Protestant Reformation large-scale sculpture and paintings were seen as idolatrous and many in Northern Europe were destroyed. Because they were smaller and more private, book illustrations and prints were deemed acceptable
Between 1650 and 1750, the European art market changed from being large-scale public art aimed at the masses, to personal, more intimate paintings, such as portraits and genre scenes for the new wealthy middle class merchants.
Protestant artists such as Jan Vermeer avoided large spectacular works and focussed instead on small-scale oil paintings of everyday scenes, with Christian or moral messages.
Back to big with the rise of empires.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the reintroduction of big art again with the rise of new European empires.
It also saw the rise of a new type of building for the masses. Public museums took over the role that had been played by churches.
It also saw the rise of academies such as the Royal Academy in Britain and French Academy and salons in France.
By the mid 19th century, the Industrial revolution in Britain saw the rise of a new rich middle class who weren’t interested in the classics but favoured more contemporary work.
They made up for their lack of knowledge of art by buying the biggest, most lifelike, sentimental work with pompous, bombastic titles.
In France the Realists and Impressionists challenged the status quo with their smaller, more intimate works. Many came to Britain during the Franco-Prussian War and influenced British art.
After WW1, artists were angry and disillusioned. They, like the Baby-Boomers to come, questioned everything.
Big was irrelevant.
After WW2, we saw the collapse of those political empires, but the rise of a new phenomenon that was even more powerful and insidious – Globalisation. Fabulously rich International companies with their billionaire owners are the new Medicis.
Like their Victorian counterparts, many lack and knowledge of art and have advisers, curators, agent If only they spent more time researching art, rather than their share performance.
As Arch flipper, Stefan Simchowitz said, “The art world has become the new movie business — it's the new cool ... the de-facto definer of social hierarchy in Los Angeles."
It’s not just confined to Los Angeles baby.Look at all that OligArt.
Writing an article entitled, “How Small-Scale Paintings Became the Art World’s Big New Trend” in Vogue Magazine August 29, 2016, Dodie Kazanjian, began, “A quiet revolution in painting is seeing artists reject large-scale, bombastic installations in favor of intimate subjects and techniques.”
She cited a number of recent examples of this new development, beginning with “Intimisms”, a large group show at James Cohan’s Chelsea space in New York. Reported in Artlyst, the show featured a mix of work by 20th century Intimists, such as Vuillard and Bonnard together with that of new and emerging artists including Hope Gangloff and Bejamin Degen.
Kazanjian quoted Sir Nicholas Serota on the subject. He said, “It doesn’t surprise me at all that people are sitting in studios making intimate, confessional, personal art at this moment.”
Having spent the past 28 years promoting big, vacuous art his comments are a little surprising. Perhaps he too has tired of the excesses of “Big Stadium Art” at the Tate and wants to get down and dirty with some pure, stripped down, no bullshit art."
Copyright iain Maclean 2019. All rights reserved