The Grimshaw Formula Works for Me

English painter John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893) had a good thing going in his landscape themes (urban, suburban, dockside, moorland; London and West Yorkshire) and comfortingly reliable set of items for subject: the winding road, the lone human being making a way down it, gloaming coming on.  He cranked out quite a few of these, apparently, and every time I discover one I am, you might say, ensorcelled. Who could fail to be caught? Who hasn’t at some time journeyed alone to an uncertain future, with no particular welcoming place to be seen on either hand?

Autumn Evening, above, is sometimes called Autumn Evening at Ritson. The only “Ritson” I can find is a Ritson Road in London. Grimshaw freely recombobulated setting, buildings, walls, and other structures to show what he imagined in the kinds of light that he obviously found fascinating.  So who knows exactly where this is?  It is likely no exact place, so we go along for the walk or the ride, to enjoy the light and the aesthetic harmony of all the man-made objects.

Late October, above, is available at Sotheby’s for anybody who wants to buy me a Christmas present.  Oops, never mind; it has been sold.  But we can still read the catalogue note:

“John Atkinson Grimshaw painted a series of views of suburban streets in London and Yorkshire from the 1870s onwards and in the 1880s he painted some of his most beautiful pictures of this subject. The pictures of a solitary female figure, a maid dressed in a cap and shawl and carrying a basket of provisions or laundry, making her way down a leaf and puddle strewn road, are the most emotive and typical of the artist, who was unrivalled in his depiction of the evening gloaming and the dawning morn. . .

Late October depicts an unidentified view and is probably an amalgam of views in North Yorkshire, rather than a specific identifiable location. As Alexander Robinson states, ‘Just as myth and legend were to be plundered for subjects, so actual and historical houses could be put together to form an archetypical mansion’.”

In November Moonlight, Apollo is putting his chariot in the garage; Artemis is taking over the controls of the world. Her silver light makes those moon shadows, while firelight from cozy rooms indoors rivals hers.  Have we an invitation to that house?

Above is Moonlight Wharfdale. At first all I can think of is Jane Eyre, wandering around Yorkshire moors, against my advice, with no money and no plan.  No person in village or farmstead giving her work or assistance, after intercepting a pig’s second breakfast she abandons civilization altogether to scrabble around on the moorland.  Cold, wet, famished, and losing it, she sees a small light in the darkness:

“My eye still roved over the sullen swell and along the moor-edge, vanishing amidst the wildest scenery, when at one dim point, far in among the marshes and the ridges, a light sprang up.  ‘That is an ignis fatuus’ was my first thought; and I expected it would soon vanish.  It burnt on, however, quite steadily, neither receding nor advancing. . . ‘It may be a candle in a house’ . . . “

But never mind Jane as she goes to peep in the window; just look at that moon and her light!  Whistler said of Grimshaw:

“I considered myself the inventor of nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures.”

And, yikes, what are those dark things appearing to whirl around the moon’s disk? Hypotheses:

1.  Grimshaw had cataracts, and is here projecting, or perhaps issuing a cry for medical help;

2.  There really are witches, and they hang out in the north of England or Scotland a lot, loving it on those evenings when they can mount broomsticks and whirl around the moonlight;

3.  There really are clouds like that sometimes. Anybody know what they are called?

Many thanks to the people at the Art Renewal Center in New Jersey, for promoting realism in painting.  To do that is to preserve our culture and save individual sanity, objectives of real import in comparison with provision of this opportunity for piffle.


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Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Two hundred years ago, halfway around the planet from where I sit, Constable painted someone fishing, or perhaps just messing around, in some little English stream I shall never see.  “Tree Trunks” is the name it goes by, and the trunks are all right, as are the shadows and sun on the grassy bank.  What touch me most are the browned leaves of autumn and the shimmering gold light created by those increasingly slanting sunbeams.

This is what we have now; we have it every year; amazing.  Further, after the last couple of weeks we deserve it more than ever.

To go with that, here is John Keats:  Ode to Autumn.

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring?  Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

 

No more have we thatched roofs, thankfully, and no more standing there winnowing grain for hours by throwing basket after basket after basket – full up into the air so that the chaff can blow away.  Nor do we dose our babies with poppy juice, as my ancestors did, and lay them to snooze at the edge of the field while we go out to bend down and reap, hours by hours.

Aside from those things, Keats details all the loveliness still to be enjoyed in autumn. Our season is prolonged this year.  How goes it with you all? Have you a favorite painting or poem for autumn?


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Art Karma

Look, I almost feel sorry for the Obamas – almost.  To be memorialized for posterity by these paintings in the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery –

is almost too karmic.  They are underwhelming to say the least.

The former Prez and First Lady got to choose who painted their portraits – Kehinde Wiley painted Barack, and Michelle was painted by Amy Sherald, with whom the former First Lady said she felt ‘a sister-girl’ connection immediately at their first interview. Both artists are noted for the social justice themes in their artwork. This is what happens when identity politics outranks merit, and in a way it is an utterly appropriate outcome for these two.

The President’s is a good likeness, and the rest of the painting is typical of this artist’s wallpaper-like backgrounds. Not my favorite style of painting by a long shot, but it seems well-executed, though oddly posed. Michelle does not fair as well – I don’t think it looks like her, and many are commenting the same online. The artist typically uses gray tones to paint people of color for some reason – you’d probably have to read her CV to find out why – and indeed uses washed-out colors for the whole painting, giving it a look my college painting professor would have called ‘necrotic.’

                                                                                                                                                              I think they really did keep the paintings hidden until their unveiling.  And I do give Michelle credit for having the grace not to use any actual words that connoted the shock, disappointment and confusion apparent in her tone as she grasped for something to say after the unveiling.

If you can wait past the brief ad before the video in the link below, it’s worth watching Mrs. Obama for once being almost speechless.

Michelle Obama Unveiled Her Official Portrait – The Audience Reaction Says It All

 

 


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TOTD 1.15.18 Good Art/Bad Art

One of my favorite scenes from the tv show The Office was when Pam’s old boyfriend Roy struggles to compliment her paintings in a group art exhibit. He stammers sincerely, “Your art – is the best art – of all the art.”

I was tempted to do a solid rant about some bad art I’d encountered recently, until I remembered I’d seen some undeniably good art this past week as well. So we’ll end this post on a high note.

BUT FIRST THE BAD ART.  Have you ever heard of Basquiat? He was a NYC graffiti maker in the 1970s and 80s whose alleged artwork excoriated the privileged classes while simultaneously draining large sums of cash from the pockets of the art collectors among them.  He was discovered and assigned fame by Andy Warhol, feted by elite art critics and even was Madonna’s boyfriend for a time; but a heroin overdose caused his death at age 27. Below is one of his ‘paintings,’ which sold for over $5 million at auction in 2002.

Profit I, Basquiat

Basquiat was also a proto-BLM advocate, who found it ironic that any black man could be a policeman since cops only enforce the laws that ‘enslave black people.’ But some in today’s haut monde were not satisfied that this blot on art history should stay in tony places, suckering only rich people who want to sully large swaths of white wallspace in their NYC lofts.  No, they had to publish a book last year – a children’s picture book – glorifying him, titled Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I’ve never seen an anti-children’s book before, but that sums up Radiant Child for me: unattractive artwork, dull writing, bad message. The author-illustrator, Javaka Steptoe, couldn’t use direct copies of Basquiat’s work in his illustrations, much of which would be too disturbing for children, so he sought the feeling of it by using a very primitive art style, which excels in no standards of composition, color harmony or gesture I’ve come across.

Illustration by Javaka Steptoe
Illustration by Javaka Steptoe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I once read, to judge artistic skill say to yourself: can I picture how this piece would look if it were executed poorly?

 

 

Illustration by Javaka Steptoe

Steptoe painted the art on found boards, which is why there are awkward, confusing concurrences of lines in the images. The text is clunky, the colors are straight out of the tube, the composition is cluttered, there are conflicting focal points.  Not unlike Basquiat’s own work, I admit, but is this what we should accept as publication-worthy?

To top things off, for this notably unappealing work Steptoe was awarded the premier prize for children’s illustration in 2017 – the Caldecott Medal, given to ‘the most distinguished American picture book of the year for children.’

So the progressives have evidently commandeered the American Library Association, who in the past have given awards like the Caldecott to excellent artists like David Weisner, E.B. Lewis and Beth Krommes. The art in Radiant Child isn’t worthy of this recognition, and neither is the uninspiring writing – the story openly highlights Basquiat’s desire to become ‘a famous artist’ simply for celebrity’s sake, a terrible value to hold up for children.

ON TO SOME GOOD ART. Have you heard of Lilias Trotter? I had not, until a friend loaned me a book about her work and an exquisitely done documentary of her life, Many Beautiful Things.

Illustration by Lilias Trotter

Trotter grew up in an upper-class family in late 19th c. England, was quite religious, and a self-taught artist. While still young she met John Ruskin, the foremost arbiter of the arts in the Victorian era, who deemed her talent prodigious and became her teacher and life-long friend.

Trotter loved and dwelt on nature so she could paint it in all its lyrical, elegant detail. She drew and painted in dozens of sketchbooks and often entwined Biblical quotes with the images. She saw God’s handiwork in every tendril of nature.

Illustrations by Lilias Trotter
Illustration by Lilias Trotter

Ruskin mentored her in art for a time but she felt drawn more and more to help the poor in London, and she joined an organization that ministered to homeless women and prostitutes.  Several years later she became a missionary in Algiers, and spent most of the last forty years of her life teaching Christianity and helping desperately poor and outcast women and children of Algeria. She filled more sketchbooks with the scenes and people that surrounded her.

Illustration by Lilias Trotter

Hers are among the best sketches I have ever seen – simple strokes; fresh, unlabored color; the uniqueness of each human pose and gesture, captured with unhurried purity, as if in one glance.

Ruskin had told her she could be among the great painters of her time if she stayed in Europe and continued her study. Lilias Trotter could have been – a celebrity. Instead she devoted much of her life to helping people, and kept her sketch diaries to record the beauty she saw.

In my research about Lilias I find there was a children’s book published about her in 2015 – Lily, the Girl who Could See.  I have not read it yet but I have ordered it. I’d like to show my grandchildren a story about a really good artist.

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