Exiting from the films at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, we hand in our ballots. Each attendee is asked to rate each movie between one and five — five being excellent and one being poor. I couldn’t help but think of a similar system for paintings in art museums. Unlike in the movie business, I have my doubts that credentialed curators would ever take down paintings that got poor ratings.
Reviewing the posted results of movie balloting, the crowd still went for “authenticity.” Whether a short, a documentary, a comedy or a theatrical drama, authenticity matters. Like paintings, you know it when you see it.
A few blocks up State Street from the Metro Theatre, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is showing early California plein air painters Edgar Payne, William Wendt, Franz Bischoff, William Keith, and others. They were among the first wave of often European-trained masters to paint the Pacific Coast. Simplified compositions, impressionistic atmospheric effects and limited tonal range marked the birth of “California Tonalism.” By the late 1930s these painters were all but thrown out of the museums. Now, they’re back in.
Authenticity in painting often means specificity. When you look at a tree painted by Edgar Payne, for example, you know you’re looking at a particular tree that he saw — one with a unique nature as well as a species that he knew and understood. Trees, mountains and rocky headlands by these guys had distinct personalities.
The generic tree, mountain or foreshore, on the other hand, was yet to be dug out of the California landscape. “Generic” means an idealized, standardized, or sometimes simplified form. It’s what a painter might have thought and felt, rather than what he saw and understood. Apart from the value of taking a shortcut in compositional control, generic work offers a kind of creative idealism where the motifs and elements become symbols rather than pictorial truth. The generic concept was to take art down the bumpy pathways of cubism, abstraction and many of the ways we now call “modern.”
For early masters, specificity was part of the celebration. With the renaissance of California plein air, the celebration is once again on track. Like in the movies, the classics tend to come back.
PS: “Art is a lifetime matter. The best any artist can do is to accumulate all the knowledge possible of art and its principles, study nature and practice continually.” (Edgar Payne, 1883-1947)
Esoterica: Historical art shows often include wonderful old photos of painting activities going on in mule-carts, Model Ts, and even on horseback. All manner of transportation was used to drag big canvases into the hinterlands and down to the rocky shores. Group photos show pointy beards outthrust beyond the inevitable jackets and ties. Despite the California glare, both the men and the high-bodiced and serious-looking women painters seem to be plenty respectable.
Value the polarity
by Nader Khaghani, Gilroy, CA, USA
Please note that there are two worlds to walk on and extract our art. There is a physical, literal and objective one, and an inner metaphoric subjective realm. Some of us painters like to address the latter. The “bumpy road” is not for all but for a few of us leading to direct entanglement with the soul to find the spiritual gold within us — and not out there in the landscape, though that is by no means excluded. Objective and subjective both are valuable in their own ways. Let’s value the “modern” and the traditional because polarity is the way of Nature — and of Humankind’s nature.
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Society of Six
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
In the description I read regarding the Santa Barbara Museum’s landscape exhibition, it speaks of the Northern California “Tonalists,” but fails to mention the truly remarkable work created by the Society of Six in the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area, circa 1917 – 1930. Several of these painters, particularly, Selden Connor Gile (1877 – 1947), smashed the rather staid constraints of French Impressionism and ushered in a completely new vision of the landscape.
Perhaps “The Six” fell outside of the SBMA’s exhibit time frame, but your readers might enjoy seeing what followed on the heels of the California Impressionist era. The story is well documented in Nancy Boas’ book, Society of Six: California Colorists. From a Statement of Principles written for an exhibition in 1923: “To us, seeing is the greatest joy of existence… We have much to express, but nothing to say. We have felt, and desire that others may also feel.”
Another side note is that Canada’s Group of Seven inspired both the name and spirit of the Society of Six.
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Originality sacrificed in specificity
by Scott Kahn, NY, USA
I have to respectfully disagree with you that authenticity often means specificity in painting. For me, authenticity has more to do with being true to oneself, to being unique and not derivative. What I find lacking in the examples you give in the clickback is originality. This is often what is sacrificed by being specific. “Pictorial truth,” something you describe as characteristically lacking in ‘generic’ painting, has a tendency to result in work which is illustrative, lacking in feeling and emotion. There is such a thing as ’emotional truth’… listen to Beethoven. There are no ‘trees’ in Beethoven. There is nothing ‘specific.’ It’s not enough to interpret and represent a tree with a ‘unique’ nature; it’s more important to interpret and convey uniquely one’s experience of that tree.
There are 6 comments for Originality sacrificed in specificity by Scott Kahn
Combining specific and generic
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Interesting observation of generic and specific objects in paintings. I never thought about this, but my thing seems to be use of specific for the main subjects and generic for other compositional areas. For example, a painting may feature a specific portrait of a twisted pine, with clumps of more generic pines in the background. I am usually inspired by specificity of something which is set inside a composition of interesting generic patterned shapes. It kind of makes sense. The more specificity, closer to hyper-realism. More generic — closer to abstraction. Accelerate or break, according to inspiration.
Also interesting observation how credible and important formally clothed people look in old photos. They were obliged to dress according to their social status because social status was more important than anything else. If you didn’t follow the rules, you could get in all kinds of trouble. Even now there are places where this is true. Aren’t we lucky to live in this lovely sloppy time and place where people of all walks of life intermingle and share life the best they can? One can easily confuse a well off owner of many vintage cars for a shady character trying to break into your car.
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Authenticity of object or self?
by Lesley Humphrey, Houston, TX, USA
What if the content switches, during an artist’s career, from external subjects to internal? From object to subject? Is the authentic portrayal of the outer object more valuable than the artist’s inner life? What, for example, should an artist do when one’s beloved passes away leaving no discernible forms for the eye to trace and enjoy further, yet leaves the artist with a yearning to express that love? Isn’t that, after all, what Edgar Payne, Tom Thomson, and the like and so many of those tremendous artists did? I put forth that the great painters manage to paint their personal response to the landscape, or person, infusing their work with an element impossible to replicate by another – thus delivering in exquisite forms, their authentic self. It’s unmistakable, and it is sensed by one’s whole body, and not just from the ‘neck up!’ It is present, whether in the work of the wonderful artists you refer to in your article, Picasso’s Guernica, or in Rothko’s Chapel.
(RG note) Thanks, Lesley. One of Canada’s well known abstract painters, Harold Town, wrote that he thought the landscape painter Tom Thomson, who died young, would have become an abstract painter had he lived longer.
There are 6 comments for Authenticity of object or self? by Lesley Humphrey
The shift of consciousness
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
I’m glad to hear that sensitive plein air painting is now “in.” For those of us who do this kind of work, other than being able to get more attention and sell some more paintings, the present “in-ness” probably doesn’t mean that much. Plein air is a slow, on-going process of observation and striving, not imposing oneself on the subject matter. I have always felt that it works best when our thoughts recede, and we merge with what we are seeing. This is a voyage of discovery, getting to know the unknown. The artist is solitary, yet is not alone. Every day is different, light is never quite the same, and a tree is not a “tree,” yet rather a unique manifestation. So with every component in the landscape and its whole. Sometimes one succeeds in “going out of his mind,” seeing in a fresh manner the miraculous of the supposedly mundane. This shift in consciousness will be felt by the sensitive viewer of the work.
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Word ‘generic’ problematic
by Ingrid Mueller, Toronto, ON, Canada
Robert, I’ve been enjoying your letters twice a week for a while and, likewise, appreciate reading the “clickback” comments. However, many of them don’t seem to address your editorial. I sensed a tone of sarcasm in this particular letter, with reference to “The generic concept was to take art down the bumpy pathways of cubism, abstraction and many of the ways we now call “modern.” Perhaps I have misinterpreted your statement, but it smacks of arrogance, suggesting that what you call generic concepts are not real art but are “shortcuts” as opposed to pictorial truth. Plein air artists are a different breed, no doubt, and in the “olden days” their art was the only way people could view the country side and other exotic parts of the world, as photography and other forms of visual/media reproduction had not yet been developed for the masses to enjoy. Although this genre of painting requires immense skill, study and practice, it often lacks imagination. Artistic license is the essence of an individual’s style. The world would be a very boring place if not for our distinctiveness. Perhaps the word generic is causing my ire. I paint, but I’m also a marketing professor, and in the business world, the word generic has a much more negative connotation, particularly when discussing art. It makes me think of the $25 reproductions available at Wal-Mart or IKEA. I am not a professional artist, but I do resent the suggestion that if a subject painted is not authentic, it must be generic. Not everything is black and white.
There are 5 comments for Word ‘generic’ problematic by Ingrid Mueller
Friends of friends
by Adele Galgut, Cape Town, South Africa
Your regular letters are meaningful and I look forward to receiving them. I have introduced a few fellow artists to this treat. Two of whom I know are now receiving the letter are Solly Gutman and Diane Johnson Ackerman. If I continue and recruit/ introduce/ sign-up another few, may I still please receive your valuable book? A Robert Genn edition would have pride of place in my studio.
Working in isolation, your letters give the 5 minute breaks (yes, 25 minutes work, 5 minutes break!) added light and wisdom. Thank you for the time and trouble you take to educate your followers.
(RG note) Thanks, Adele. We love sending the book free even to the South of Africa, Asia and Europe and the Antipodes, even though the postage costs us an arm and a leg. Our Brotherhood and Sisterhood is worldwide and growing every day. It’s an honour to have so many friends. To get a free book all you need to do is find a total of five others who might find the letters useful. Please just check with them beforehand to make sure they want it and they’re not already getting it. When you let us know that you’ve got your five, don’t forget to include your regular mailing address. Please also be patient. A book we sent to Saudi Arabia in December took two months to get there.
oil painting 19 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jeremy Dyck, who wrote, “Let’s face it Robert, not everyone who tries, and many do, can paint as well as the top guys and gals of the California School, both historically and today, so they are naturally going to try other directions.”
And also Shirah Neumann of Portland, ME, USA, who wrote, “I disagree that ‘generic means an idealized, standardized, or sometimes simplified form.’ A painter who can really delve into what is thought and felt: the complexity of the feeling at a particular moment; is quite specific.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Generic versus specific…