Immortality

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Dear Artist,

The great art salesman Joseph Duveen used to tell his customers that buying art would give them immortality. Henry Frick, William Randolph Hearst, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller and others did indeed achieve immortality through the public museums they endowed to house the art he sold them.

Duveen’s success was famously attributed to his noticing that “Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money.”

Often criticized for his profiteering and hucksterism, he was not always truthful about a work’s condition or even its authenticity — but what does it matter when you’re selling eternal life?

More than anything, Joseph Duveen gave unexpected immortality to some little-known Renaissance artists — in some cases their art is all we really know of them.

Recently a woman told me that the current widespread popularity of painting is partly due to the diminishing belief in the possibility of an afterlife. “I’ll only live on through my art,” she said, referring to her worldwide trail of paintings.

If, as John Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” then the effort seems a reasonable one. God help me if I’m leaving a trail of substandard or ugly. But that’s another issue.

What is of issue is that art often languishes for several generations before it becomes once again of interest. That’s why it’s so important to use permanent supports and enduring materials in art which depicts our times and current sentiments. “Art,” said Marshall McLuhan, “is a rear vision mirror.” By this he meant that we have to get past something to see it properly. Note the current enthusiasm for “belle epoch” portraits loaded with period clues and costume drama.

As artists, our obligation is to work to the best of our ability and to leave only our top stuff behind. When you’re getting ready to go to the big studio in the sky, make sure you first shred your sins. You really don’t want those baddies lying around. You never know how much forgiveness there’s going to be up there. And the Duveens of tomorrow will be looking once again for quality.

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Duveen’s portrait was painted at least three times by his good friend the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury
(1862-1947)

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “When you pay high for the priceless, you’re getting it cheap.” (Joseph Duveen, 1869-1939)

Esoterica: There are two excellent biographies: Duveen
by S.N. Behrman (1952) and A Life in Art by Meryle Secrest (2004). The second is a lot of fun and of particular interest to artists. Duveen was a shrewd tactician with a great understanding of human nature. Flattery and intimidation were not beyond him. Knighted in 1919, becoming a Baronet in 1927, he was not above suggesting that owning art would improve one’s social status. Always alert to a possible score, Duveen ferreted out forgotten works through the time-honoured device of payola — he relied on the butlers and maids of England and Continental Europe to lead him to the good stuff that might be flipped across the pond.

Pieces for future archaeologists
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada

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Untitled
sculpture by Mike Young

Working in stone does give us sculptors the edge in the immortality stakes – for good or bad. I have speculated on how a work of mine dug up by an advanced, or returned to primitive, civilization, say 4000 years hence, will view their abstract “find.” A fertility symbol? A Shaman’s altar piece? Part of a larger, lost mechanism? Who was the artist, and why did he make it? The list of speculative possibilities goes on and on. Few sales, but such fun. Hey, maybe I’ll throw a few assorted pieces into a bog somewhere as a post-post modern installation for the ages.

Huckster to huckster
by Teresa Hitch, Saltspring Island, BC, Canada

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“Kelp forest”
mixed media by Teresa Hitch

Joseph Duveen not only helped his some of his clients achieve levels of immortality, but he, with his ability to reach into the depths of men’s fears, many of whom were exceptional profiteers and hucksters themselves, was able to be the ultimate huckster and profiteer. Understanding human nature is a valuable asset in art dealing. To be able to motivate people to do things they ordinarily would not do, is what keeps our capitalist system continuing.

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to visit the Getty Museum, a spectacular monument of immortality, as well as an opulent and generous gift to the public that appears to be timeless. (Getty, also, was a client of Duveen.) The overall experience of visiting the museum, high on top of two mountains, was beyond worldly. If J. Paul Getty is looking down, he must be very pleased.



There is 1 comment for Huckster to huckster by Teresa Hitch

From: Mary Ann Nusbaum — Jul 31, 2011

That Getty museum is what a building would look like if money were no object. It is truly amazing.

Imprint of the Universe
by Alev Guvenir, Istanbul, Turkey

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“Metamorphosis”
digital painting by Alev Guvenir

An artist communicates through vibrant energy. This energy is an imprint in Universe. Art definitely is immortal. The artist? No doubt, whether famous or unknown, the artist is immortal in his/her work. “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” ( Richard Bach)

A ship of fools
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA

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“Rolling plains”
print by Peter Brown

As for “immortality,” there is no such thing. At best, one can leave a message, some bit of communication that may have an incredible endurance. The Chauvet Caves in France seem to hold the record for human communication across 35,000 years. The secret of that longevity is that the cave opening collapsed, and no one saw that communication for thousands of years. For any artist seeking “immortality,” I would suggest sculpture in granite that is buried deeply under a concrete slab and far away from a subduction zone.

My interest in traditional art media is that it has proved trustworthy over hundreds of years. That is enough “immortality” for me. I enjoy the simple fact that I can spend a few hours with my oil paints, on any given day, and perhaps I may communicate with people way on down the road in time. I never make art that needs to be plugged in. I never paint on canvas. I am thinking about making my own cave, painting it, and having it sealed up and hidden. My plight? I am 60 years old and I have not lived for one day when the world was at peace. When I paint my cave, I think my primary metaphor will be, “The Ship of Fools.” For indeed, this fabulous blue planet is a ship, and we humans are pretty much fools.

Fallibly human
by Jean Burman, Australia

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“Time was”
watercolour by Jean Burman

A few years ago some of Renoir’s “studies for larger works” found their way into an exhibition that came to our shores from the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. In one, the ear was clearly misplaced, and I wondered at the time how he might have felt that such a glaring mistake was perpetuating itself long after he had gone… in a work that he had probably never intended to exhibit in the first place. Needless to say I went straight home and lit a rather large bonfire (grin). But then I thought about it… and realized that the mistake made the man all the more human… his standard all the more attainable to mere mortals like me (if I would only work hard and take enough risks). In many ways it’s not “what you do” but “who you are” that will be remembered. Fallibly human and trying hard works for me.



There is 1 comment for Fallibly human by Jean Burman

From: C.elaine — Jul 28, 2011

And I feel…that is how The Greatest Creator of all thinks as well. To think of all those remembered and recognized within their human frailites and imperfections biblically is to appreciate …The way God sees is not as humans sees. The heart value of what and why we do what we do belongs only to him. Though all value passed on through art or other gifts in honour of what is True W I L L be blessed, towards all which stands E T E R N A L.

We create to feel alive
by Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA

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“Prairie”
original painting by Diane Voyentzie

I’m writing you from Seville, Spain. It seems to me just the opposite… we, as humans, may finally be realizing that we are made in the image of God — God, being the great creator. We also must create to feel alive. Whether it is painting, sculpture, writing, dance, architecture, poetry, drawing, raising a family, language, cooking, sports, these are all right-brain activities that enhance our lives. I am more in touch with my spiritual side when viewing, or engaged in, the creative processes of life. What I worry about is the obsession with the virtual life that the young are so addicted to. Walking in the beautiful Plaza de Espana, I see many young people with their heads in their iPods. I wonder what Velasquez would think.



There is 1 comment for We create to feel alive by Diane Voyentzie

From: Peter Brown — Jul 28, 2011

The kids and their IPods break my heart. Teaching in a high school, I see this. It is terribly sad. At home, on an acre with lots of edible plants and big trees, I have my grandson and his friends. They love to ramble, and to eat whatever is ripe. The rule around this place, for kids, is: No TV. No sugar. The other day, I was talking with my four year-old. He saw the dog eating grass. He suggested to me that our dog must be an omnivore because she was eating grass which is a vegetable. This grew into a conversation about carnivores, omnivores, vegetarians and vegans. I can hardly believe that I can have this conversation with a four year-old.

Pride taken in early work
by Ruth J. Kary, Detroit Lakes, MN, USA

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“Flower’s nectar”
original photograph
by Ruth J. Kary

Sometimes I believe as artists we can be overcritical of our own artwork. I know for myself that I am continuing to improve as a painter and as a photographer, which is my first love. When I’m painting, I always try to paint to the best of my abilities. As such, my earlier paintings cannot be compared to my most recent paintings because of my improving techniques and capabilities and finding my own style.

However, I’m still proud of my earlier paintings, because they were the best I could do at the time. Looking at them only reinforces my determination to continue painting and to continue to improve and learn something new every day, both with photography and painting.

I feel like we should be proud of those earlier paintings and celebrate the fact that we all continue to do what we love and embrace our continued improvement and love of our artwork to share with those who appreciate it.



There is 1 comment for Pride taken in early work by Ruth J. Kary

From: Sarah — Jul 30, 2011

Love your comment about being proud of your earlier paintings because they were the best you could do at the time. Yes!

Cat-damaged painting lives on
by Louise Francke, NC, USA

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“Crossover”
original painting
by Louise Francke

As the years roll by, my inventory increases. I have become ruthless once a year when I do my annual purge. Works on paper do not do well in the southlands, so the ones with any sort of mold get scrapped first. Then it’s the panels which haven’t sold. If I feel the work is worth keeping, I remove it from the stretchers and roll with the painting facing out. The unworthy ones are either scraped or painted over. Sometimes I will however give them as a gift to someone who really doesn’t have the money for a purchase and yet appreciates my humor. So, that particular painting lives on. Recently one surfaced, which was given but for a different reason. A cat had used it as its peeing post while it was awaiting pickup in NYC. (I didn’t have the heart to cut it up!) Somehow it came up in an estate sale. The new owners, a young couple with ties to Haiti, loved the piece but knew it had some physical problems and wanted to know the painting’s history. They contacted me. Knowing that the oil painting was in a home for the sizable future, I offered to restore the places which had been damaged. The stench of cat was gone but it had done its work on the oil paint (through the original packing materials). I wound up repainting a larger part of the painting than intended. They were extremely happy and have taken her away to their new home up north.

Art collectors
by Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, BC, Canada

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“John’s Sentinels, Coming Home”
acrylic painting by Stewart Turcotte

I wanted to add a comment to your letter on immortality. As a gallery owner and dealer I disagree with Joseph Duveen in that I don’t believe that art need be sold so that every collector of art can attain immortality. Immortality is our highest award and can only be attained by those who excel to the highest tier in any category, including collecting art. Immortality as achieved by an art buyer can only be guaranteed if they surpass a certain bar, meaning they must collect to the level where the art collection is actually named as a national treasure and their name is attached to the collection for having amassed that unique and valuable collection. In Canada, the Thompson Collection at the AGO and the most well known of all, the McMichael collection, fall into that category. To gain the immortality their collection must be made accessible to the public in situ or they must give their collection to a public institution where it can be housed for all can see. Robert and Signe McMichael collected the best of Canadian art for years before turning over their entire collection and the home it was displayed in, to the government of Ontario, with the proviso that Ontario maintain and add to the collection and the estate, and keep it accessible to Canadians, in fact the world, for all time. Ken Thompson donated his huge collection, featuring some of the best paintings ever done by Canadians, to the Art Gallery of Ontario along with funds to build an addition to the gallery to house it. For their forward thinking and insight they have been given a degree of immortality, due to the fact that the collections will carry their names for all time.

Every collector can, though, collect something that is part of the continuum that is art and be able to say without stretching the truth the slightest that there is an element of immortality in what they have collected. Art is like a small river that started long ago with a few brave souls with something to say different from their peers. That urge made them scratch something onto the walls of caves in Lascaux or carve a stone into a small female figure named Venus similar to the one found near Willendorf in Germany; that famous sculpture may be the oldest piece of portable art ever done. As each artist since has learned from those who preceded them and then passed on their techniques and knowledge to those that followed until that river has become a huge torrent of art that spans all of the media and gives voice and the freedom of expression to millions now and on into the future until our sun goes nova. The contributions by those artists have given them a degree of immortality because their works and names will be remembered for all time.

The true opportunity of purchasing art, then, is not to gain a degree of immortality but to put collectors into direct contact with the classic artworks that have been painted, sculpted, written or spoken by the artists that will be remembered for all time, those who, in our recognition, have become immortal. When you purchase a piece of art by even the most naive of artists, they have been influenced by the immortals to some degree through their mentors and so it is like taking a dipper of water from the river of art and taking it home to feel the impact on you in your own cave. Everyone’s connection to art is personal but moving none the less, and this feeling is the connection to the immortality of the artists to whom we have recognized. We all want immortality but it is very hard to achieve and it is something that is achieved only after we are gone and so we will never know if we achieved it.



There are 2 comments for Art collectors by Stewart Turcotte

From: C.elaine — Jul 28, 2011

Your statement, “obtaining a degree of Imortality” is interesting and well thought out. Really being realitive towards the T R U T H in life beyound our control… yet within our control.

From: Jackie Knott — Jul 29, 2011

Your comments are almost poetic … I don’t know if average collectors who buy a half dozen paintings to grace the walls of their home feel that deeply about what they have collected or even if immortality was their goal. It is also noteworthy great collections almost always are born of great wealth.

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Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Immortality

 

 

From: Brigitte Nowak — Jul 26, 2011

Thank you for your note on Joseph Duveen and the thoughts on immortality. As a painter, I feel that my work is improving, primarily through regular practice, astute observation, and a developing understanding of the world and my place in it. And I guess that is the question: the work I was doing five years ago (or ten, or whatever) was the best work I could do, then. I was proud of it, and it reflected what I had learned up to that point, and some of it went out into the world and paid for more paint and brushes and fostered more observation. I’d like to think that I am continuing to improve. But as a working painter, some of that work of five years ago, I now feel is substandard to what I am doing today (and some, with the benefit of hindsight, holds up quite nicely). How do you – how does one – decide what passes inspection? Let’s face it, there have always been more people painting than have achieved immortality. Most of us will not be discovered by the Duveens of tomorrow. Perhaps the difference between the Rembrandts and the rest of us is that they produced more zingers, more jaw-droppingly beautiful work. Or, could it be, that the work of some of the artists of the past that we know and revere today has only survived because some huckster decided he could make a buck by telling another huckster that it was good.

From: Toni Pentalicon — Jul 26, 2011

Many of the world’s religions offer some sort of an afterlife. The idea of somewhere better after we die seems to be built into our nature. Most of these “heavenly places” offer an abundance that may not be available in the religious person’s current situation. Believers suffering from starvation, for example, tend to define heaven as a place where there’s lots of food. One of the main reasons that many western religions are currently playing down the idea of an afterlife is because of the unfortunate example of some within the Muslim faith. When a fanciful vision of an afterlife is painted as being a bit too wonderful, and adherents are willing to take their own lives and those of innocent others in order to get there, then society at large is in danger. Temporal immortality would seem to be the better choice.

From: George Garnett — Jul 26, 2011
From: Norman Block — Jul 26, 2011

Extraterrestrial heavens are an ultimate human exclusivist conceit and are the vestiges of medievalism. Better to think about what can be accomplished for humanity’s betterment in the here and now. We artists are in a prime position to do this.

From: Nancy L Jonas — Jul 26, 2011

Was that “shred your sins,” or “shed your skins”?

From: Angela Hughes — Jul 26, 2011

The woman you mentioned who will live on through her art without some sort of special dispensation from above is brave indeed. We need more of these unselfish people

From: Dick W. Choi — Jul 26, 2011

So true. If “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” we need only concentrate on making things of beauty. Oh, and be nice to others.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Jul 26, 2011

I disagree with shredding the substandard work, future artists need to see our evolution (if they find us worth remembering at all) and struggle.

Remember that today’s scribble on a napkin will be tomorrows prized valuable find, when we are long gone.

From: John Lothrop — Jul 26, 2011

I wonder if the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Artists that you so frequently mention is really evolved enough to realize that we hold the chance of immortality in our own hands. Very stimulating thoughts, Robert.

From: Nik Brandenburger — Jul 26, 2011

Heaven has indeed been played down from the few remaining pulpits in Germany. And the concept of Hell has all but disappeared now. This perhaps because of the imaginative depictions on cathedral walls and reredos of what things would be like if you had the misfortune and bad planning to get there. This was the old fashioned way of getting converts. Nowadays, Hell for a painter is not being able to paint. (translation)

From: Ted Lederer — Jul 26, 2011
From: Patsy Heller — Jul 26, 2011

How does one really know what is worth shredding or keeping when it is such a subjective process? I love many of my paintings, if I don’t love it, I don’t keep it. I do fear that my kids will have a huge bonfire as they prefer abstract, “modern” art that so far, I’m unable to produce.

From: Helen O’Hara — Jul 26, 2011
From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Jul 26, 2011

Immortality is such a word that is used so loosely that sometimes it loses the real meaning of the word. Yes, great artists produced art that elevates them through their work some degree of immortality. People who view their work recognize the artist who did them through ages thus even through the generations the art of Leonardo da Vinci remember him as though he lives in his art. Great architecture elevates their author in seeming immortality. But does fame and memory interpret into immortality? I think immortality is more than. We might remember famous people through their work and achievement but they are not immortal. Art as in painting and other forms gives the artists an expression of their dreams, desires, inspiration and their spirituality. It may also give them fame but never immortality.

From: Anon — Jul 26, 2011

hmmm, if a man makes gazillion dollars selling snakes oil to the poor, and then donates half gazillion dollars and keeps the other half, does he deserve immortality? Examples abundant!

From: Diane E Leifheit — Jul 26, 2011

It is not the artist who achieves immortality. We become the dust in the next century’s colors. But the art … I remind myself every time I send an art related message– Art Lives Long. Artliveslong, D

From: Mark Bruton Greenwalt — Jul 27, 2011

The imortal can also be understood as simply non-biological coded information or expressions. Memes vs Genes. Where humans excel (or at least some of us) is by abstracting the internal mind of brainwaves through a non-biological medium – the external mind of art, literature, mathematics etc. Such richly coded artifacts remain simply another object in the world (such as in a museum basement) until yet another human brain comes along and similarly experiences the thing in new ways – thus converting non-living imortal artifacts into a living art residing temporally in the internal mind of the perciever.

mark bruton greenwalt

From: M. S. Mahek — Jul 27, 2011

We may give lip service to an afterlife, but we go about our lives as if it doesn’t exist. Thus has human nature evolved. Artists, including poets and writers, need to feel blessed that they can explore the edges of this mystery.

From: Aamirah Aaqib — Jul 27, 2011

In historic times when a high percentage of people died young, or as they still do in some areas of the world today, then the idea of another life after this one is quite appealing. It’s not so necessary now, and we have more time to fulfill our dreams and be of service to others.

From: Stephen Evans — Jul 27, 2011

Not your dad’s Oldsmobile. In many cases where a huge value is not put on posthumous work, the next generation will have a tendency to reject it. Robert is right, you need to weed carefully so that keeping it will not be a difficult storage burden while waiting for another dispensation.

From: Jackie Knott — Jul 27, 2011
From: Rick Rotante — Jul 27, 2011

I paint my best today and leave immortality to the next generation to worry about. Afterall, there is little we can do then.

From: Maritza Bermudez — Jul 28, 2011

I picked up some of my early works from the walls of some family members. I thought they were horrible, but of course, many years have gone by and although my family said “Hey, where are you going with that painting”? I said, “I’m cutting it up for bookmarks and I’ll give you a new one”. Some of them said, “but I like it” and I said “but I don’t”.

Definitely we should keep the good work, so when we are gone, our kids don’t start giving away all the bad ones. Now that I am good with acrylics, I am re-doing some works. It’s fun, especially if you leave some of the old work showing. Makes them three dimensional.

Also, you can reinforce your work with a little bit of “a la Jackson Pollock” style. You also save a lot on new canvases.

www.maritzabermudez.com

From: Daniel Stewart — Jul 28, 2011

People have been trying to beat death since time immemorial. Interesting that Robert Ettinger, founder of the Cryonics Institute recently passed away, age 92, at his home near Detroit. His was the 106th person to be frozen by the institute in the hope that, at some future date, there will be some new technology to fix things and bring him back to life. As Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.”

From: Ann Robinson Davis — Jul 29, 2011

Oh so true Robert!!! But they needed someone educated to tell them what to buy most of the time:)) Peggy Guggenheim did pretty well on her own:)))) The Moma still has the urinal right…even though they have been trying to sell that sucker:))) I watch the art world with amazement:))) fun stuff!!!

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Jul 30, 2011

Do not understand all this emphasis on immortality, whether we speak of art or souls or memory. Not all cultures have this. The important thing is to live fully and gently in the here and now, participating in each moment. Immortality, whatever it is, will take care of itself.

From: mars — Jul 30, 2011

People — don’t worry about what happens 2 ur art after U are gone — the kids — or grand kids — sell it all — on auction — usually. I’ve been told even family photos –albums full — show up at the thrift store — these genrations don’t seem 2 want — keep sakes — they throw everything out!!!!! so not 2 worry.

From: JTL — Jul 31, 2011

To Dayle Ann Stratton: You are wise. Your belief is simply, perfectly stated. Thank you.

From: Greta Ubersholler — Aug 04, 2011

Immortality is delusory, egotistical nonsense. Usually two generations and someone is all but forgotten. Work that lasts longer than that is signed by a stranger. What continues to live is the work, attached to which is a name which is a usually an empty shell for our imaginings.

 

 

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