Saturday, August 22, 2015

Entry - 8.22.15

While in my middle twenties, I went to a party in an apartment building located in one of the better areas of Manhattan.  I knew a couple of the folk who would be there and just tagged along with them.  At one point in the evening, I had a talk with a kid I’d known for years, an intelligent and cultured attorney-in-the-making in fact, about abstract art.  Agog after attending a recent show of Abstract Expressionist art, I was singing the praises of de Kooning, in particular.  He was of the not so unusual opinion that anyone could paint abstractly, that little skill or talent was required to throw paint arbitrarily onto a canvas.  I assured him that there was nothing arbitrary about the process, but he was pretty incredulous.  Essentially, he saw Abstract Expressionists as con artists who, lacking education and training, simply glommed onto a movement as opportunity arose and were foisting their crude daubings on an unwitting public.  “I could take their art seriously,” he opined, “if I saw that they really had some ability, that they could produce serious representational art, that they actually chose to paint the way they did.”

“But,” I replied, “most of these artists received rigorous training in their craft and early on tackled the conventions of representational imagery,  De Kooning, for instance, from a very early age was trained in traditional techniques in his native Holland, eventually landing secure employment producing commercial art.  I’ve seen a couple of his early representational pieces that would amaze you.”

He was surprised and a little doubtful, but, without a foundation in this area, had no choice but to concede the point and let the discussion drop.

Willem de Kooning - Bowl, Pitcher and Jug - 1921

I tell this story not to poke fun at my friend.  I am sure that at some point in my development I shared his opinion and could make neither head nor tail of abstract art.  The effort to convincingly translate form and space into a two-dimensional format is very challenging and requires many years of training and experimentation to master.  It’s difficult when immersed in the struggle to acquire the traditional techniques of creating representational imagery to seriously consider work that seems to discard the very skills you are trying to attain.


However, by the time I was an undergraduate art student at SUNY Stony Brook, I was ready for some experimentation.  I approached abstraction warily, without serious commitment on my part.  Though abstraction begs for a large format, I worked on very small canvases, unwilling to squander precious resources on a flight of fancy.  I really didn’t understand what abstraction was about, how powerfully emotive it could be.  Since at that time my figurative work was about spontaneity and immediacy, I avoided nuance, working in pure tones applied in impasto.

Gerard Wickham - Abstraction I -1978c
This work seeks to discard a traditional approach to composition but fails, ultimately retreating to comfortable conventions.  Paint handling is consistent, unvaried and uninteresting.  It really offers none of the technical, visual rewards that one would expect from an abstract painting.

Gerard Wickham - Abstraction II -1978c
It’s difficult to abandon subject matter when painting.  Here I suggest biomorphic forms without providing tangible definition.  We might be peering into the lens of a microscope to view strange, multicellular organisms.  The beings could be alien lifeforms, prehistoric creatures or robots.  Whatever is going on here, the overall effect is whimsical.  I was definitely under the influence of Arshile Gorky and Joan Miró.

Gerard Wickham - Backyard Abstraction - 1979
Of course, it was inevitable that I would take the Jackson Pollock route at least once.  There was a twenty year accumulation of partially filled house paint cans in my parents’ basement.  I popped open a few of them to create this unsuccessful abstraction inspired by the view out the backdoor of my childhood home.

I think that to paint a successful abstraction it is essential that the artist has attained a true understanding of and passion for paint itself.  Early on, paint, for me, was solely a vehicle to create an illusion of space and form.  There are so many things to consider when painting (composition, perspective, anatomy, the opposition of lights and darks, tonal value, color harmony, etc.) that it’s easy to lose touch with the medium itself.  Only when technical concerns are addressed intuitively, almost unconsciously, after years of persistent activity, does one begin to appreciate the medium itself: the pull on the brush when applying paint to a still tacky lower layer; the way thinned out paint splatters or drips when rapidly brushed onto a surface; how impasto paint retains the imprint of the brush and documents the path and speed of the stroke; how a thin glaze of color effects the tonal value of the layers below; or what happens when a palette knife is raked over still wet paint.  It took me years to learn that paint is subject matter.

 Let me digress a moment to address terminology.  Probably one of the most confusing words used to define a technical approach to creating imagery is “abstraction”.  When modern artists first started to experiment with imagery not firmly rooted in reality, they began with real subject matter which in their translations was distorted and disguised to the point at which compositional concerns and emotional impact became the determining factors on how that subject matter was represented.  At times, the subject matter of the artwork could still be easily recognized.  At other times, the subject matter was nearly obliterated.  But regardless of how far the artist wanted to push it, he was in effect “abstracting” from reality.  For instance, Wassily Kandinsky codified or created symbols for the things that resonated most powerfully with him (horses, cannons and mountains, for example).  Over time, the symbols became so abstract that they were barely recognizable, but they continued to be necessary to the artist to initiate the process of painting.

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition IV - 1911
Eventually artists naturally transitioned to creating work that had no link to any real visual reference, but unfortunately the label “abstraction” stuck.  To differentiate this new radical approach to creating imagery from that of traditional abstraction, the term “pure abstraction” was applied.

While experiencing a particularly inventive period during my years in grad school, I thought myself ready to tackle pure abstraction.  My appreciation and understanding of the properties of paint were probably at an all-time high, and I was ready to seriously commit myself intellectually to the process of painting without subject matter.  Part of that commitment was working in a larger format – much more appropriate to the approach.

Gerard Wickham - Abstract Painting - 1984
In this work, I explored what could be achieved through limited means.  I confined myself, for the most part, to applying paint of fairly regular consistency with a brush.  I restrained my brushwork and restricted my palette.  My intention was to let the paint play the lead role.  Though this work is by no means a masterpiece, I enjoy its overall effect of regularity occasionally interrupted by accents of concentrated color, the way that the barely perceptible tightening of the brushwork at the top of the canvas suggests space and the aura of complacency implicit in its execution.

Gerard Wickham - The Red X - 1983
By far my most successful abstraction, The Red X was painted using every technical means I had mastered during my years of study.  It was first constructed by establishing a subtle foundation of pale zones which was then overlaid with a network of bold strokes (generally ranging from dark gray to black).  The brushwork was varied and inventive – many times amended or edited out completely by subsequent washes of pale pastels.  The green area in the lower right of the canvas was painted for the most part in impasto, which in turn demanded the counterbalance of the orange glaze above it.  The composition functioned pretty simply: weak vertical sectors of activity flanked the left and right-hand sides of the canvas providing structure and stability while an overall diagonal provided stress and movement.  Sensing that the painting was nearing completion, I stopped at this point to survey my work and recognized that the right-hand side of the canvas was far more active than the left.  I placed a bold stroke of bright red on the diagonal axis of the composition running perpendicular to the diagonal’s thrust.  It wasn’t enough, so I pulled a line of paint away from that stroke somewhat toward the center of the canvas.  Later when I examined the painting, I saw that the two strokes resembled an “X”, and when Sam Gelber suggested that calling the work “The Red X” would be natural, the name stuck.

Without a doubt, a few fledgling attempts at pure abstraction do not make one a master.  Artists devoted many years, often the entirety of their careers, to attaining a fluency in the technique.  I never seriously considered pure abstraction an avenue that would permit me to fully address my artistic concerns, either intellectually or emotionally, though I enjoyed the challenge of the occasional technical exercise.  Even so, I learned to appreciate and greatly respect pure abstraction, studied the work of some of the giants in the field and avidly sought out exhibitions of their work.

I’ve put together a small selection of artwork, that I particularly like, created by a variety of painters who worked in a purely abstract manner.

New York School - Action Painters

Willem de Kooning - Untitled - 1950

Jackson Pollock - Autumn Rhythm, No 30 - 1950

Franz Kline - Mahoning - 1956

New York School - Color Field Painters

Mark Rothko - Orange, Red, Yellow - 1961

Adolph Gottlieb - Flotsam at Noon (Imaginary Landscape) - 1952

School of Paris

Wols - It's All Over The City - 1947

Serge Poliakoff - Abstract Composition - 1954

Pierre Soulages - Bleu - 1972c

Second Generation Abstract Expressionism

Joan Mitchell - City Landscape - 1955

Helen Frankenthaler - Into the West - 1977

Bay Area Abstraction

Richard Diebenkorn - Ocean Park #79 - 1975

Various

Mark Tobey - Universal Field - 1949

Antoni Tapies - Painting - 1955

Asger Jorn - Green Ballet - 1960

Brice Marden - Cold Mountain Series, Zen Study 2 - 1991

Gerhard Richter - Abstract Painting - 1987

All comments are welcome.  If you prefer to comment privately, you can email me at gerardwickham@gmail.com.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Entry - 6.20.15

In an earlier entry, I introduced a new painting, Cat’s Cradle, and addressed the challenge that representing a very actively patterned quilt as a backdrop to my two figures posed for me.  I had to find a way of depicting the quilt convincingly without interfering with the primacy I wanted the figures to assert.  I ended up seeking a balance between illusionistic and decorative painting, one that I hoped would not detract from the image’s substance while offering a heightened visual sumptuousness to delight the viewer.


Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle - 2014
Working on that painting got me thinking about how the figure related to patterning and how other artists explored this motif in their work.  Let me begin by declaring that representing patterning in an illusionistic painting is counterintuitive because it detracts from the assertion of sculptural form in a convincing space.  Giotto understood this, resulting in his rejection of the excesses of the Byzantine Style.  His figures are lit by a single, uniform light source, draped in pale, solid toned robes and placed before a uniform background of saturated blue.

Giotto - The Adoration of the Magi - 1306
Giotto’s innovations marked the initiation of a 200 year stylistic evolution that reached its zenith with the Italian High Renaissance.  Artists of this period saw themselves as the natural heirs of the lofty achievements of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures and sought to reintroduce the simplicity and austerity that they deemed a central component of Classical Art.  They would probably have been aghast to learn that the marble sculptures that served as their primary models had actually been brightly painted upon completion.  That notwithstanding, the High Renaissance ushered in a slew of technical and aesthetic innovations which, for the most part, established the “ground rules” that European artists followed for the next 350 years, until the advent of the modernist revolution.

Raphael - The Small Cowper Madonna - c1505
Central to this Renaissance ideal that inspired artists for centuries was that artists, in painting and drawing in particular, must strive to suggest three-dimensional form set in a convincing, illusionistic space.  Busy, intense patterning would certainly undermine that goal, and its use was eschewed by generations of Western artists except when used for very specific purposes.

Hans Holbein - The Ambassadors - 1533
The green curtain that is the backdrop to Hans Holbein’s ambassadors plays an important role.  It maintained the illusion of real space by convincing us of its tangibility while providing a barrier, parallel to the picture plane, to a deeper, potentially more complex space that lies beyond its borders.  So the curtain allows the figures to pop out more prominently from the picture plane, an effect intensified by its green tonality complementary to the warm flesh tones of the figures.  But Holbein decides that the curtain should be patterned.  Why?  Painting is always a bit of a juggling act where one decision often leads to a multitude of adjustments that will permit the artist to “keep all his balls in the air”, so to speak.  The inclusion of the curtain results from sound judgment, but Holbein recognizes that it represents a huge expanse in his painting that offers little of visual interest to the viewer.  He introduces the patterning to activate the space, while being careful to keep it sufficiently subdued as not to compete with the primacy of the figures.  So, Holbein chooses to enrich his visual imagery through the use of patterning while sustaining the ideals initiated during the Italian Renaissance, an approach adopted by many artists prior to the modernist revolution.

 I’ve noted an exception to this rule.  Royal portraits tended to be less restrained and often violated Renaissance ideals.

Antoine-Francois Callet - King Louis XVI - 1781
There are a number of reasons for this.  Primarily, royal portraits were intended to assert the wealth and power of a monarch.  In doing so, excess was to be desired.  So presenting the king cocooned in a vast array of costly, richly patterned furs and textiles in order to testify to his omnipotence took precedence over aesthetic concerns.  Also, it seems that the vast majority of monarchs were not particularly attractive.  For instance, Louis XVI, pictured above, was said to be rather short, stout and square shouldered, with the worst possible bearing.  His mouth was over-full and flabby and his chin was pale and fat.  (The Days of the French Revolution, Christopher Hibbert)  There is an obvious attempt on the part of Callet to hide Louis’ physical imperfections, to mask his volume by “dismembering” his torso in layers of patterned material, to distract the viewer’s focus away from the King’s features.  Here is a unique situation whence the artist wishes to disguise form and deter focus.

 Certainly the introduction of complex, overall patterning in figurative painting pushes the work towards the decorative.  Unfortunately, the term “decorative” has taken on a slightly pejorative taint, in that “decorative” is often considered the polar opposite of “substantive”.  This should not be the case.  Without a doubt, patterning is most commonly used to create an aura of lushness, abundance and voluptuousness.  Besides pleasing and delighting the viewer, the patterning, if presented in sufficient complexity and detail, would provoke awe and amazement with the artist’s audience.

 Many non-European cultures have embraced patterning as an essential element in their visual arts.  And as I have said earlier, prior to the establishment of the Renaissance ideal, ornate patterning was common in European art, particularly in medieval manuscripts.

Persian Minature

Mughal Painting

Mughal Painting

French Medieval Manuscript - Mars, Venus and Vulcan

French Medieval Manuscript

Kitagawa Utamaro - The Prelude to Desire - 1799
But, once concepts concerning the presentation of illusionistic form in space and the aesthetics that governed what was acceptable in art had developed during the Renaissance, they were hard to disregard.  It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that Europeans truly began to question these long established strictures and started experimenting with new ways of depicting visual reality.  Not very surprising, many “modern” artists turned to other cultures to find models to guide them in relinquishing traditional standards of presentation and developing new mechanics as to how tools and materials should be used.  Artists began to challenge the concept that the figure must assert its primacy when represented in paintings and drawings.  Patterning was used to mask or disguise form, to present the figure as integrated with its setting.  Also, once doctrine governing how the illusion of perspective was created in art was brought into question, patterning was often used to “dissolve’ or “dismember” structure, rendering space as a series of decorative planes placed side by side, deliberately denying depth and blurring the transitions between planes.  When presenting the figure in such ambiguous space, the artist had to find new ways to depict form that contradicted traditional rules pertaining to coloration, lighting and even anatomical feasibility.

Albert Joseph Moore - Red Berries - 1884
The British artist, Albert Joseph Moore, embeds his figure in an incredibly complex array of patterned materials, which he treats in a traditional, illusionistic fashion.  It is the austerity of the model’s flesh and hair that draws the viewer’s eye to her.

Edouard Vuillard - The Reader - 1896
Among the Nabis, a group of French artists interested in exploring intimate scenes of daily life often presented in a decorative context, Edouard Vuillard was most attracted to interior views filled with layers of intricate patterning.  Here the figures dissolve in their environment, treated with equal attention as the rug or wallpaper.  For Vuillard, the whole is what mattered; he did not differentiate his subject matter hierarchically.

Gustav Klimt - Adele Bloch-Bauer - 1907
For Gustav Klimt, an Austrian artist influenced both by the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements, complex patterning permitted him to mask in dense layers subject matter too risqué for the conservative tastes of his fin de siècle audience.  Also, within his patterning are suggestions of nature’s fecundity, of pollen and sperm, of vines and foliage, and a variety of barely disguised erotic symbols.

Dora Carrington - Annie - 1925
The wallpaper in Dora Carrington’s portrait of her housekeeper completes the work, activating powerfully the space around the figure, a solidly built and plain country girl.  The floral theme of the wallpaper seems to testify to this girl’s agrarian roots.

Henri Matisse - Small Odalisque in a Purple Robe - 1937

Henri Matisse - La Musique - 1939
The challenge for Henri Matisse was to accentuate the patterning in his figure paintings, striving for strident designs possessing unusual color combinations, while maintaining a sophisticated, flawless composition.  The figures in these two works can truly be referred to as compositional elements, presented on an equal footing with the complex mesh of patterned components. Throughout his career, Matisse was interested in textiles, gathering an extensive collection of fabrics, rugs and costumes that appeared regularly in his work.

Balthus - The Turkish Room - 1963
Late in his career, Balthus became fascinated with surface texture and complex patterning.  In the work above, it’s the very flatness and simplicity of the figure that permits it to assert its primacy.

 So, having given some thought as to how in two dimensional work patterning related to the figure, I thought that I would further explore this relationship in my next work, a self-portrait.  I knew the emotional state that I wanted this next painting to convey.  As always, being my own model, I was sure that I could convincingly project the mood I was after, but I wasn’t so certain that I could find the appropriate pattern to enhance that emotional state.  I began searching through the house, pulling clothing out of closets and drawers, looking through discarded blankets and shawls in the laundry room, going from room to room examining curtains, even the sheets on each bed.  Nothing I came across matched my needs.  Then I remembered a patterned, light spread that my wife and I purchased on a trip to Greece made over 25 years ago.  I rushed to my closet and began to paw through various items tucked away and forgotten on the top shelf and, incredibly, found the spread carefully stored in a plastic bag.  I was startled to discover that I had recalled the pattern and coloration fairly precisely and was pleased to find this spread projected the mood and associations that I desired.  These specific associations shall go unmentioned because, though most likely common amongst most people living today, to state them would place too specific a “stamp” on the image.

 I set up in my studio a working area correctly lighted and able to accommodate a mirror set upon a presentation stand.  Then I attached a horizontal beam to an old easel, draped the spread over it and positioned the easel so the material would fill the space behind me.  I began painting, sketching in elements and blocking in general tones.  At some point, I brought my youngest son up to my studio to take a series of photographs of me striking my desired pose before my chosen background.  Eventually, I discarded the mirror and used only the photographs as my source of information.  

 I had anticipated that this painting would require about ten sessions but found that progress was made a lot more slowly than I expected.  Right from the start I was unable to “nail down” my composition, repeatedly making adjustments to the proportions and placement of the figure.  I was tenacious, refusing to settle on “satisfactory” and continuing to make significant adjustments until very late in the process.  While addressing the figure, I was also quickly and loosely summarizing the background patterning.  Most essential, early on, was establishing the general tones against which the figure needed to function.  The pattern proved to be fairly intricate, and I wasn’t certain how naturalistic I needed to be in documenting it.  I would work on an area of the background over a session or two, feeling that I had developed a successful approach to addressing the patterning, only to discover upon subsequent evaluation that I hadn’t achieved what I was hoping for.  I would rethink my approach and begin again.  This happened several times while I was continuing to work up the figure.  At one point, I was convinced that the figure was complete for the most part and I only needed to focus on the patterning.  I wanted the patterning to assert itself powerfully without overwhelming the figure.  I was seeking a balance.  Also, initially, I had thought the background could be addressed in a very painterly fashion but upon execution found that this approach did not relate sufficiently with the paint handling used for the figure.

 I reached an impasse somewhere in the middle of the entire process at which I could not determine how to address the patterning and, upon objective scrutiny, deemed the figure, though competently painted, to lack visual interest and dimension.  With me, most paintings reach a crisis point at which, dissatisfied with the results of my efforts and unable to see a clear path to resolution, I contemplate throwing in the towel and moving on to a new project.  Commonly, I’ll avoid my studio and seek to clear my mind while only occasionally scrutinizing my current work.  When I came back to the canvas, I began by repainting the patterning with a greater sensitivity to light quality, nuance and detail.  Once I had accomplished that, it became evident that the figure had to be painted anew.  At the end of one session, I took my wet palette and raked it over the figure, creating a pale web of fine lines over my earlier work.  I thought in order to see the figure with fresh eyes I had to distance myself from my earlier conception of how the figure was constructed and addressed.  I must admit I was a bit shocked when I saw how much of my earlier efforts had been obliterated by my rash action.  I had no choice but to tackle the figure once more, and I did so, this time deepening the shadows and emphasizing detail at the plane breaks in the face and torso.  Even at this late stage, I continued to make major adjustments in the construction of the head, repositioning the eyes and mouth to better conform to the perspective suggested in the work.  At last, I felt that the painting was starting to gel and began to work with greater determination, extending the length of and making more frequent my sessions in the studio.  On June 7th, I finished my work on the painting.

Gerard Wickham - Before the Greek Throw - 2015
At the start of this project when I optimistically expected to need about ten sessions to complete this self-portrait, I thought it would be interesting to record my daily progress by taking a photograph of the painting at the end of each session.  My intention was to display on this blog each individual photo documenting my progress in order to reveal a bit about the painting process in general and my personal technique in particular.  After months of work and sessions too numerous to count, I realized that I couldn’t execute my plan; the series of photos would be ridiculously long and the variance between one photo and the next too minimal.  So I turned to technology to discover a solution and found a way to make a short movie, transitioning smoothly from slide to slide, following the project from bare canvas to completed painting.  I was even able to add some music to accompany the presentation.

 Viewing this short movie is probably more revelatory for me than doing so could possibly be for a more disinterested audience, but I believe that even a viewer who has never taken up a brush will find the process absorbing.  The movie exposes a certain hesitancy on my part to commit to a course of action, particularly at the middle stages of this work.  Watching the movie, I could feel palpably that at some point progress stalls while I choose to address peripheral issues in the work rather than tackle the handling of the figure.  I was finding it difficult to surrender my original conception of how paint would be handled, especially in the patterning.  So the painting began to meander.  This is not surprising.  Painting, at least for me, is a journey undertaken without a map or an itinerary.  I approach a work with some firm ideas of what I want to accomplish, the statement I wish to make, the emotions I want to arouse, but I’m never sure how to realize these goals.  That’s probably what both appeals to me and frustrates me about the process.  Working out the path to accomplish these goals is seldom easy... but always interesting.

 While bike riding with my youngest son last weekend, we stopped to take a breather on a bench when he asked me how I knew when a painting is finished.  I’ll try to paraphrase my response here: A blank canvas is perfect.  Upon putting my first stroke on a canvas, I’ve destroyed that perfection.  Every subsequent stroke I make represents my attempt to reclaim that perfection, to address the faults inherent in my all too human efforts.  A painting is complete when I arrive at a point at which I find I can live with its manifest deficiencies.


I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at gerardwickham@gmail.com.



Saturday, March 14, 2015

Entry - 3.14.15


The other day I was talking with a friend at work when he informed me that last year he purchased a snow blower.  He admitted that being a city dweller he only had about forty feet of sidewalk to clear, a task he could usually knock off rather quickly, but he had felt that it was time to move to a mechanized approach to snow removal.  I was confused.  My friend, having been a frequenter of the local gym for many years, is in terrific shape, sporting bulging biceps that, appear to me, sufficient to toss an abominable snowman, let alone a few shovels-full of snow, a football field’s length.

I’ve noticed over the years that most Americans find honest, purposeful labor to be distasteful.  They will eagerly pay a professional to mow their lawns, landscape their properties, plow their driveways and even walk their dogs.  The more ambitious among us buy snow blowers and ride-on mowers and actually do the jobs themselves.  Ironically enough, many of these same folk purchase gym or health club memberships to secure a location where they can exercise or tone up on modern equipment with a personal trainer to goad them on to ever greater exertions.

I’ve always believed that the individual must resist the allure of inertia.  If I have the choice between a flight of stairs or an escalator, I opt for the stairs.  If I’m close enough to my destination to make the journey on foot, I never take a subway or bus.  When a handsaw will do the job, why resort to power equipment.  When my wife and I purchased our current home over twenty years ago, I recognized that the property presented some new challenges, the cleared portion measuring about an acre and its driveway being immense.  At the time, I thought to myself that I was still pretty young and determined that I would do as much as possible of the labor about the place manually… at least, until inevitable physical deterioration prevented my doing so.  Hence I cleared my driveway of snow myself with a shovel, working slowly and methodically over an hour or two… sometimes even longer.  If I got out early enough after a storm, I began my work in a perfect silence with only the crunch of my boots in the snow to disturb the profound austerity of the moment.  But with time, my neighbors would emerge from their homes and a chorus of throbbing engines would accompany my labor.  Occasionally a kindly neighbor, having quickly completed his work, would come over with a mechanized plow or snow blower to assist me, but I would wave him away with an appreciative smile; I savored the sense of accomplishment when I finished the job myself.

In warmer weather, my lawn ( for want of a better word that is how I will refer to the mesh of chicory, skunk grass and dandelions which surrounds our home)… my lawn presents difficulties, being sprawling, untamed, littered with rocks and debris and topographically challenged (meaning that there are runs at nearby ski resorts that are sloped less acutely).  But being ever the Luddite, I determined that I would mow the “lawn” with a standard, gas-powered mower, even refusing to upgrade to a chain driven model.  Again, as with the shoveling, the job takes a while, but I always feel that in going the more difficult route I am gaining the benefit of working my heart and lungs and pushing my muscles to perform as they were intended.  I do my own house painting, carpentry and plumbing.  I’ve put down floors in my home, laid cement slabs, hung sheetrock and done masonry work.  I’ve cleared downed trees myself using a chainsaw and a wheelbarrow.  I must admit that the quality of my workmanship can vary greatly, but whatever job I tackle generally holds together.

As our four sons grew up, one by one, they began participating in the regular maintenance that our property requires and, of course, they are acolytes within my religion of the sanctity of manual labor and self-reliance.  Now that there are no longer little ones about the place to attend to, my wife often assists with the upkeep too.  I can’t say how long my stubborn practices will last, but I hope to continue them for as long as possible.  I believe that when I first moved in my neighbors viewed me as a hopeless rube newly transplanted from NYC; now, two decades later, I suppose I’m considered an eccentric crackpot.  That’s okay with me.  Running with the pack always makes me a bit uneasy.


The weather’s been somewhat nasty this past February, with significant snowstorms hitting us every few days followed up with frigid temperatures.  The last major storm we experienced brought particularly heavy snow accumulations, and we spent a good part of the day digging ourselves out.  Exhausted, I went to bed early that night, only to find myself lying in bed wide awake at 3:00 AM the following morning.  Exasperated, I left my bed, got a tall glass of water, peered out the window to be sure that we didn’t get any more snow and then sank into a chair in our family room.  I glanced around the dimly lit room, my eyes settling on my work boots still sitting side by side precisely where I had placed them after pulling them off upon coming in from my day’s labor.  I couldn’t help but think of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of his own boots completed more than one and a quarter centuries ago.

Van Gogh - A Pair of Boots - 1887
Van Gogh painted his footwear several times during his career.  He didn’t have a foot fetish, nor was he just looking for a banal subject matter to tackle on a day when the weather wouldn’t permit him to get outside.  His boots make a statement.  They are not the possessions of a wealthy, powerful man.  They are not expensive, polished or fashionable.  They are work boots constructed with purpose in mind, destined for years of labor.  Van Gogh’s boots are splattered with filth and worn and pitted with the abrasions that come from regular use.  They lie splayed on the ground, their laces strewn about them, just as Van Gogh left them, discarded after his day’s work.  These are the boots he wore while trudging across fields and meadows and along dirt roads in search of an acceptable scene to record in paint.  These are the same boots he wore while standing for hours in the elements focused on his canvas.  By presenting us with the reality of these boots, Van Gogh is informing us that he doesn’t see painting as the activity of an effete, educated elite.  He sees himself as a laborer, a man of the people.

Van Gogh was born in 1853 in a southern province of Holland.  The son of a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, Van Gogh was always pulled between the poles of art and religion.  An early effort to establish a career with a firm of art dealers ended with his termination at the age of 23 because he could not hide from his employers and customers how unhappy he was selling art like a hawker of hand soap or legs of mutton.  Van Gogh then was drawn to a religious life, studying for nearly two years to become a pastor.  When appointed in 1879 to a temporary missionary post in a mining community in Belgium, Van Gogh felt that he should live like the people to whom he preached, residing in a small shack, sleeping on straw and eating the same food as the workers.  Church authorities, feeling that he was degrading the dignity of his office, removed him from his post.  Even once he fully embraced his vocation as an artist, Van Gogh continued to empathize with the plight of the working class.  He greatly admired and emulated the work of Jean Francois Millet, who presented images of the peasant at work as the ideal Christian laboring in a sanctified landscape under the watchful eye of a benevolent god.

Millet - Shepherdess with her Flock - 1864
While still working on his Potato Eaters, he wrote the following to his brother:

“The point is that I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and – a meal honestly earned.  I wanted to convey a picture of a way of life quite different from ours, from that of civilized people. So the last thing I would want is for people to admire or approve of it without knowing why.”

He goes on to state:

“And similarly, in my opinion, it would be wrong to give a painting of peasant life a conventional polish. If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam, fine - that's not unhealthy - if a stable reeks of manure - all right, that's what a stable is all about - if a field has the smell of ripe corn or potatoes or of guano and manure - that's properly healthy, especially for city dwellers. Such pictures might prove helpful to them. But a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.”
-          Vincent Van Gogh Letter to Theo Van Gogh, April 30, 1885

Van Gogh - The Potato Eaters - 1885
Throughout his short career, Van Gogh lived among working people, painting their portraits, their abodes, the establishments they frequented.  Even once he had relocated to France and had fallen under the influence of the avant garde, Van Gogh continued to paint the common folk who peopled his world: peasant farmers, a postman, a zouave, fishermen, a gardener, café owners and an orderly, just to name a few.

Van Gogh - The Red Vineyard - 1888
Van Gogh and Millet are certainly not unique in their interest in addressing themes relating to the working class.  Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet, Gustave Caillebotte, Ilya Repin, Wilhelm Leibl, Käthe Kollwitz, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros come readily to mind.  I think that independent art sellers who catered to the tastes of middle class customers had to arise before work that presented laborers as significant and sympathetic could be marketed.  After the French Revolution, intellectuals and politicians were compelled to consider how to reformulate their societies into more equitable structures that would permit laborers a higher standard of living and better representation in government.  Later on, many artists embraced Marxist and Socialist theory, directly addressing themes in support of the proletariat in their imagery.

Courbet - The Stonebreakers - 1849 to 50

Daumier - The Third-Class Railway Carriage - 1862

Repin - Barge Haulers on the Volga - 1872

Caillebotte - The Floor Planers - 1875

Kollwitz - March of the Weavers - 1893 to 97

Rivera - Woman Grinding Maize - 1924
Two extremely good books that examine the function of art within the context of social revolution are Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art and Arnold Hauser’s The Social History of Art.


“The socialist artist and writer adopts the historical viewpoint of the working class.  But this does not mean that he is in duty bound to approve every decision or action taken by whatever party or character represents the working class in his work.  He sees in the working class the determining, but not the only, force necessary for the defeat of capitalism, for the growth of a classless society and the unlimited development of material and spiritual forces of production to liberate the human personality.  In other words, he identifies himself fundamentally with socialist society in its process of growth; whereas bourgeois artists and writers, if they are of any importance, inevitably dissociate themselves from the world of the triumphant bourgeoisie.” 
-          Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, 1959


“After 1830 these whims come to an end entirely and it becomes obvious that there is in fact no massive public apart from the middle class.  But as soon as the emancipation of the middle class is accomplished, the struggle of the working class for its rights already begins.  And that is the second of the decisively important movements which proceed from the July revolution and monarchy.  Hitherto the class struggles of the proletariat had been fused with those of the middle class, and it had been mainly the political aspirations of the middle classes for which the working class had fought.  The developments after 1830 first open its eyes and supply it with proof that, in fighting for its rights, it can rely on no other class.  Simultaneously with the awakening class-consciousness of the proletariat, socialist theory acquires its first more or less concrete form and there also arises the programme of an artistic activist movement which for radicalism and consistency surpasses all previous movements of a similar nature.  “L’art pour l’art” goes through its first crisis and has from now on to fight not only against the idealism of the classicists but also against utilitarianism of both ‘social’ and ‘bourgeois’ art.”
-          Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Volume 4, 1951

Both Fischer and Hauser recognize the development of a new form of art that represents the perspective of the working class.  Certainly, broadening the perspective of art to address the concerns of the working class was a positive development.  Prior to the nineteenth century, the worker or peasant was usually included in art and literature as a comic foil, the ignorant buffoon motivated by the basest of desires.  The problem with art that champions the role of the worker is that it can often be pedantic and unnuanced, losing in aesthetics what it gains in clarity of message.  Let’s face it, art that aims to glorify the role of the worker tends to reek of propaganda.  Mukhina’s monumental sculpture makes me cringe a bit, leaving me feeling wary and manipulated.  Compare her image of the proletariat with Caillebotte’s floor planers, who perform a tedious, strenuous job in a small, stuffy room and smell of the sweat of their labor, and the contrast between absurd idealization and sober reality becomes all too obvious.

Vera Mukhina - Monument to the Proletariat and Agriculture - 1937

Chinese Cultural Revolution Poster
On the other hand, art cannot be solely about aesthetics… about its makers’ ongoing dialogue with the art of the past and present.  Such work becomes unintelligible and inaccessible to the masses and is doomed to be perceived as irrelevant by the society in which it has been created.  I am not advocating a populist art such as that produced by, let’s say, Thomas Kinkade or Leroy Neiman, but I do believe that art that doesn’t provide an emotional “doorway” for the working class, as well as the intellectual elite, has failed in its purpose.

In my own work, I’ve learned to shy away from themes intended to “enlighten” my viewer, to expose some kernel of truth which I’ve gathered along the way on my life journey.  I can readily think of two exceptions to that assertion.  These works were both inspired by the collapse of the Soviet Union, in particular my fear that, without a philosophical counterbalance, however flawed, to capitalist ideology, the worker would be vulnerable to all kinds of extreme abuse, resulting in an inequitable redistribution of wealth in our society.  Unfortunately, I am witnessing my worst fears being realized today.

 
Wickham - The Triumph of Capitalism (Etching) - 1990c

Wickham - Lenin Icon - 1989c

Wickham - Lenin Icon (detail) - 1989c

I encourage all readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: gerardwickham@gmail.com.

Please note: The photograph of my work boots was staged at a later date with the boots deliberately positioned to replicate the arrangement in Van Gogh’s painting.