Saturday, December 10, 2016

Entry - 12.10.16

It’s painful for me to admit this, but I must come clean and confess that I am a sentimental man.  Yes, I pore over the same old family photos again and again, reliving the golden days of yore and making the same stale observations, until my wife is ready to pull her hair out.  I get attached to cars and refuse to give them up even when the radio is shot, the air conditioner can only sputter out the occasional warm exhalation and annual repair costs exceed by far any potential payments on a new vehicle.  On my office bulletin board, I still display drawings that the kids made during visits to my workplace over a decade ago.  Damn it!  I’ve been known to quietly weep while watching Disney movies.

On the other hand, I am also exceedingly practical.  I’ve never prepared a dish that required the addition of truffles.  Not ever!  I don’t watch videos of babies, puppies and kittens being ever so adorable on the internet.  My wife and I got married at city hall, barely observe our anniversaries, have on occasion forgotten the day altogether and have no intention of ever renewing our vows.  I torture the toothpaste tube until the last of its contents have been extracted.  When sick, I don’t want to be pampered; I’ll just crawl off to a dark corner to lick my wounds and you can ignore me.  I don’t own a cellphone; no matter how critical a communication is deemed, it can wait.

While I might contend that these conflicting outlooks blend together quite successfully to produce a perfectly peachy personality, I must also concede that I may not be the easiest person to live with.  I mean my poor wife probably is never sure how I will react in any given situation.  Quite conceivably, she could be dealing with Barry Goldwater or Barry Manilow.  The secret to maintaining a balance between sentimentality and practicality is never permitting one inclination to dominate the other completely.  For instance, I would say that most of my paintings begin with a sentimental impulse which, if pursued without restraint, would most likely result in saccharine slop – the kind of tripe we categorize as “kitsch”.  Hopefully, with most work, reason prevails and I tamp down the sentiment until only a subtle undercurrent remains.  That wisp of sentiment may be a painting’s hook, but it’s the practical application of reason that can elevate a work of art into something more substantial… more significant.

No season of the year elicits greater sentiment than Christmastime.  This probably explains why so few artists choose to address the theme of Christmas in their work.  It’s just too dangerous.  One false step and you’ll find that you’ve trespassed into the syrupy and artificially upbeat territory of Thomas Kinkade and Norman Rockwell.

Norman Rockwell - Home for Christmas - 1955

Norman Rockwell - I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - 1954

Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade
All the same, I thought it would be fun to present a few works of art that successfully address the theme of Christmas without intruding into the overtly sentimental.  It’s precisely because these artists restrained the inclination to sweeten these images and heighten the sentimental content that these works have a powerful emotional charge.

Peter Bruegel the Elder - The Census at Bethlehem - 1566

Gentile da Fabriano - Adoration of the Magi - 1423

Giotto - Adoration of the Magi - 1305

Edward Burne Jones - The Star of Bethlehem - 1890

Jan Steen - The Feast of Saint Nicholas - 1665

Caspar David Friedriich - Winter Landscape - 1811

Paul Gauguin - Christmas Night - 1894

Paul Gauguin - Nativity - 1896

Currier and Ives - Evening - 1854

Birge Harrison - Christmas Eve - Undated

Grandma Moses - Out for Christmas Trees - 1946

Fairfield Porter - Christmas Morning - 1971

Fairfield Porter - Lizzie, Guitar and Christmas Tree - 1973

Andrew Wyeth - Last Light - 1988

Andrew Wyeth - Crescent - 1987
 Finally I must confess my fondness for the work of Carl Larsson (1853-1919), a Swedish artist who defied the call to join the modernist revolution.  Larsson grew up in extreme poverty in Stockholm, only maintaining some order in his life through the efforts of his mother who worked tirelessly as a laundress.  While attending a school for poor children, Larsson was recognized as a talented artist and was encouraged to apply to the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts.  There, he eventually gained confidence and flourished.  He pieced together a living working for newspapers and publishers as a caricaturist and illustrator, but real success still eluded him.  He moved to Paris in 1877, where he shunned involvement with the avant-garde, choosing instead to associate with his more conservative Swedish colleagues.  At the Scandinavian artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing, he met his future wife, Karin Bergöö, a talented artist and designer.  It was at this time that Larsson developed the watercolor technique for which he is best known.  After Carl and Karin married, they settled in Sundborn, Sweden in a small house provided by Karin’s father.  The couple transformed their home into a work of art, giving great attention to detail and incorporating many traditional Scandinavian themes into its decoration.  It was here that the Larssons raised their eight children, and it was also here that Carl created his most significant work, a series of watercolors which documented the unique home life that his family enjoyed in their fantastic retreat.

Larsson felt that his larger works on historic themes would be his major contribution to Swedish art.  When the watercolors of their family life in their cozy home, Little Hyttnäs, were published, the Larssons were shocked at their popularity.  But, of course, these were Carl’s most intimate and honest expressions of his artistic sensibility; the public only responded appropriately.  Fine art reproductions of the watercolors were sold in albums, but it was a book of watercolors and drawings with a text by Carl Larsson called Das Haus in der Sonne (The House in the Sun) that truly established the artist’s fame and reputation.  The book was a bestseller upon publication and has been reprinted forty times through 2001.  The descendants of Carl and Karin Larsson continue to own Little Hyttnäs in Sundborn and make the house available to tourists from May to October.  It remains one of the most popular artist’s homes in the world.  I hope to visit it someday.

Carl Larsson - Boy Skiing at Falun Home - Undated

Carl Larsson - Julaftonen - 1904

Carl Larsson - My Country Cottage in Winter, Sundborn - 1904

Carl Larsson - Now It's Christmas Again - 1907

Carl Larsson - The Cottage in the Snow - 1909

Carl Larsson - The Yard and Wash-House - 1895

Carl Larsson - Christmas Morning - 1894
I was lucky enough to see Larsson’s Now It’s Christmas Again at Scandinavia House in Manhattan a couple of years ago.  The watercolor on paper was larger than you would expect: 22” X 57”.  Having no previous knowledge of Larsson, I stood before this work marveling at the detail and taking delight in its subject matter: a large family gathering at Christmastime.  It was included in the show Luminous Modernism which presented artwork produced by Scandinavian artists who were influenced by the modernist movement at the turn of the twentieth century.  I doubt if Larsson would qualify as a modernist; I’m not even sure that his work could be categorized as fine art.  But I now know why the curators chose to include one of his watercolors in the show; his work has a loyal and enthusiastic following and its inclusion was sure to delight them as well as the uninitiated.

Having now revealed my sentimental side and confessed my affection for the work of Carl Larsson, I feel justified in getting a bit soppy here.  I wish all of my readers a season of peace and joy.  Take solace at this time of the year in fond memories of Christmases past, those peopled by our younger selves and friends and family often no longer with us, and cling steadfastly to those loved ones with whom we share the holiday at present.  Try to find within yourself the wisdom and compassion to transcend the divisiveness that isolates us from our fellow man and seek to find the commonality that unites us.  I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I’ll conclude this entry with a couple of photos I’ve taken this December of the holiday decorations in New York City.  Hope you enjoy them.

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