The Portrait of Thanksgiving: ThanksGetting

By now I think most people know that the 1621 Thanksgiving feast between Pilgrims and Indians is a myth. But I still find it fascinating to look at how artists have either played a part in perpetuating the warm-fuzzies with traditional Thanksgiving scenes or unmasking tradition for the farce it truly has become. You see, though the origins of the holiday are loosely traced back to a grand feast between Indians and Pilgrims— btw, it was actually prompted by a good harvest, not the benevolence of local tribe helping starving Piligrims— the celebration without question has become an important tradition in American culture, but not for reasons of family gathering or thankfulness.

Norman Rockwell “Thanksgiving” 1943

Norman Rockwell’s famous painting from 1943 “Freedom from Want”(just one in a four-part series of “freedom” paintings inspired by Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address) embodies perfectly our ideal Thanksgiving family gathering. The family is gathered at the table while the mother, or grandmother, places a large turkey before her husband. The painting was commissioned to promote the importance of tradition and family togetherness as a means of rediscovering American values and strength after the war. But the painting is a an illusion, and reflects instead the American obsession with consumerism.

John Currin “Thanksgiving” 2003

Contemporary artists Kent Bellows and  John Currin have painted  to dispel the Thanksgiving illusion and reveal how the holiday has evolved to center around commodity, greed, and gluttony. While Norman Rockwell created the shiny surface of family ties to hide American overabundance, Currin employs a kind of hybrid surrealism to deftly reveal it. Currin’s “Thanksgiving” (2003) cleverly pulls off a juxtaposition of cruel and tender by utilizing techniques from the old Dutch masters, notably Vermeer and to my mind the Ingres “Odalisque,” to convince us of the real-ness of his unreal women. Their heads are too large, their necks are too long, and their bodies are oddly misshapen ovoid forms. Yet the qualities of detail are so rich and carefully constructed that there is an unsettling harmony between the disturbing exaggerations and luxurious details and we are convinced of the image as a reality. Currin pulls it off by balancing the old masters’ techniques of accurate depiction with the more nuanced and searching qualities of the abstract expressionists to devolve and reconstruct the figure. Besides the Expressionist influence, Currin is taking the absurdities from Surrealism and incorporating this into his canvas to demonstrate the absurdities of causally following a tradition you barely understand. Like the raw turkey; is this family really about to carve into the uncooked bird? And what is being fed to the girl in the middle poised like a baby chicken? Also, nearly everything in the picture is in a series of cycles, each representing three different states of time and decay. The floral center piece is made of roses that are in various states of bloom and wilt, the food depicts three groups—meat, fruit, vegetable— and the women are in three stages of life: maiden, wife/mother, and widow/hag. Is this the cycle of American consumerism? We buy, use, then discard and replace, never truly taking the time to be thankful for having it.

Kent Bellows “Self Portrait with WIne Glass (Gluttony) 2000

Kent Bellows’ “Self-Portrait with Wine Glass” (Gluttony 2000) is another jab at the veil hiding American greed. His painting parodies other traditional Thanksgiving dinner portraits with his mastery of Realism that is simultaneously unsettlingly surreal from his dramatic use of lightening. Bellow’s is quite skilled in creating dream-like drama and anxiety in his portraits that make them different than reality— a kind of hyperreality if you will. With the aim of expressing psychological and emotional states, “Self-Portrait with Wine Glass” assaults our senses with the abundance of food, shine of silver dinnerware, and rich luxury of fabrics and color. The exquisite finery is emblematic of the current state of America’s obsession with possession, status, and commerce. And even the stormy background serves to forewarn us of the dissatisfaction we will eventually feel from the endless cycle of consumerist culture.

I think that when people are out shopping for super sale deals on Thanksgiving— a day supposedly and ironically set aside as a time for thankful reflection on what is already had, not for what can be bought for a steal— then it becomes an issue that needs to discussed; or at least brought to light. And that is what Bellows and Currin have done. They have pulled back the veil on Thanksgiving to show the truth.  What we are really celebrating is the success of American business and marketing to get people, regardless of their social standing, to wait in lines in the cold for hours to buy items they don’t need at “deals” worth the loss of priceless time that could be spent with loved ones. Am I being dramatic? Perhaps a little, but I really do question the reason for this holiday, or at least our societies’ demand that we still refer to it as “Thanksgiving” when it has truthfully become more of a “Thanks-For-What-I’m-Getting” or ThanksGetting.

Kent Bellows’ Self-Portrait with Wine Glass (Gluttony) 2000

Abdulnasser Gharem

Abdulnasser Gharem

“I want to change that text culture to a visual thing, because the people here they didn’t used to the visual or to the images because it was prohibited”— Abdulnasser Gharem

I am obsessed with artist Abdulnasser Gharem for two reasons. First, he is brave enough to use art to challenge censorship traditions in a culture greatly controlled by its government and second because he lives a double life as a Major in the Saudi Arabian Army.


So I was checking NPR’s recent articles— ’cause I am weird and prefer reading them to listening to them— and I stumbled upon an interview Gharem gave to NPR reporter Renee Montagne. Immediately I am impressed with how boldly Gharem expresses himself in such a censored  and conflicted country. I’ll put the link at the end of my gushing because I am sure you will want to read it.

One of the first questions Montagne asks regards one of his first performances in 2007 delivered in his home town of Khamis Mushait (near Abha) in which he wrapped himself and a tree up in plastic. Performance art was an early solution to the problem of reaching people with his art. He said that there was no art in his city, no museum, no gallery, nothing for him to exhibit in. So Gharem asks himself, “Why should I wait for them? Why don’t I just go to the main street of my city and just do the performance? Just go and connect with a real audience.” I love it! He puts the situation in his control and just strolls on down to the main street of his hometown and wraps himself up with a tree. His performance that day was a criticism of the government; he was challenging their decision to plant a foreign trees that were now sickening native trees. This kind of political criticism is nothing new in the US where we have so many people involved with activism that there we’re bombarded with a “Rights for [any cause]” promotion until we’re apathetic to pleas, but these organizations do not exist in Saudi Arbia. So Gharem’s actions are very radical and possibly dangerous. But he goes further, he is trying to actually begin a tradition of visual art in Saudi Arabia.

You see, even since ancient times  Middle Eastern culture forbade the use of images. In their religion, images are regarded as idols so instead of a culture of imagery what developed was a rich artistic tradition of nonobjective design, such as elaborate floral motifs on tapestries, colorful complicated patterns on walls, beautiful illuminated manuscripts, and of course amazing feats of architectural engineering. But images, short of gods and important political figures in historical and religious texts, are very rare and follow very specific guidelines. Talking about censorship Gharem admits that, “I’m trying to be careful with these things. You know, with the social media, I think no one now can block anyone or not letting anyone to show what he want. But I’m a little bit worried. I can’t do that sort of show — the one I just did in London — in Saudi Arabia. I think it would not be allowed, to be honest.”

So Gharem’s efforts to bring a new art culture Saudi Arbia is as ambitious as it precarious. A lot of his work he has to show outside of the country, such as his instillations and recent exhibition of paintings in London where he is allowed more liberalism. Gharem has achieved international fame for recently becoming the highest selling living Gulf Artist when his instillation “Messege/Messenger” made history at an auction in Dubai by selling at a record price. The artist, staying ever true to his goal of encouraging visual art traditions for his homeland, donated all the proceeds to the art education organization Edge of Arabia, of which he is a founding member.

“Rubber Stamps”

Aside from instillations and performance art, Gahrem also makes art that comments on international events and his duties as a part of a bureaucracy. His three-foot tall stamps are larger-than-life interpretations of the bureaucratic seals he employs in his day job — as a lieutenant colonel in Saudi Arabia’s army. He was inspired by the authority stamps give to documents that receive their marking. In his country, anything that is of importance— birth certificates, licenses, marriage contracts, vacation documents,anything asserting value— gets a stamp marking its importance. He uses stamps often in his work for the army and noticed that the younger generation rebels against the requirement to obtain approval through stamps. This piece illustrates a gap dividing the youth and the elderly, and blames bureaucracy for creating the divide. He also has a painting commemorating the 9/11 attack in America. Bearing the titled “Pause” the painting is very but very moving. It is simplified to the extreme in a very flattened perspective using only graphic shapes, two shades of grey, and a streak of yellow. But it simplicity allows you to immediantly recognize what is happening in the image; literally it forces you to stop to consider the event for a moment. I am just going to paste what he said in the interview right here because I could not summarize what he says about this painting and maintain the same impact:


“That painting, I call it “Pause” because it’s related to 9/11. You know, in that moment, I think the whole world were like someone pushed that button: pause. And the 19 who were in the airplane, most of them are from Saudi Arabia, and two of them, I was studying with them. They were with me in the same schools. … They were with me in the high schools, and I was wondering why did they choose this path while we have the same knowledge. We were in the same school, we were sitting next together, and I don’t know why did they choose that path. It was a crazy thing, to be honest.”

So yeah, I am just kind of obsessed with this man and what he is doing for his country. Sometimes we really do not appreciate the freedom we have to create like we should. We can be artists, we can be writers, we can be performers, and we can be collectors of whatever kind of art we want. This is a great thing and when there is so much in life that we cannot control, at least we have art— in any form— to satisfy our desire for expression of whatever needs to be expressed.

Here’s Gharem’s NPR interview

And here is his awesome website:

Thanks Veterans and Soldiers, and An Uncle Sam Review

Happy Veteran’s Day y’all! Thank you to all of the soldiers who have served this country from the Revolution to now. Whether the government was right to declare war our not, no amount of irresponsible political ploy can diminish the nobility of the sacrifice you all gave for this country. And I want to give a special shout out to my dear friend in Afghanistan right now. He’ll be home in ten days but honestly it cannot be soon enough. He is in my thoughts and prayers and I know that many, myself included, cannot wait to have him back in the States. And all the veterans, soldiers, and their families have my sincere thanks.

This country was founded on the efforts of solders fighting wars that often they did fully understand or perhaps even support. This post will be far too brief to cover the enormity of political and cultural intricacies of war and its implications on art, but art— broadly and specifically, bodily and subtly— has been used to support and condemn war efforts the world over. Artists have always responded to acts of war with visual dialogue. Some responded in support of the cause and used art to boost the moral of soldiers and citizens at home, while others used their talent to declare their anti-war sympathies. One of the most popular and oldest images to respond to war is the iconic Uncle Sam, the embodiment of American patriotism.

The term Uncle Sam is older than the image, reputedly inspired by  a meat packer from Troy, NY named Samuel Wilson. WIlson supplied rations for the soldiers during the War of 1812. There was a requirement at the time for contractors to stamp the food they were sending with their name and where the rations came from. Wilson’s packages were labeled “E.A – US.” When someone asked what that stood for, a coworker jokingly replied with “Elbert Anderson (the contractor) and Uncle Sam,” referring to Sam Wilson, though “US” actually stood for United States.

The earliest known personification of the United States was “Columbia”  first appearing in 1738 as an early Lady Liberty figure. Seventy-eight years later the first use of Uncle Sam in literature appeared in the 1816 allegorical book “The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search After His Lost Honor” by Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy. Also, a Revolutionary war song from 1775, probably the original “Yankee Doodle,” mentions an Uncle Sam in its lyrics, though it is not clear whether or not this reference is to Uncle Sam as a metaphor for the United States.  With the American Revolution, a second personification came about, the “Brother Jonathan” allegory that competed with the Uncle Sam symbol that finally surfaced during the War of 1812.

Originally, Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam stood for different things: Brother Jonathan was the country itself while Uncle Sam was the power of the government. But by the 1850s the two names were used interchangeably for the other. Similarly, the appearance of both personifications were interchangable went through a variety of revisions. For example, a print of Uncle Sam modeled after Benjamin Franklin appears in an issue of Harper’s Weekly from June, 3 1865, while an issue of the magazine from 1862 shows Brother Jonathan looking more like our modern expectation of Uncle Sam, only without that goatee.

By the end of the Civil War Brother Jonathan began to diminish in popularity and Uncle Sam became the favored face of America. But Uncle Sam did not have a standardized representation until James Montgomery Flagg created and published the image of Uncle Sam we all know for the cover of the July 6, 1916 issue of Lesley’s Weekly. Flagg needed to create an image to bolster recruitment for the WWI  military. He was inspired by a British recruitment poster of Lord Kitchner and modeled Uncle Sam’s pose to match. Under the print appeared the caption “What are you doing for Preparedness?” Between 1917 and 1918 more than four million copies of the image and been printed and distributed. During WWI, this portrait of Sam with the words “I Want You For The U.S. Army” was used as a recruiting poster. The poster was widely distributed and has subsequently been re-used numerous times with different captions.

Eventually, the image of Uncle Sam would be reused as political satire by political cartoonists. Tomas Nast is one of the earlier t and most famous political cartoonists to appropriate Uncle Sam and ironically his satires  also contributed to the image’s popularity. Nast was not the last to use Uncle Sam’s image as satire. Today you can hundreds of appropriations of the icon. Often the act of appropriating Uncle Sam is to criticize and undermine the authority of the US government. By altering what was once an image of camaraderie and support for the “American cause” the artist can challenge the government’s reliability through allegory, symbolism, context, and satire. Below I have added some of my favorite Uncle Sam appropriations and I invite you all to add your own or comment on the ones listed.

Oh, and I guess I should mention that in September 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as “the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.” Wilson died at age 88 in 1854, and was buried next to his wife Betsey Mann in the Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York, the town that calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”



Thomas Nast

1,400 Works of Degenerate Art Found in Nazi Collector’s Home

This past Monday Germany’s Focus magazine finally released official press information about a  stash of 20th century art that was discovered back in 2011 under the headline “The Nazi Treasure” (Der Nazi-Schatz). German investigators and tax officials discovered a cache of 1,400 pieces of “degenerate art” when they visited  the cluttered apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich. They found missing paintings, both known and previously unknown, by famous painters such as — it has Picasso, Renoir, Max Beckmann, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and other works have never been seen before now!  Gurlitt is the son of a WWII official who, obviously, was also an art collector during this time and probably had to hide his collection of so called “degenerate” art.

So degenerate art, what is that you may be asking? Well first, a little known fact about Hitler is that he a failed art school in Vienna. He was told he was not very talented, and he was rejected by the arts academies.  He held a grudge over the negative criticism, but he still considered himself an “arbitrator” of art. Later when he came into his power he organized the Degenerate Art Exhibition (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst”) in an effort to control Germany’s media and art culture. Hitler commanded Nazi solders to confiscate modern art that, according to him, promoted anti-Nazi ideas. According to the art school flunky, art could be deemed degenerate if it “insulted” German feeling, or destroyed and confused natural form or simply revealed an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill. So basically any art that showed support for free thinking ideologies was labeled degenerate, and that definition includes nearly all modernist art.

The exhibit was designed to promote the idea that modernism was a conspiracy by people who hated and conspired against German decency, also called Jewish-Bolshevist. (Although only six of the 112 artists included in the exhibition were in fact Jewish.) The second purpose of the Degenerate Art show was to identify which artists were considered verboten by the Nazi leadership. The exhibit consisted of 650 works of art by modernists like Marc ChagallGeorg GroszWassily KandinskyErnst Ludwig KirchnerPaul KleeGeorg Kolbe,Wilhelm LehmbruckFranz MarcEmil Nolde, Picasso and others; all of the art was stolen from German museums and galleries. Hitler and the Nazi leadership pulled off of museum walls thousands of pieces of art that were considered “degenerate,” and exhibited them in Berlin. The show ran from July 19 to November 30, 1937 and was hosted in the Institute of Archeology in the Hofgarten. The day before the exhibition started, Hitler delivered a speech declaring “merciless war” on cultural disintegration, attacking “chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers”. One million people attended the exhibition in its first six weeks which is an average of 20,000 people per day!— and the final estimate is that about 2,009,899 visitors attended the show.  Oh and the exhibition was held simultaneously with the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (“Great German Art Exhibition”), which served as a counterpoint to the Degenerate show. Its purpose was to example “proper German sensibility” and displayed the classical and “racially pure” type of art advocated by the Nazi regime. That exhibition was hosted near Hofgarten, in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst and was described as mediocre by modern sources; it attracted only about half the numbers of the Degenerate Art show.

So lol at Hitler!

Many works were displayed without frames and partially covered by derogatory slogans. No catalog was created for it, and it had to be reconstructed by modern scholars from secondary sources. But not all of the stolen art was put on display. Historians estimate that around 20% of great European art was stolen by Nazis during WWII, so there is a great deal of outstanding art to be found. The recently discovered Munich trove is  part of the continent’s seven-decade rediscovery of an artistic heritage that is still recovering from the Nazis’ efforts to wipe it out. This collection of looted art has an estimated value of $1.35 billon. Stolen art is known to be out there in private hands, but this kind of cache of nearly 1,500 works is really just unprecedented. It’s a mind blowing huge collection and I would just LOVE to be one of the historians there to document it.  I am sure that art historians will have their hands full recording it all and museums and dealers will be busy trying to figure out who owns which pieces— apparently there are some outstanding requests to locate some of the art found in this cache. But according to Anne-Marie O’Connor, a Jerusalem-based journalist interviewed for an NPR article, this discovery will probably affect the art market more than the art history, and drive up the price of paintings by these artists that are already privately owned.