Maud Lewis

Maud Lewis, Three Black Cats, 1960

Folk art has an undeserved reputation of being plain, uninspired, dull, or the worst of these “crafty.”  “Folk” is confused with “unskilled” which is not accurate. Folk means the art was produced for utilitarian purposes by an uneducated, in fine arts, creator. It also encompasses art by an indigenous culture. Because the artist did not receive a form art education, the images may lack traditional (Western) rules of proportion and perspective, but that does not make these works any less valuable, significant, skilled, or enjoyable.

Take for instance the art from Maud Lewis. I just can not get enough her her vivid color pallet and simple but emotive style. Born Maud Dowley in South Ohio, Nova Scotia on March 7, 1903, this artist began painting small Christmas cards to for her husband to sell in an effort to overcome their poverty. Together they lived in a small one room house with sleeping loft, without benefit of electricity or plumbing. Her husband Everett made a living selling fish from door to door, and her Christmas cards became popular with his customers who eagerly bought them as gifts. Eventually Maud began to paint on small canvas, none of her paintings are larger than 5 ft x 1 ft.6 inches, and expanded her subjects to include birds, insects, flowers, landscapes, oxen, and other animals. All of her paintings are bright and feature  a unique, flat stylization of her own invention. She never mixed colors; her technique was to first draw an outline and then apply pure paint straight from the tube. She also painted birds, flowers and butterflies on various parts of the tiny house in which they lived, and many articles within the house.

Maud Lewis’s house

As a child, Maud suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis resulting in physical deformities of her hands and face. Despite discomfort and sometimes pain, Maud painted through it, and eventually her work gained a localized following, and between 1945-1950 people began to come to her home seeking her paintings. She sold them for a modest two or three dollar, and only in the last three or four years of her life did they begin to sell for seven to ten dollars. She achieved national attention as a result of an article in the “Star Weekly” in 1964 and in 1965 she was featured on CBC-TV’s Telescope. Unfortunately, her arthritis prevented her from completing many of the orders she was inundated with. In recent years, her paintings have sold at auction for ever increasing prices. Two of her paintings have sold for more than $16,000, and her highest seller was “A Family Outing” going for $22,200.00. The painting was sold at a Bonham’s auction in Toronto Nov 30, 2009.

In the last year of her life, Maud Lewis stayed in one corner of her house, painting as often as she could while traveling back and forth to the hospital. She died in Digby, Nova Scotia on July 30, 1970. A large collection of Maud’s work can be found in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which has restored her original house and installed it in the gallery as part of a permanent Maud Lewis exhibit. Most of the Maud Lewis paintings on display are on loan to the AGNS. A steel memorial sculpture based on her house has been erected at the original site of her house in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. An imitation Maud Lewis house has been built a private museum in Liverpool, Nova Scotia.

There are several books about this incredible artist, a particularly good one is The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis, and three National Film Board of Canada documentaries: Maud Lewis – A World Without Shadows(1997), The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis (1998) and I Can Make Art … Like Maud Lewis (2005), a short film in which a group of sixth graders are inspired by Lewis’ work to create their own folk art. In 2009, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in conjunction with Greg Thompson Productions presented a play on Maud Lewis at the AGNS. A Happy Heart: The Maud Lewis Story was written and produced by Greg Thompson, the same writer and producer who brought Marilyn: Forever Blonde to the AGNS in 2008. Thompson wrote the one woman play on Maud while in Nova Scotia in 2008 after being inspired by this incredible woman.

SO now do you think “folk” means “bad” art? Its just like assuming a BA means you’ll make great art! Theres a great quote from Picasso that I can not recall off the top of my head, but in it he claims that after his formal art education he realized that in order to make great art advances he would need to “spend the rest of my life learning how to paint like a child.” There is some wisdom in that thought.

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Damien Hirst and Authorship

Hirst, 2014 GQ cover

A few weeks ago I attended a pretty great lecture about copyright issues artists often face. I kind of forgot about it until I did that post on the YBAs and found out a lot more about Hirst and the suspicions of idea stealing casting shade on his work, reminding me of the copyright lecture. So I decided to investigate a little further into these claims, since it was too much of a coincidence to ignore.

But first a quick summary of Hirst’s rise to stardom:

Damien Steven Hirst (born in Bristol on June 7, 1965) has managed to stand out among his YBA peers by becoming a savvy entrepreneur marketing his art. He was first inspired by Francis Davison after seeing his exhibit at the Hayward Gallery in staged by Julian Spalding in 1983. Davison made abstract collages from torn and cut coloured paper to which Hirst responded with “blew me away.” Well Hirst was so blown away that for the next two years he claims he modeled his own work after Davidson’s collages.  Hirst was then admitted to Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London in 1986, after two attempts, where he studied through 1989. In school Hirst was again inspired, this time by Micheal Craig-Martin when he saw his senior tutor’s piece An Oak Tree.

But Hirst’s art really got attention when death became his focus, providing finally the platform for his great success, and his chance to outshine the rest of the YBAs. While a student, Hirst was placed at a mortuary, and it was most likely this experience that compelled him to explore the theme of death and internal structures of the body in his most well-known works. His art features an menagerie’s worth of animals, dead and often dissected, preserved in formaldehyde. Probably the most familiar of these is a 14-foot (4.3 m) tiger shark immersed in formaldehyde in a large vitrine (clear display case) titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Hirst also made “spin paintings,” created on a round, rotating surface, and “spot paintings”, which are rows of randomly coloured circles created by his assistants.He is internationally recognized as the richest UK artist.  Some compare him to Jasper Johns and Jeff Koons in his ability to command huge prices for his works.

Hirst continued to do well by selling prints and accessories bearing his signature styles and images through his company, Other Criteria which he co-founded in 2005. But his biggest cash-in took place in Septemeber 2008 at Sotheby’s, London, where Hirst took an unconventional tactic in art exhibiting and auctioned his work directly to the public; by-passing his usual galleries. This two day auction, called “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” exceeded all predictions and brought in roughly $198 million for 218 items. He broke his own sale record with £10.3 million for The Golden Calf (an animal with 18-carat gold horns and hooves, preserved in formaldehyde) as well as the record for a one-artist auction— by ten fold!  Hirst was undoubtedly pleased, though according to the Independent the artist was not on board with the idea at first and had to be convinced by his business advisor.

 

Hirst, from his Butterfly Paintings

But his rapid accumulation of wealth and prominence did not shield him from critical attacks questioning his authenticity. Since 1999, Hirst has been called a plagiarizer in articles by journalists and artists. In 2010, Charles Johnson described in The Jackdaw 15 cases accusing Hirst of plagiarizing other work. Examples included Joseph Cornell’s claim that Hirst’s Pharmacy was a copy of a pice he made in 1943; Lori Precious who had made stained-glass window effects from butterfly wings from 1994 several years before Hirst; and John LeKay who did a crucified sheep in 1987. A spokesperson for Hirst said Charles Johnson’s article was “poor journalism” and that Hirst would be making a “comprehensive” rebuttal of the claim.

But many other critics point out that Hirst’s spin paintings and installations, particularly one of a ball on a jet of air, are barely altered versions of pieces made in the 1960s, hardly original. And the accusations just kept on coming.

Chef Marco Pierre White said Hirst stole from his Rising Sun, on display in the restaurant Quo Vadis, to make Butterflies on Mars. In 2000, Hirst was sued for breach of copyright over his sculpture, Hymn, which was a 20-foot (6.1 m), six ton, enlargement of his son Connor’s 14″ Young Scientist Anatomy Set, designed by Norman Emms, 10,000 of which are sold a year by Hull-based toy manufacturer Humbrol for £14.99 each. Hirst was forced through legal proceedings to prove his authorship which led to an out-of-court settlement requiring him to pay an undisclosed sum to two charities, Children Nationwide and the Toy Trust as well as a “good will payment” to Emms. This “charitable donation” was much less than what Emms hoped for, but Hirst also agreed to restrictions on further reproductions of his sculpture.

In 2006, Robert Dixon, a graphic artist, former research associate at the Royal College of Art and author of ‘Mathographics’, alleged that Hirst’s print Valium had “unmistakable similarities” to a design from his book. Hirst’s manager contested but his refutal did more damage than good. This explanation was that the origin of Hirst’s piece came from the book The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Geometry (1991) not realizing this was one place where Dixon’s design had been published.

In 2007, artist John LeKay  again accused Hirst of stealing his ideas, but this time asked only that Hirst acknowledge his him as an effluence. LeKay said he was once a friend of Damien Hirst between 1992 and 1994 and had given him a “marked-up duplicate copy” of a Carolina Biological Supply Company catalogue, adding “You have

Hirst, “For the Love of God”

no idea how much he got from this catalogue. The Cow Divided is on page 647 – it is a model of a cow divided down the centre, like his piece.” This refers to Hirst’s work Mother and Child, Divided—a cow and calf cut in half and placed in formaldehyde. LeKay’s goes on to say Hirst copied the idea of For the Love of God from a crystal skull he made in 1993, and pleaded for credit for his work saying, “I would like for Damien to acknowledge that ‘John really did inspire the skull and influenced my work a lot.'” Hirst’s copyright lawyer Paul Tackaberry reviewed images of LeKay’s and Hirst’s work and saw no basis for copyright infringement claims in a legal sense, but it does make one wonder about the legitimacy of LeKay’s accusation and the rest of  the allegations charging Hirst of plagiarizing. It seems that Hirst built a career in art making by not only sage marketing and promoting strategies (the man was undeniably an innovative entrepreneur) but also by deftly navigating the thin space between appropriation and stealing.

Finally, Jim Starr’s upheaval over Hirst’s GQ cover shot of Rihanna as the snaked-headed monster Medusa is the most recent blow to his authorship. Starr claims to have been the first to “portray the sexy snake-haired woman.” But I take issue with Starr on this one. By now Hirst has become an easy target, but Starr has little backing to his charge since there is an entire cannon of images of Medusa that outdate both Hirst and Starr. I suspect plagiarism claims are redundant when artists have been depicting something for more than 2,500 years. She was a popular icon through out Greece and even Carvaggio was inspired by her snaky charm enough to make her an unlikely icon of baroque art in the 17th century. In fact, Carvaggio’s Medusa, a “portrait” of the monster painted on a shield, is one of the most incisive images of myth ever created. So in this instance I will charge Hirst, and Starr as well, of being guilty of  creating dull art, ordinary, uninspired, and redundant of better works.

 

 

Art Term: Perspective

perspective

The term perspective used in the graphic arts is an approximation of distance/depth/space on a flat surface (2D) of an image as it is seen by the eye (3D). The two most characteristic features of perspective are that objects are drawn smaller as their distance from the observer increases and foreshortened (the size of an object’s dimensions along the line of sight are relatively shorter than dimensions across the line of sight). All of the angles within the image will converge together as an imaginary point in the distance replicating the effect of the vanishing point of a horizon line.

Another way to think about linear perspective is to imagine looking out a window. Within the painting, linear perspective mimics light passing from the scene through the “window” (the painting), to the viewer’s eye. Except the image is created on the flat surface of the canvas or paper, and there is no receding background, just the illusion of depth. The adjustment of size between objects and the trick of angling edges of objects toward the “horizon” creates an illusion, ergo perspective, of depth and distance.

Before the practice of perspective, early paintings and drawings sized objects and characters hierarchically according to their spiritual or thematic importance, not their distance from the viewer, and they did not use foreshortening. This is called “vertical perspective” in which the most important figures are shown as the highest and largest in the composition. They are devoid of space and indicate relative positioning of compositional elements with overlapping and flattened figures. This common in paintings from the Parthenon Marbles and in palace paintings of Ancient Egypt’s royal families. Members of the royal family and gods would be the largest among the figures and distance can only be suggested by placing the “nearer” figures below the larger figures. Byzantine paintings also follow the design of vertical perspective.

While linear perspective was known to the early Romans and Greeks, the means of employing this art device were lost to the Italians. It was only in the early 15th century, right at the start of the Italian Renaissance, that linear perspective became the standard. The architect Filippo Brunelleschi is credited with the “discovery” of the mathematical laws of linear perspective. Brunelleschi observed that when you have a fixed, single point of view, parallel lines seem to converge at together at an imaginary point in the distanceHe then applied this idea of a single vanishing point to a canvas, and discovered a method for calculating -and drawing – depth. He was able to demonstrate its basic principles, including the concept of the vanishing point, with two panels and a mirror. The first panel was a painting depicting the Florentine Baptistery as viewed frontally from the western portal of the Palazzo Vecchio cathedral (at the time it was unfinished), and second shows the Palazzo Vecchio as seen obliquely from its northwest corner. 

 

fig. 1

Brunelleschi drilled a hole drilled through the centric vanishing point of the Baptistery panel allowing the viewer to peer through from behind. Brunelleschi intended that the viewer stand in front of the real Baptistry with a mirror in between the scene and the panel. As the mirror was moved into and out of view, the observer saw the striking similarity between the actual view of the Baptistery, and the reflected view of the painted Baptistery image. Moving the mirror proved perspective through virtual overlay; through the lack of change between the image and reality. On his panel, Brunelleschi used silver leaf in the sky to portray its luminosity and drifting clouds. Brunelleschi wanted his new perspective “realism” to be tested not by comparing the painted image to the actual Baptistery but to its reflection in a mirror according to the Euclidean laws of geometric optics. This feat vividly showed artists how they might paint their images, not merely as flat two-dimensional shapes, but more like three-dimensional structures just as mirrors reflect them. Daly, both panels of Brunelleschi’s have since been lost.

Here is a link to a youtube video that demonstrates Brunelleschi’s experiment: