Great Falls, Montana is one of those cities you hear about when you are studying the Lewis & Clark expedition and the many travails they experienced along the Missouri River, but you probably would never go there for the weekend. However, it happens to be the final resting place of the great 19th century cowboy painter, Charles Russell and is now the home of the museum bearing his name. The museum invited me to come last weekend to their annual art auction where one of my recent paintings was exhibited and was to be sold.
Buck Lake North Shore - oil on panel, 22 x 30"
The creation of beauty is a worthy goal of an artist, whether painter, sculptor, musician or performer. But inevitably the question comes up – "what is beauty?" Isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder and a subjective standard of measurement?
The depiction of beauty used to be the most common characteristic of representational art through each phase in modern history until the birth of impressionism. Is impressionistic art not beautiful? I am not suggesting that. But you can't examine art of the 19th century without examining the development of philosophy that was also engulfing the intellectual world at that time and which was a great influence on art. This change in philosophy, carried largely by existentialism, saw the world as fragmented, and man as a fragmented part of it. Impressionist art became a vehicle to express modern man's view of the fragmentation of truth and life.
Did I interject the word "truth" in this discussion? Can't there be a discussion about art without messing it up with a dissertation on the nature of truth? I don't believe you can. By the time Cezanne had painted "Poplars at Giverney, Sunrise" (1888) modern philosophy had deconstructed truth and so, the natural corollary was the deconstruction of reality. Impressionism was not just a new technique in painting. It expressed a world view. Nature was reduced to basic geometric forms, a fragmented and broken appearance. Certainly impressionistic paintings often depict a vitality and freshness that is appealing, but the fragmentation of reality brought fragmentation to the appearance of man himself.
I am not ready to denounce all impressionism as evil or deleterious to the quality of art. There are many artists who use impressionistic techniques that depict a realistic subject with broken color that, when viewed from any distance looks beautiful. But as the impressionistic movement showed man as a broken and fragmented object, it was soon replaced by the abstract movement that eventually honored anything as art without regard for beauty. The piece of art that was voted the most influential of the 20th century was "Fountain" by Duchamp (1917) where a common porcelain urinal was displayed as art. When you abandoned your belief as to what is beauty in art, and you are guided by an anti-rational, anti-art philosophy, you will accept anything as art.
Without the foundation of truth, art becomes an expression of philosophical abandon, where reality becomes so fragmented that it disappears.
Without the foundation of truth, art becomes an expression of philosophical abandon, where reality becomes so fragmented that it disappears. There is no mistake that the technique in art fits the world view being presented. Where the realism in art of the Renaissance depicted man's hope, the technique of modern art is to depict people who are made to be less than people, and as such, their humanity is lost.
Is art a reflection of the artist's worldview and thus his statement on the nature of truth? In his book Picasso's Picasso, David Duncan sums up Picasso's work this way. "Of course, not one of these pictures was actually a portrait but his prophecy of a ruined world."
So why do we paint? Is it to depict some philosophers statement and thus to infer hidden meaning in our subject?
With the resurgence of classical realism in the painting world, I welcome the exaltation of beauty and would consider it a worthy goal for any painter. And with the depiction of beauty comes a statement confirming the nature of truth – truth that is founded in a realistic worldview. I don't believe we are here by chance and therefore, my work does not depict a fragmented world but one bound together by reason and hope.