There are more fools in the world than there are people.
- Heinrich Heine
I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can't go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.
- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Nobody wants to play the fool. I’d prefer to be a James Bond kind of character: always comfortable in my own skin, never losing my nerve, ever ready with the perfect witty retort, impeccably dressed no matter what the situation, miraculously in the know as to how to pronounce and play all of those obscure French games of chance. Wouldn’t that be great? I think so. But…
Even though my aspirations are high, my performance in real life is less than sterling. I play the fool far too often. This occurs for a host of reasons: the occasional shortfall in self-confidence, an entrenched aversion to dishonesty and deception, the excessive exuberance I can experience when caught up in an exhilarating moment, an insane playfulness that crops up in the most inappropriate situations, the inevitable clouding of judgement that comes with inebriation, a propensity to serve up awkward witticisms that escape from my lips without even the most meager second’s consideration. Honestly, I could go on forever.
And though I take no pleasure in playing the fool, often experiencing a solid bit of shame and discomfit after coming up short for the zillionth time, I’m really not ready to attend charm school, take any snake oil cure or undergo a frontal lobotomy that will render me perfectly debonair, clever and appropriate. Without a doubt, I believe that it is a willingness to transgress beyond social mores and conventions, to tolerate personal exposure and risk, that actually transforms human interaction into something meaningful.
My perspective as an artist mirrors this opinion; significant artwork cannot be created without revelation and peril. Sometimes that means pushing innovation to such an extent that aesthetic evaluation becomes nearly impossible. In other instances, the artist taps into his or her inner workings, dredging up profound memories, exposing fears, desires, proclivities and weaknesses, and in the process finds a visual language to convincingly excite an empathetic response in the viewer. It only follows that artists striving to achieve significant expression will often create unsuccessful or discomfiting artwork. (Unfortunately, my own oeuvre is generously stocked with plenty of unquestionable failures.) The fact is great artists often make bad art.
While considering writing a blog entry providing a small selection of bad paintings, I immediately thought of the work of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Matisse is undoubtedly one of the giants of modernism. He helped redefine how form and space are represented in art, making color the predominant element in their depiction. He recognized that a painting is a two dimensional object that need not convince an audience that it is anything more. Therefore, he ignored the rules of perspective, freed color from literalness, minimalized the effects of light and shadow on form and readily embraced distortion when doing so heightened expression. Often his strange combinations of clashing colors inexplicably sing, his layering of complex patterning achieve a precarious harmony.
In his early days of experimentation and revolt, Matisse’s work is consistently of high quality, but at midcareer he has regular moments of lost resolve. He begins to seek the comfort of defining form and volume, of using natural color, of recording features and details convincingly. For me, this is understandable; Matisse was nostalgic for a facility that he surrendered when he adopted a modernist approach to representation. Picasso experienced this also, but he would change modes completely, fully adopting a style that suited his mood and subject matter, usually producing a successful work. Matisse took a different approach. He attempted to straddle opposing sensibilities, borrowing elements anchored in both fauvist and realist doctrine. The resulting hybrids are often particularly unsatisfying.
|Henri Matisse - Odalisque with Red Culottes - 1921|
|Henri Matisse - Portrait of Marguerite Sleeping - 1920|
|Henri Matisse - Reclining Odalisque -1911|
Similarly Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) retreated from an impressionist approach to painting and sought to revive in his work traditional features embraced by the great masters of the past. It was impossible given his sensibilities and years of experience to simply change gears and fully adopt techniques and conventions never before mastered, so his work, as with that of Matisse, suffered during this period of doubt. This was unfortunate for at those times Renoir unreservedly worked in an impressionist manner, particularly in the landscapes, he achieved a beauty unsurpassed. Renoir was further handicapped by two other weaknesses: an inclination to portray the cute and pretty and an admitted fixation on flesh, so his oeuvre is peppered with paintings of doe-eyed little girls in frilly dresses, fashionable mademoiselles cuddling adorable lap dogs and fleshy nudes cavorting in unconvincing landscapes.
|Pierre Auguste Renoir - Bathers - 1918-19|
|Pierre Auguste Renoir - After the Bath - 1910=12|
|Pierre Auguste Renoir - La Toilette - 1888|
|Pierre Auguste Renoir - The Judgement of Paris - 1908|
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) also labored to maintain a commitment to a modern idiom, in his case an expressionist mode of representation. Critical to an expressionist approach is intuition and spontaneity, the artwork becoming a direct, unfiltered, emotional response to visual subject matter, and, at his best, Kirchner outshines his contemporaries in readily accessing an internal cache of associations and reactions to subject matter and finding a unique, personal language to convey his perspective to his audience. Unfortunately, Kirchner became somewhat unhinged after his military service during WWI and a period of drug addiction. He was, simply put, physically and mentally depleted, and his paintings suffered. Now hard-edged outlines, permitting no ambiguity or interpenetration, contained discrete forms. Color was applied in large flat unnuanced zones. The paintings no longer result from spontaneity and improvisation; they become leaden.
|Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Albert Mueller and his Wife - 1925-26|
|Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Ballspielerinnen - 1931-32|
|Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Kopf des Malers (Selbstbildnis) - 1925|
Artists at times become so focused on technique that all other concerns diminish in comparison. Balthus (1908-2001) had established himself as an artist by creating images charged with a powerful sexual urgency that, on occasion, startled and disturbed his audience. His early work displays remarkable invention and a catlike sense of balance. At midcareer, surface texture became important to him, and the resulting paintings are absolute jewels, testifying to the laborious application of countless layers of paint while still retaining the freshness and spontaneity of a study. Much to the detriment of his paintings, he eventually became obsessed with surface texture, an obsession that overshadowed all other aesthetic concerns in his work. The resulting work is flat, static and awkward.
|Balthus - Girl at a Window - 1957|
|Balthus - Large Landscape with a Tree - 1957|
|Balthus - The Moth - 1960|
I should note before moving on that fortunately Balthus experienced a personal renaissance at the end of his career, generating work that retained a focus on surface while embracing a new form of imagery inspired by Eastern Art.
I’m not so sure why I started this entry by addressing artists who early on successfully transitioned into an innovative approach to representation but later on in their careers questioned their convictions or lost the fortitude to maintain that approach. Probably the opposite was most commonly the case. Artists, experimenting in technique or developing a new aesthetic, often produce unsatisfying work early on in their careers.
For instance, while Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) struggled to shed the discipline imposed in the creation of representational imagery, Lucian Freud (1922-2011) hesitated to permit himself the luxury of depicting form and space illusionistically, retaining modernist elements like distortion and flattening of volume in his early work. While moving in opposite directions aesthetically, both artists managed to create representational images that were noncommittal, awkward and frankly embarrassing.
|Jackson Pollock - Going West - 1934-35|
|Jackson Pollock - Woman - 1930|
|Lucian Freud - Gerald Wilde - 1943|
|Lucian Freud - Girl in a Dark Sweater - 1947|
|Lucian Freud - Stephen Spender - 1940|
Though he wasn’t striving to radically change the manner in which imagery is presented, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) struggled to master basic techniques of representation in his first years working as an artist. His early paintings resemble folk art produced by untrained amateurs. His figures are stiff. They don’t seem to breathe and have blood flowing through their veins. The clothing they wear is elaborately painted in great detail, but volume is unconvincingly presented. There doesn’t appear to be a light source, and no body of flesh and blood defines the fabric’s folds and creases. When the figure is presented in an outdoor setting, the landscape is poorly painted and reads more like the flat backdrops used in early
|Francisco Goya - Don Manuel Osorio - 1987-88|
|Francisco Goya - The White Duchess - 1795|
|Francisco Goya - Jose Costa y Bonells - c1810|
Sometimes the tastes of the era in which an artist lives can compel him or her to produce work that today makes us cringe in discomfit. For instance, after the Napoleonic Wars,
became obsessed with the exotic. France, in particular, having been introduced to
Islamic culture during its military forays into Egypt
embraced a distorted Orientalism based on a surface level appreciation of the
customs and mores of a hitherto inaccessible people. Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) provided for a public hungry for
romantic escapism images of enticing odalisques ensconced in a sultan’s harem
and turbaned warriors armed with bejeweled scimitars and mounted on fiery
steeds. Today, as accomplished as these
works clearly are, they disturb us because they are founded on a sentiment of
national chauvinism and offer a vision of a rich and diverse culture based on
prurient and vapid stereotypes. Syria
|Eugene Delacroix - The Women of Algiers - 1834|
|Eugene Delacroix - Tiger Hunt - 1854|
|Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - Le Grande Odalisque - 1814|
|Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - The Little Bather in the Harem - 1828|
The Victorian Era seems to be a period of conflicting motivations. While the most powerful European nations vied shamelessly to accumulate territorial possessions and subdue and oppress indigenous populations… while rapacious industrial entities blindly exploited generations of poor and ignorant workers, in educated and privileged circles the highest moral ideals were purported. In
perhaps the most successful and egregious beneficiary of colonial and
capitalist opportunity at that time, these ideals were pushed to an extreme,
creating a milieu defined by a saccharine sentimentality and a rigid code of
morality. At the height of the Victorian
Era, a loose group of English artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites shared an
interest in medieval art, rejecting comfortable visual conventions long
established since the Renaissance. They
promoted personal invention, attention to detail throughout a composition and
the use of bright colors as favored particularly in Quattrocento Italian
art. To some degree, the Pre-Raphaelites
revitalized representational art. But
though their images were unquestionably admirable and accomplished, they were
often hampered by the expectations and restrictions of the prevailing zeitgeist
of their day. Often their images are
painfully sweet and sentimental or exhibit a patriotic or racial bias which
today is difficult to stomach. Though a
good many of their images are erotically charged, to avoid offending the
prevailing code of morality, nudity and sexuality had to be addressed within a
historic, religious or mythological context – creating a weirdly disturbing
|Dante Gabriel Rossetti - The Beloved - 1865-66|
|Ford Madox Brown - The Last of England - 1855|
|William Holman Hunt - Isabella and the Pot of Basil - 1868|
|William Holman Hunt - The Awakening Conscience - 1853|
|John Collier - Lady Godiva - c1897|
|Edward Poynter - Diadumene - 1883|
So unsuccessful artwork can result from a variety of causes: the inevitable experimentation that occurs when pushing into unchartered territory, the inability to sustain a radical stance within one’s output, the imbalance that occurs when technical innovation dominates all other concerns for the artist or the embracing of (or succumbing to) the tastes, predilections and moral codes of contemporary society – no matter how untenable or extreme those influences are. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), arguably the greatest innovator within the history of art, having reinvented painting, sculpture, printmaking and ceramics in his lifetime, was riddled with self-doubt and at times thought himself a clown pandering to the caprices of his age.
In art, the mass of people no longer seek consolation and exaltation, but those who are refined, rich, unoccupied, who are distillers of quintessences, seek what is new, strange, original, extravagant, scandalous. I myself - since Cubism and before - have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities that have passed through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today - as you know - I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I do not have the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, they were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited - as best he could - the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere,
- Pablo Picasso, Interview with Giovanni Papini, 1952
It's distressing to read these words of Picasso and recognize that in spite of his unfathomable accomplishments he was still beset with insecurities. It makes his struggles all the more heroic that he was never sure if his efforts were in any way worthwhile. Picasso put himself out there. And I guess that's what this entry is really about.
Perhaps surprisingly, a good many of the artists featured in this entry (an entry which exposes images I find aesthetically unsatisfying or contextually embarrassing) are among those I most admire - artists that I've researched in print and online - those for whom, when featured in a show or exhibition, I'll get motivated to visit a gallery or museum. But then again, this observation probably isn't that surprising. Let's circle back to the assertion with which I opened this entry: that meaningful communication is impossible without exposure. I believe this applies to whether one's painting a masterpiece or having a chat with the barista at Starbucks. So I have a piece of friendly advice to my readers today: Be the fool!
As always I encourage my readers to comment here, but if you would prefer to comment privately, you may email me at email@example.com.