Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


The 20th Century brought more change to the practice of painting than did any previous period. The two main catalysts for this change were (1) literary philosophies like Dada and Surrealism, and (2) photography. While the former influences led artists away from literal translations of what they saw, the latter led them closer toward them. Perhaps no figurative painter represents the 20th Century better than does Edward Hopper (1882-1967), whose famous Nighthawks is shown in detail above. Hopper is known for the atmosphere of isolation and alienation in his subjects. Strong, spare compositions and effective use of negative space enhance that ethos, but more than anything, it was his use of photographs that gave his figures such a powerful air of anonymity.

Hopper was strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Eakins (1884-1915), America's last great classical figurative painter. Even so, the subjects of Eakins' The Gross Clinic share more in common with Rembrandt's Sacrifice of Isaac from 300 years earlier than with Nighthawks, painted 26 years after Eakins' death. Part of the art of drawing is learning to forget what one knows about a subject, and focusing on what one sees--or at least balancing the two. Working from photographs removes the artist from the subject enough to focus completely on the visual. The little distortions and exaggerations that brought extra life to the work of Eakins and Rembrandt are absent from Hopper. It's the difference between a botanical description of a tree in a textbook and a poem (by someone other than Joyce Killmer) about that same tree. Sadly, the kind of poetry that Rembrandt and Eakins traded in is all but extinct today.

The focus on the visual reached its apogee with the Photorealism movement. Chuck Close's Big Self Portrait is a 107.5” x 83.5” painting that faithfully reproduces, on a huge scale, a mundane black-and-white photograph. Executed in 1968, this was not the first photorealistic painting, but it was probably the one that began the movement. To the photorealists, the use of composition, light and color contrast, and other techniques to inject drama or emotion into a painting were tired gimmicks to be cast aside in favor of a distilled art form concerned purely with painting. Recently, artists have used photorealist techniques to create work of a wider and more complex scope, that is often referred to as “hyper-realism.” Such work usually uses photography, but is not as totally reliant on it. The hyper-realists even count within their ranks a number of sculptors, including Duane Hanson, whose life-sized figures were easily mistaken for real people. The Australian Ron Mueck took Hanson's trompe l'oeil effect and disconcerted the viewer by changing the scale, making his life-like figures much larger or smaller than life. Even more disconcerting is Robert Lazzarini's work. In almost the inverse of photorealism, his distorted life-like sculptures of common objects make the three-dimensional appear flat.

The use of photography has deeply affected my own little genre of wildlife art. Although much of what is being produced today is technically photorealism, few contemporary practitioners have the skill to produce it effectively.
My friend and mentor Carl Brenders produces work that is quite close to photorealism, but he usually can't resist those “gimmicks” of composition, color theory, etc. His Snow Leopard (top) is as close to that genre as any wildlife painting. More typical of his later work is Kalahari (above), which treats the viewer to the best aspects of photorealism, combined with rich, dynamic, and textural “gimmicks.”

In recent years, he's taken the knowledge from many years of closely studying photographs to produce work that is less reliant on them, but equally realistic, like the eagle and crow in Without Warning. Brenders' career over the past 20 years partially parallels the evolution of photorealism to hyper-realism. Some very fine photorealistic wildlife art is also being done by Mark Kelso of Indiana, whose work extends to the abstract, as well.

Overall, wildlife art has not progressed through the age of photography quite as gracefully as has painting in general. Reliance on photos has all but eliminated the kind of poetry seen in work like Audubon's Bobwhites. While it lacks the anatomical precision of much contemporary work, this painting speaks of deeper truths about nature in a dying tongue. While the old poetry of wildlife art vanishes into the solvent of clinical translation, classical drawing and painting still appears to be healthy in the sister-genre of western art, an arena that, unfortunately, can rarely hold my interest much longer than seven or eight seconds.
upper: NIGHTHAWKS (detail-1942) oil painting by Edward Hopper
second: THE GROSS CLINIC (1875) oil painting by Thomas Eakins
third: BIG SELF PORTRAIT (1968) acrylic painting by Chuck Close
fourth: SNOW LEOPARD watercolor/gouache by Carl Brenders
fifth: KALAHARI watercolor/gouache by Carl Brenders
sixth: WITHOUT WARNING watercolor/gouache by Carl Brenders
lower: BOBWHITE mixed media by John James Audubon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed both of these pieces very much. I'm always interested in the ways in which artists do (or don't) work with photographs as reference material for their drawings and paintings. When it comes to wildlife art, I'm sometimes conflicted by what I see. While I can appreciate that it's difficult for artists to work from live subjects, causing them to depend on photos for reference material, I'm sometimes a little sorry to find that the results are... hmm...perhaps too much like a photograph (?). That said, the technical skill of many works can be very masterful. However, I do like to see how each artist internalizes what they know of a creature, and how they choose to express the shape, texture, mass, movement and manner of the subject. That actually applies to nature photography as well. There are "pretty" nature photos, and then there are photos that tell a story or teach me something about a creature. The second group are the photos I most enjoy. As far as wildlife art is concerned, I very much enjoy looking at artists' sketches and studies done in the field, or from salvaged specimens and the like. Perhaps I'm looking for some of that "poetry" that you mentioned in your piece.
Thanks for a very good read!

5:45 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. In the next installation, I'll be talking about my own use of photographs.

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll be looking forward to seeing Part 3!

1:33 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

I'm sure you're familiar with the work already, Carel - in fact, I feel as though I may have mentioned it in the past - but I thought I'd point to Walton Ford's work. It in heavily indebted to Audubon's paintings, but very satisfying all the same.

Then, of course, there is your own, which is neither overly devoted to any photographic source material, nor too stylized for most. I still look forward to the day I see one in person!

2:39 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, Double-H. I agree that Ford's work is wonderful. Certainly not contaminated from too much photographic reference.

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