Unreal Nature

November 30, 2015

A Powerful Rival, Intent on Controlling the Ground

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… these may nourish the new in exactly the same ways that they betray the familiar.

Continuing through High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… advertising has spoken in a broad variety of dialects, not just waxing grandiloquent, but also offering the laconic propositions of object displays, the tiny, crowded chatter of mail-order catalogs, and the sly persuasions of magazine pictorials. Where did that pervasive, multifaceted language come from, what has it had to do with art … ?

… Advertising, after all, is not an upstart poor neighbor of painting and sculpture, one that annoys like graffiti or amuses like comics. It is a powerful rival, intent on controlling the ground.

… Apologists like to argue that advertising is universal and ageless — that the Christian cross, for example, was essentially a forerunner of the corporate logo, and that the Olympian gods were products of the same strategy of personification that brought us Speedy Alka-Seltzer and the Frito Bandito. But in fact modern art and modern advertising were born together in the late nineteenth century.

cheret_LetGirard
Jules Chéret, Les Girard: L’Horloge Champs-Élysées, 1879

[ … ]

… Trying to portray a woman of Arles as a secular madonna who would comfort sailors on the sea, he [van Gogh] described the colors he had chosen (” … discordant sharps of crude pink, crude orange, and crude green … softened by flats of red and green”) as making the work “like a chromolithograph from a cheap shop.” In another corner of the same domain of public, commercial imagery where Seurat found the seed of something specifically urban, frivolous, and mechanistic, van Gogh found a useful analogy for the look he was seeking, of the rural, pious and irrational.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] And where Seurat responded to an individual commercial talent [Jules Chéret] as bearing the spirit of the city and the age, van Gogh saw the general anonymous character of a mass-production process as appropriate to his efforts to express the quality of an individual. But in both cases, they saw vulgarity and kitsch — simplified sentiments or crude means that were outside the decorums of painting — as routes to embodying new kinds of emotional power in their work.

vanGogh_LaBerceuse1889
Vincent van Gogh, La Berceuse (Madame Roulin), 1889

The relationship between Seurat and Chéret inaugurates the specific dialog between the imagery of advertising and the development of modern painting; and with the story of van Gogh’s colors, it also belongs to a broader history, in which advertising has been a prime participant, of the effects of modern mechanical reproduction on art in our era. In that larger field of inquiry, this first case of the poster-maker and the painter stands witness to an interesting principle of give and take.

[line break added] We can easily see how the advent of mechanical reproduction can coarsen our view of the high tradition of painting, and put modern commerce into a parasitic relationship with the individual creativity of the past. But Seurat’s and van Gogh’s initial brushes with chromolithography suggest two quite different lessons: that modern reproductive techniques may open up, by individual innovations as well as inadvertent side effects, an independent gamut of possibilities; and that these may nourish the new in exactly the same ways that they betray the familiar.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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