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.

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.

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.




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