Saturday, February 28, 2009

First Impressions

A friend recently suggested to me that a person such as myself should perhaps be collecting art that was a little more respectable, and it got me to thinking about how the first artistic images we are exposed to in our childhood have an insidious influence on the type of art we gravitate toward – and in some cases, create – later in life. Undoubtedly one could train oneself to enjoy more "sophisticated" works of art, but those of us who get a rush out of falling in love with a piece of art on pure gut instinct would surely not be satisfied with such an academic pursuit.

Soon afterward, a New York Times article about an exhibit of the picture postcards the great photographer Walker Evans started collecting when he was in grade school brought the importance of this topic into focus for me: "In a time when schools across the country are slashing their art programs, this unusual exhibition suggests the often decisive effect of our earliest aesthetic experiences. 'Home is where we start from,' wrote the psychologist D. W. Winnicott. The richer the formative experiences there, the better for everyone."

Henry Justice Ford – "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" from The Blue Fairy Book

It stands to reason that if we spent our youth watching anime, or playing with Totoro, or obsessing about comics, or skateboarding or surfing or smashing our heads on the punk rock, elements of that aesthetic are bound to creep into our psyche and take over our pleasure centers, forever altering the way we perceive things. Probably that's why many younger people are gravitating toward more emotional, narrative, figurative art, which has long been disparaged in the fine art world.

Arthur Rackham – "Siegfried Kills Fafner" from Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods

Personally, I grew up deep in the woods without a television or any children of my age around. The only movie I was ever taken to as a child was Star Wars – and that was only after incessant begging. So most of my visual influences were from children's literature – especially the musty Victorian and Edwardian classics which lurked on the dimly lit shelves of the town library. These old books offered up an illustration every so often, usually a small drawing at the chapter heading and gorgeous color plates by someone like Arthur Rackham or N.C. Wyeth, which popped up unexpectedly, somewhat out of sync with the story.

N.C. Wyeth – "I Stood Like One Thunderstruck" from Robinson Crusoe

The only piece of serious art that hung in my childhood home was a rather incongruous Gauguin lithograph that graced the wall of my parents' bedroom. I believe it had once belonged to my father's mother, as she was quite artistic and enjoyed the tropics. My father must have acquired it from her in one of her downsizing moves.

Paul Gauguin – "Fatata te miti" ("By the Sea")

The first original art I remember seeing was at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, a nearby park that visiting grandparents would often take us to in a desperate quest to expose us to some "culture" and prevent us from growing up to be backwoods hicks. About 70 years earlier, Augustus Saint-Gaudens had started a summer art colony for his New York artist friends in Cornish, New Hampshire. After his death, his house and extensive gardens became a national park, and as a result many muggy summer afternoons of my childhood were spent traipsing through the statuary.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens – "Diana"

Maxfield Parrish's father, Stephen Parrish, was a friend of Saint-Gaudens, and encouraged young Maxfield to get up to Cornish and rub elbows with his fellow artists. Even now, there are an inordinate number of Parrish paintings floating around the Windsor-Cornish-Plainfield area, so if you're ever stuck up there for a few days, you should go hunt them down.

Maxfield Parrish – "Morning"

I'm not sure exactly which of Parrish's paintings were on view that fateful day, although they made a lasting impression on me. I recall being seated near one of them during some sort of chamber music concert. If there are any 8-year-olds who appreciate chamber music, I was certainly not among them, so I tuned out the music and became mesmerized by the art instead. I have a lingering memory of gorgeous, unearthly light on golden skin and draping fabric, infused with elegance and serenity. Something like this:

Maxfield Parrish – "Interlude"

While to this day I view Maxfield Parrish's oeuvre with some reverence, he has always been considered by the art establishment to be a bit of a hack. But as all the masters of the Golden Age of Illustration have long been disregarded by the "fine" art world, I guess he's in good company. For anyone who doesn't know about the great illustrators of this period, I suggest a look at Howard Pyle, Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, for starters.

Maxfield Parrish – "Ecstasy"

Later on, science fiction art certainly had its influence on me, I am sorry to say. The lurid covers of countless pulp paperbacks provided me with visual stimulation in an even baser form than the fanciful illustrations on which I was weaned. At this point in my aesthetic development, I was probably beyond saving. Clearly my "conceptual" and "abstract" settings had atrophied beyond any hope of recovery. Just for my own enjoyment, here is a little tour through the ages of pulp illustration for Edgar Rice Burroughs' wonderful Barsoom series:

Frank SchoonoverA Princess of Mars

Unknown – Synthetic Men of Mars

Frank Frazetta – cover art for A Fighting Man of Mars

Inevitably, I became deeply enamored with Van Gogh's "Starry Night" in high school (like everyone else in the world, I expect). I even sang "Vincent," Don McLean's tribute to the painting, in a talent show, accompanied on piano by my best friend. I believe I can attribute my appreciation for strange blue paintings and nightscapes to the insidious influence of the view from Van Gogh's window in the sanitarium at Saint-Rémy. "Color expresses something in itself," Van Gogh insisted. "One cannot do without this, one must use it. What is beautiful, really beautiful – is also correct.”

Van Gogh once wrote, "When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion, then I go out and paint the stars." When I have a terrible need of meaning, something that transcends the mundane and elevates the spirit, I find it in the kind of art that describes emotion, penetrates the world of dreams and illuminates the intangible and mysterious. What sort of art that is will undoubtedly be different for every individual. To my endless joy, I've been lucky enough to discover what it is for me.

If you'd like to share some of the images that shaped your aesthetic, you can do so here.

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