Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Exploring: Art or Illustration?

Groundhog Day by Andrew Wyeth, 1959

Andrew Wyeth was on the outs with the New York art world through most of his career and at the point of his death in 2009. As related in the 2014 book Rethinking Andrew Wyeth, edited by David Cateforis, Wyeth came under harsh attack for being a mere illustrator, rather than a serious painter. The opening chapter of the book cites art critic Jay Jacobs, who wrote in Art in America that Wyeth primarily used “not pictorial but literary” devices. He cited Groundhog Day, in which “a knife, plate and cup await the arrival of some unseen personage.” He declared that Wyeth has a “linear and literary style” and castigated his vocabulary as that of “commercial illustration, not serious painting.” Another critic, Eugene M. Leake, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, found Wyeth’s portraits to be “characters in a friendly novel or … sentimental illustrations in an attic album.” 

It is not known if the insult of “illustrator” would have been used if Andrew Wyeth’s father had not been Newell Convers Wyeth, one of America's most famous illustrators and if it were not also known that the only formal art training Andrew Wyeth received was from this man.

Nevertheless, these critics raise an interesting question: what is art and what is mere illustration?

No one felt this dichotomy more keenly than N. C. Wyeth himself. The elder Wyeth was always seeking to find the money that would enable him to paint for art's sake, but his responsibilities tied him to his lucrative art for books, magazines, and commissions. 

In a painful letter written on July 16, 1911, the elder Wyeth derided his work: “The fact is that in every case we have been more or less journalists—news reporters—taught to grasp the unique, the obviously picturesque, the essentially dramatic, sifting out here and there striking and novel situations, queer and tragic events. We were taught to shut our eyes to the simple and glorious beauties about us, to seek the strange and unusual. My Oh! My!! What a distant call to the true realms of painting! The eternal sunlight is discarded for plunging bronco-busters; the glint of the brooks is passed by for raring and tearing automobiles; the wind in the trees gives way to the driving airship! To conclude, we were taught essentially the art of journalism, to be rendered in the manner of painting….”

N. C. Wyeth struggled with this frustration all of his painting life til his tragic death at the age of 63. He was a meticulous illustrator who thoroughly researched all the details of the period he was portraying in a book, traveling to libraries and museums to render dress, weapons, and ships with precise accuracy. 

And yet. In an earlier letter (March 10, 1910), he explains his commitment to imbue any illustration with the spirit of art:

“And out of doors it is so beautiful!  It’s a pity to pry into ancient graves and let their sinister secrets blind one to the pure, wholesome beauty that lies about us. And still, if these pictures I am to paint were to be done as they should be, that very spirit which lies about us in such profusion should be their main interest and soul—they should not be historical, damn the word, but should symbolize humanity and the world, allowing the details to sift in as only ordinary and commonplace garb, to designate the season of man’s development even as the changes in the trees denote the development of Nature’s seasons.

“My solitary interest (I mean my soul interest) is in trying to do just this. If I fail in this particular—I fail altogether. If I succeed I will feel a better illustrator for it.”

In this I believe Wyeth succeeded and this is the reason why he remains a beloved illustrator today. Here are two examples of his spirit of painting in his illustrations. 

From The Black Arrow, by N. C. Wyeth. It is not just actions of the two men, but the monumental tree and the snow that makes this picture greater than the scene it depicts. 

From Kidnapped by N. C. Wyeth. 

His illustrations bring to the reader a new apprehension of what is at stake, because the particular experience has been universalized such that we recognize in it our own deepest struggles. 

And yet, N. C. Wyeth himself went into a deep depression upon reading a biography of his favorite painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, because it made him feel so sharply his own inadequacies as an artist.  Of course, if we were to apply the criteria of those who scorned Andrew Wyeth as an illustrator, we would have to throw out most of Rembrandt’s body of work. In fact, entire museums filled with what is reverenced today as great art would have to be tossed out as mere illustration. To indicate just a few:

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1669. This post traced how Rembrandt worked through earlier versions of the Prodigal Son story to arrive at this painting, whose subject is the unseen: mercy itself. 

Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, 1475, which exquisitely captures the miracle and the humility of the birth of Christ. 

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio, 1601. It is hard to resist the beauty of this painting. 

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, 1511. I never met anyone of any religious or non-religious background who was not awed by seeing the Sistine Chapel. 

These four paintings all depict scenes from well-known stories. What makes them great art?  What do you think?


Tim Weston said...

Fascinating discussion. I believe that calling a painting "illustrative" is still a put down in art schools today. In fact it's up there with "decorative" as the ultimate snub. It, apparently, needs no further elaboration and disqualifies any painting so described from any further serious consideration. Yet I believe that in, say, early Sienese art, paintings were expected to illustrate thr scriptures. And in the 19th century, art colleges were sometime called schools of the "decorative arts". I think that certain fundamentalists, following the formalist conventions of modernism and Clement Greenberg, have sought to refuce paint to the exploration of the qualities of paint a flat plane, but this is an impoverishment of the potential of the art of painting.

Linda said...

Tim, thanks so much for taking the time to read the post and also comment. I have to say that I completely disagree with Clement Greenberg on this, because I love the miracle of painting--that is, turning a two-dimensional object into one that appears as a three-dimensional object. Perhaps for that reason, I am far less interested in architecture and sculpture, and also like haute couture, where a flat object--the cloth--is shaped into an object that fits perfectly on a three-dimensional body and moves with the body.
The paintings of the High Gothic Style and the Renaissance certainly were certainly narrative. And when it comes to illustration, Rembrandt's drawings are in a class all of their own. So I think it is a far muddier situation, and perhaps there is a spectrum. Even with those elements of narrative and illustration, what makes a painting great art? I guess I will have to go read Clement Greenberg at some point to better understand his viewpoint. However, i definitely believe that painting as art does not have to be limited in the way he suggests.
Decorative has the connotation of banal, but perhaps it has to do with the meaning expressed. I tried to pick some illustrations of N. C. Wyeth's where I thought the picture showed something more universal than the sentence it was depicting. I think Wyeth tried hard to do this, as he loved beauty, especially natural beauty, believing that it had transcendental meaning.

Ceferino said...

Story-telling paintings are also painting, and are more difficult to do than mere descriptive paintings (still lifes, portraits, landscapes, marines, etc.) Those painters must be praised, not insulted.

Linda said...

Thank you taking the time to read this and for your comment. I hope it did not come across that I am attacking narrative art, since my intent is the opposite. I do think, however, that great art has to convey something intangible to be great art. Like a great poem it points to the ineffable, but how, in a particular great work of art, is that done? And what is it pointing to? These are some of the questions art critics and art historians ask of a beautiful painting.