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July 08, 2009

What Might Representational Painters Paint?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Not long ago I wrote about Casey Baugh, a young artist with great skills who, early in his career, has concentrated on painting attractive young women. In reply to a comment, I commented:

I am in general agreement that subject matter is a problem for realists (as it is for any artist not dealing in pure abstraction). That's why I hemmed and hawed about Baugh's need for maturity, my implicit thought was that perhaps in the future he could do better than simply creating well-crafted pinups.

Until well into the 19th century a painter was basically an illustrator if he wasn't doing portraits, landscapes or still-lifes. So there were templates for acceptable subjects -- from history, religion, mythology, travel incidents and so forth. Today, even representational fine-artists shy away from such subjects, perhaps to their ultimate cost. Exceptions: certain painters doing war genre or events from car races that appeal to a limited clientele.

More recently, I posted on another artist, Euan Uglow, prompting a comment from Friedrich von Blowhard, who observed:

I still maintain the biggest obstacle to a broad-based revival of traditional art is that mere skill in representation is not enough to get us there; this view ignores the very large amount of theoretical armature that traditional (i.e., Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic) art possessed that has been discarded or taken over by the Modern-Postmodern camp. For example, "representational" artists of the present have abandoned history painting, especially religious history painting displayed in churches (the very core from which all forms of traditional art grew), which has migrated largely into politicized conceptual art and installation art today. I suspect something like the full glories of Renaissance and Baroque painting are only possible if either (1) contemporary realists re-embrace religion or religious history as a serious subject for their paintings or (2) contemporary realists find some other source of serious content that will allow them to make serious statements that communicate to the broader population.

Since few representational artists seem to be taking either route #1 or route #2 seriously, the representational revival is all to likely to remain locked in its current ghetto. Fun, but not destined for greatness.

Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression is that commissions for representational easel or mural paintings of historical, religious or mythological events are rare. Elite thinking in the USA holds war to be evil (unless someone on their side wants to fight one), so that rules out battle scenes. Nationalism is also a no-no, so depictions of other historical scenes of the sort common before the 20th century are also likely to be scarce. That same elitist group isn't especially keen on religion (unless perhaps one worships Gaia), so cathedral and church building isn't the growth industry it was in, say, the 14th century and the production of religious paintings follows suit. This suggests that any return to the subjects common from the Renaissance to the Great War will have to be gradual and, at first, stealthy.

Let's set aside the present cultural realities and pretend that viable markets exist for representational painting in the following subject areas:

  • Christian Religion
  • Other Religion
  • Classical Mythology
  • Other Mythology
  • Military History
  • Political History
  • Cultural History
  • Personal Heroics (of other kinds)
  • Literary or Poetic (think Victorian subjects)

I could add more items. Plus, I'm leaving out currently viable subjects such as portraiture, still-life, landscape and quotidian genre.

Pretend (if you aren't one already) that you're a representational artist wanting to tackle subjects supposedly more profound than pretty women. What particular scenes might you decide to paint?

Here are some thoughts to prime your pump.

Casey Baugh does pretty girls, so why not expand his subject matter by putting his own interpretation on well-known classical or religious subjects such as The Judgment of Paris or The Temptation of St. Anthony, both of which feature attractive women. Since Baugh seems to paint clothed women, he might ease into such perennial themes by making clothing and settings contemporary, a common practice in past centuries. (Think Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer.") Or he might go whole-hog and place the characters in their proper environments.

A related idea for contemporary representational artists seeking greater significance is to take an historical event, but place it in a more current setting. So how about Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, but set in the late 1930s with the men in Italian army uniforms (but with SPQR symbols) and using Italian tanks and vehicles of that era? No camping it up, mind you -- play it as if it were real and serious.

Or consider a painting titled "Max Hastings Enters Port Stanley" (an event from the 1982 Falklands War). It's a real happening from recent times that fits into the history genre, yet has a certain appealing oddity to it.

Over to you.



posted by Donald at July 8, 2009


" why not expand his subject matter by putting his own interpretation on well-known classical or religious subjects such as The Judgment of Paris or The Temptation of St. Anthony, both of which feature attractive women."

Yes! More cheesecake!

Posted by: Francis on July 8, 2009 5:57 PM

My suggestion: In the future crackdown on pornography (it's got to come someday), they should exempt all depictions of mythological or biblical scenes. A new age of high culture is, almost, within our reach.

Posted by: intellectual pariah on July 8, 2009 7:17 PM

I'd be curious to hear what you think of John Currin's recent work:

Figurative Cheesecake Painting taken to its logical extreme...

Posted by: Mark Heng on July 8, 2009 7:24 PM

Is it telling that "the natural world" is missing from your list?

A few years ago, I took my wife to the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo.

She admits that she went in expected clich├ęd calendar art.

She came out impressed.

Of course, the work of artists like Robert Bateman will do that.

Posted by: Chas S. Clifton on July 8, 2009 7:50 PM

OK, that should have been "expecting..."

Posted by: Chas S. Clifton on July 8, 2009 7:51 PM

Posted by Mark Heng at July 8, 2009

Thanks for the link. I enjoy a little smut. But Currin's work, while technically very good, simply lacks the emotion of Baugh. I find it flat. Baugh's stuff is sexy. Currin's work, while involving sex, isn't sexy. My $.02.

Posted by: Francis on July 8, 2009 9:50 PM

Well, how about this (1975), or this (2004), or this (2009)?

But then Mort Kunstler is not an "artist", just an "illustrator".

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 9, 2009 1:23 AM


So you want to know how Casey Baugh might paint something more meaningful than cute women?

First, I'd like to say that I have no problem with superficial art--depictions of beauty for beauty's sake. Its the fact that all of the work is superficial that bothers me. I'd like to see some range. And boy is that lacking in the New Realism.

If Casey Baugh wants an income and some personal freedom, he might think of doing portraiture for money and then painting what he wants in his spare time. The over-the-hill hacks who inhabit the upper crust of portraiture nowadays (John Howard Sanden, Raymond Kinstler, Daniel Greene, Nelson Shanks, et. al.) could stand to be replaced pronto. Its not like these guys have no money in their pockets either, so good riddance!

Then he could follow his muse like Sargent, Sorolla, or Zorn, who painted "mugs for money", and gave us masterpieces in their personal, non-gallery work. Forget painting for the galleries--all they want is more of the same ad nauseum. The most deadening influence in all of art history are the art galleries. Its no coincidence that the decline of art concides with the rise of the gallery, the critic, and the university.

Yes, Christianity would be a great start. That's been completey edited out of all the arts in America--intentionally, of course. How about some out-of the-head-art, like the great illustrators (Fawcett, Frazetta, Coll)? Then some genre scenes of how people live today. Forget the funny costumes of the past--its a blessing in disguise to be rid of that. Then you can go for the heart. Get away from the computer, the TV, the easel and get out and see poeple in action. Figure out a way to show their lives. See what Rockwell did with the regular American.

How about American culture instead of China, or American Indians, or African aborigines? What's missing out your back door that you have to go halfway around the world? Funny costumes? That's all that's in your trick bag? And you call yourself an artist?

Do what you would do if you didn't have to sell it.

The simple fact is that a whole lot of the greatest art in history was created without concern for money or a deadline. It was created as a personal statement of the artist. The rest took care of itself.

The real way to show this work is for the artists to come together and be their own media. Create their own magazines, do their own shows. With the internet, that's all possible. What's your typical art magazine, 6 or 7 puff piece interviews with 6 paintings and 2-3 pages of text? That's nothing. You could do one of those articles in a day. Artist to artist. Forget the advertising. Make it a pdf and publish it once a month or every two months. The galleries and auction houses control the magazines through advertising. Take that control back.

Anything but giving away total control to the galleries, magazines, auction houses, and most art collectors. They are the worst--its all about money, even though they say differently. And if you leave it to them, they will push the New Realism into multi-cultrualism and modernism, into which it is now heading. How sick that would be! You watch and see if I'm not right about that.

As Brad Holland, famous illustrator says--"Express yourself, before it's too late."

Posted by: BTM on July 9, 2009 1:25 AM


A related idea for contemporary representational artists seeking greater significance is to take an historical event, but place it in a more current setting

Something along a similar vein. Have you seen Richard III directed by Richard Loncraine? Sublime.

Enjoy: LINK

And this LINK.

Shakespeare in a Mortuary. So,so good.

Posted by: slumlord on July 9, 2009 4:14 AM

You're very much right that our elites are pretty limiting when it comes to acceptable subject matter for art. About the only way you can get music with lyrics which are meaningful to adults with real jobs is country - which our betters look down on anyway.

I hope this isn't too off-topic, but I'm much more familiar with the workings of the music world than with painting... I play in one originals band where everyone else either works in academia or is a university student. They're nice people and all that but all the lyrics are either nonsensical or set in a distant past because anything relevant to the actual lives of people in the audience would come off as "shallow".

I like the Rubicon idea. Maybe do something similiar with an English king famous for something non-military. Knut (Canute) commanding the tides and getting his sycophants wet would work quite well with a plush office chair instead of a throne and everyone in expensive business suits. Actually, that's such an obvious idea that I'm sure several people have painted it already.

Posted by: Martin Regnen on July 9, 2009 4:44 AM

The simple fact is that a whole lot of the greatest art in history was created without concern for money or a deadline. It was created as a personal statement of the artist. The rest took care of itself.

Can you offer examples to prove this contention?

The Church, the aristocracy, and the emergent merchant class were, in various past eras, the patrons of art. Their monetary support enabled artists to work, their tastes dictated the subject matter, and they set deadlines for completion of commissions. Art for art's (and artists') sake is a very recent and (Dare I say it?) modernist concept.

As to the overarching issue, one can spend a very short amount of time Googling about and find vast numbers of realist, even traditionalist, artists ... from those embraced by the art establishment to those deemed "illustrators" to relative outsiders ... at work and obviously achieving reasonably high levels of critical, curatorial, and commercial success. Now, it may be true that a given artist might find greater acceptance among the general public than within the art establishment, or that the art establishment is ahead of or behind public opinion in recognizing a given talent, but it was ever thus. It is fairly easy to find examples of artists engaged in depicting very one of the subjects listed in the initial post ... and many more as well.

The real issue seems to have little to do with art per se, but rather revolves around the lack of a unified culture with near universal acceptance of particular socio-religious norms and a well-known set of stories that could be depicted again and again because they were the stories everyone wanted to see again and again. No amount of hand wringing and rants about the elites of the art world is going to alter this.

Here is a "top of the head" list of names to plug into your search engine from within the "art establishment" (which is supposedly devoid of realist painters) to begin checking out the huge number of artists active in realist painting; O.K. Harris Gallery, Forum Gallery, Gandy Gallery, Terrain Gallery, Carlo Maria Mariani, Odd Nerdrum, Mark Tansy ...

Posted by: Chris White on July 9, 2009 11:34 AM

Mark -- Currin is a case of an artist who could do nice work if he wanted to, but instead concentrates on attention-getting stuff. Maybe that's what's required for prosperity these days.

Chas -- No conspiracy or anything, just didn't think about it or else mentally combined it with landscape painting.

Rich -- Kunstler is one of those exceptions that proves the rule. Too bad there aren't more opportunities for large-scale historical paintings.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 9, 2009 12:19 PM

I should have included the titles:

Reading the Declaration of Independence to the Troops (1975)

Miss America (2005)

Rush to the Summit: Chamberlain at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863 (2009)

There are lots of people doing "representational art" with heroic or political or cultural imagery in it - they just aren't considered "artists" by the High Art world.

One deterrent to making representational art about modern subjects is that the need for images of these subjects is usually filled by photography. Nixon shaking hands with Mao, V-E Day in Times Square, spacecraft lifting off, sporting events, etc.

How about these (fairly) contemporary subjects:

The Death of Princess Diana


The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Steve Jobs's garage (where he and Wozniak built the first Apple computers)

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 9, 2009 12:33 PM

I like the idea of Casey Baugh painting succubi threatening the virtue and eternal soul of Saint Anthony.

Dark room...attractive (very!) young woman is gazing upon the slumped figure of the Saint. Who is looking up and just getting this "Uh-oh" look on his face. Like, "I'm in trouble here. Trouble!"

I think it would work best in a contempo setting. Although the woman should have the suggestion of dark bat-like wings behind that portrait of Evil a while back.

It would sell. I know it.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 9, 2009 1:55 PM

Chris White,

Can you offer examples to prove this contention?

Sargent's later years after he gave up portraiture, Sorolla's great Valencian scenes, Vermeer, Zorn's genre work, Van Gogh, Abram Arkhipov's genre scenes, Maliavin, Levitan, Boldini's personal work, etc. Just look.

I've long since disregarded your views on realism when you gave Brett Bigbee as an example of high level realist. I think you know a lot more about modernism than realism.

Posted by: BTM on July 10, 2009 1:22 AM

Christian artist (and former 40s and 50s illustrator, with all the skill that that implies) Robert Doares recently died at age 93. He has some interesting paintings and drawing, and was clearly faith driven, like the old masters (too bad to see them you have to navigate some pretty cheesy websites.

Posted by: Faze on July 10, 2009 10:32 AM

My artwork is and always has been representational, and I've never had any difficulty finding subject matter. I depict real people doing real things, so I guess that would be genre, but I see timeless universals in the individual or the particular. I've always been under the impression that significance is as much in the way something is painted or drawn than the subject itself, but that may just be my personal take. My problem with the 'realism' that I've recently discovered out there, however, is that so much of it is slick and superficially impressive in terms of technique, but upon closer scrutiny lacks that hard to articulate 'x' factor that characterizes truly masterful representational work of the past. A grand theme or a highly developed classical treatment still doesn't necessarily make a great work. Much of it looks contrived, and nearly all of it is way too frozen. It just doesn't have that hum or pulse of life to it, in spite of the fact that proponents insist it is 'art about life' rather than 'art about art.' I do representational work involving religious subjects, but they are very regionally specific.

Posted by: KR on July 12, 2009 12:01 AM

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