Art Swoon! Bouguereau and Moreau at the Frist

Some Victorian writer, I’m not sure who, wrote about the art swoon: It’s when you see a work of art for the first time and are overcome by emotion. I think it happened to Victorian ladies a lot, and it’s happened to me several times in my life (a coincidence, I’m sure). It really is a little like falling in love, and I bet it makes the same areas of the brain light up.

MeSevenI remember my first art swoon quite clearly; I was about eight years old. My mom subscribed to the Metropolitan Seminars in Art, which were hardback magazines, each with an article on art history written by John Canaday, art critic for the New York Times. You can still find copies of the series on I can’t remember which issue it was, because I took it years ago to a used book store, but each of the books had a packet of beautifully printed reproductions, and that’s how I first saw Pierre Cot’s The Storm. Too young to know any better, I was completely entranced. For a long time I had the actual print, until my dog chewed it up in 1990. She also chewed the corner off Ingres’ Jupiter and Thetis. The dog had good taste.


A couple of years later I actually read the article, and discovered that, according to Mr. Canaday, The Storm was pretty,but that’s all. I was puzzled: How could The Storm be mediocre, trashy and sentimental when I liked it so much? Why did Canaday disapprove of that wonderful transparent gown? And why did he like the twisted, harsh Expressionist painting in the book? (I believe it was a Kandinsky, but can’t find it on the internet.) Even at that age, I had strong opinions about art! I was sure that John Canaday, whoever he was, was wrong, and that Cot’s painting was wonderful. Later on, as an adult, I decided Canaday was a prude, and that mid-twentieth century modernism’s distrust of beauty in art was really moralistic disapproval, based on a secret dislike of the physical body.

Now I’ve come around a bit and think I overreacted to poor Mr. Canaday: he drew a lot of flack for his criticism of abstract expressionism, and loved many of the same painters I do. And I can appreciate Kandinsky and the Expressionists now, but I still say that particular painting in the book was hideous. The Storm is still entrancing, to me at least, although the actual subject is in doubt. But who can question that the painting is simply about young love? A subject, IMHO, that can be sentimentalized, but is also not to be sneered at by those too sophisticated for their own good.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why I loved it so much when I was eight years old.  Seriously, I wanted to figure out how to paint that dress, but all I had were crayons. When I was about fifteen, I visited New York and the Metropolitan Museum, and finally saw The Storm for real, plus a whole bunch of wonderful Northern Renaissance paintings at the Cloisters too. It was just a continuous swoon.

FlorenceMy next art swoon was also connected with one of Canaday’s Seminar covers which I loved as a child: Simone Martini’s 1333 Annunciation. I was seventeen when I walked into a room in the Uffizi and burst into tears at my first sight of Martini’s Gabriel and almond-eyed Siennese Virgin, the egg tempera and gilding still brilliant after almost 700 years.
While on that same European trip, I also visited the Louvre. Sometime during a long afternoon I stumbled all alone into a series of interconnected rooms, tucked away and ignored, filled to the brim with 19th century French Salon paintings. I was absolutely seduced, and have never turned back in my love for these paintings. It was only many years later that I realized that what appeared to be slick visual confections were created from years of hard work and devotion to craft.


Last week I checked my calendar and suddenly realized that the current show at the Frist Museum in Nashville, The Birth of Impressionism, was about to end on January 23rd.  Snow at Christmas and New Year’s nixed my plans to drive down with my friend Theresa Ivey but I knew I would never forgive myself if I missed it. Kevin Ward, an artist friend on FB, said that there were Bouguereaus and <Moreaus in it! Bouguereau isthe painting God of the 19th century Salon. The whole show was from the Musee d’Orsay in France, and I knew that the d’Orsay was the home of many paintings by Gustave Moreau, another favorite of mine who has inspired me.  Somehow I imagined that the whole show was about them! I wish. At any rate, my husband was on vacation so I talked him into driving with me to Nashville on the spur of the moment.

The-birth-of-venusI saw William Bouguereau’s gigantic Birth of Venusand one of my favorite early Moreaus, Jason, through the glass doors of the main gallery and once again felt myself begin to choke up with emotion. I had to look away for a moment so I wouldn’t burst into tears, just like I did in front of Simone Martini. I circled through the front room and quickly checked out the Bouguereaus, two Moreaus, and two more Salon nudes: Jules LeFebvre’s La Verite and Elie Delauney’s Diana. It was just so much I could hardly absorb it.  There might have been a couple of other pictures in the room but I ignored them, entranced by the ones I liked. I’m still bad that way.

JasonMedeaMoreau’s Jason was especially stupendous. I moved in really close, but stood to the side, so I wouldn’t get in the way of other people, held my hands tightly behind myself, so the guards wouldn’t think I was trying to touch it,  and bent over to look carefully at the brushstrokes. While I stood there a child behind me asked his father, “Which one is the girl?” He was right. Jason and Medea (yes, the girl is Medea, his witch-wife who kills their children, but I think this scene is before the marriage turned sour) look like a pair of beautiful androgynous fifteen-year-old twins with shoulder-length golden hair and skin to match.  Jason’s dark green helmet appeared to be actually built up about a half-inch from the surface with carefully shaped paint, or perhaps some sort of early modeling paste. I love Moreau’s fantastic settings and costumes and weird background landscapes, his mystical Symbolist leanings, his opulence, his glittering, decadent Gothness, and find the slight flatness of his early work interesting and decorative. And I love the way he paints toes like Leonardo da Vinci.

Years ago at Dragoncon I got a chance to talk with the Brothers Hildebrandt about painting: they told me if the light is cool, the shadow is warm and if the light is warm, the shadow is cool. I kept thinking about that and went back and forth, trying to figure out what colors the painters had used and whether their light was warm or cool. I was almost sure that all the Salon painters used a cool, reflected studio light for their figures, (that was one of the things the Impressionists didn’t like about them) but how could I be sure?  I remembered what another painter told me: look for the cool highlight.

But the Moreau confused me. How do I tell if the light is cool if the whole painting has a golden cast? Or maybe the varnish had yellowed. I decided to look at the highlights on the inanimate objects (and it wasn’t easy because the paintings were so enormous): Jason’s spear, his dark green helmet, and Moreau’s favorite compositional accessory, the decorative antique column.  The hightlights on the helmet looked cool, gray-white, but I realized that even if the highlight paint had been a pale gold it would have looked this way, unless it were painted very thickly, since a sheer layer of warmish light over dark will always cool off.  I backed away and looked closely several times.

GalateaThe other Moreau, Galatea,isn’t my favorite Moreau but it’s still a Moreau. In his later work the figures become paper dolls hanging motionless in an over-decorated, very shallow space. I noticed that the paint even had tiny bits of actual glitter suspended in it, which you can’t see in reproductions. I hadn’t realized he liked to experiment with stuff like the glitter and the sculpted paint on the helmet. It was charming, and there are those toes again.

Then I moved on to Birth of Venus.  It is simply stunning from across the room, and a lot of it depends on the beauty of the models Bouguereau so faithfully renders.  I noticed that Venus and the ocean nymphs all look like they could be the same model, and so help me, I think she might be the same girl who modeled for The Storm.  Cot worked with Bouguereau and Birth of Venus is from 1879 and The Storm is from 1880.  Up close, the backgrounds are simply rendered, almost stylized, and yet from a distance, it all looks perfectly real.  The emphasis is on the stunningly painted figures. I notice that Bouguereau paints a clean, liquid line of warm sienna around the shadowy limbs that are closest to me (and somehow does it without making the line hard), but does that show the shadow temperature or is it a reflected light on the edge of the forms? Not sure. These paintings were so large that most of the details on the heads are too high for me. I would have given anything for a ladder, a bright light, and a magnifying glass.


The other Bouguereau was a religious subject:  A black-clad Madonna of Sorrows, The Virgin of Consolation. A grieving mother bends over on the Virgin’s lap, and her dead baby, its limbs faintly greenish instead of pink, lies at the Virgin’s feet. It’s easy for the 21st century viewer to see this painting as actually silly in its religiosity and sentiment, until you realize how common infant death was in the 19th century. The painting was completed in 1875, only two years before Bouguereau’s own wife and child died (I checked on the dates because I wondered if he painted it afterward as some sort of memorial, but no.) The figure of the Virgin in her black robes appears flat and iconic, but the infant is perfectly foreshortened.


Bouguereau’s work is always impressive, with never a false step technically, although he can be accused of being overly slick, but so what? His technique is absolutely perfect. Is it too perfect? I mean, that’s the worst thing I can say about him: he’s so freaking good I Just. Give. Up. I can never, ever be that good in this lifetime. His skill with the brush intimidates me and flattens my emotional response after a minute, sated as I am by photography, not to mention Photoshop. Perhaps in the end I like Moreau’s stranger, darker world better than Bouguereau’s clean, light-filled paintings. But still, looking at anything by Bouguereau is practically a religious experience for me.

WomanwithmirrorI spent more time thinking about color. La Verite (left), supposedly an inspiration for our Statue of Liberty, is icy in her ivory paleness (more so in the gallery than in this reproduction), holding aloft what is supposed to be a mirror, but looks more like a light bulb. But there are those tricky gray shadows on the flesh. How do I tell if gray is warm or cool, anyway? So many flesh tones have grey in the shadows and I always want to read it as cool. Suddenly I think I get it: Verite’s skin is lit by an icy white light, and the shadows on her flesh are a relatively warm gray. It’s all relative, perhaps even an illusion, but I can see it. For a second. And Diana (below, right) seems to be standing in a bright shadow with no direct sunlight, so I’m sure the light is cool there.

ClassicNude1I wandered through the rest of the show in a lackadaisical manner but couldn’t stop thinking about Moreau and Bouguereau.  I had to go back to the front room three times in all, mostly to look at Jason and Birth of Venus.  Finally  I reluctantly dragged myself from the front room and the Bougie Man, walked through the other rooms and did find some magnificent pictures.  There was a huge crowd and all the people except me were obediently listening to their audio tours like little art cows in front of the Impressionists, so I was free to sneak in and look at the stuff I really liked for a long time: for instance, Gustave Dore’s stupendous grisaille Enigma is about the Franco-Prussian War and the burning of Paris; the Sphinx is whispering the secret of peace to the angel of Paris. The actual painting, while dark in tone, is perfectly calibrated in value. Up close Dore’s drawing is free and easy, like he just whipped it out in about a week, and maybe he did. The brushstrokes are loose, sure sign of a really knock-out painter, yet clean and precise. As far as I could tell, it was painted entirely in black and white, although there might have been a trace of yellow ocher. It was huge and beautiful and no one but me was looking at it!


Another exceptional painting that Ken and I both noticed was Henri Regnault’s equestrian portrait of Gen. Juan Prim. Regnault lived in North Africa for a number of years and painted many beautiful pictures of everyday life there which you can check out on the web. But he died in the Franco-Prussian War at an early age. Pierre Cot died young too. General

Carolus-Duran’s Lady with a Glove attracted us too, and I spent a lot of time looking at this painting. But once again, it was huge! These paintings were meant to be seen from across the room, but the artist in me can’t resist trying to stick my nose into the details, which you can’t see any of in the tiny image below, so now you know how I felt:FristPortrait

I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I realized that the show was really all about the Impressionists, whom everyone loves so much, and how they triumphed over the mean picky Salon painters who preceded them. Really, it’s not that I don’t like the Impressionists —  I mean, how could I? — but in the end they are painting reality — pretty girls, not goddesses, baskets of fruit and flowers, people in restaurants —  in a straightforward, even flatfooted manner, and that kind of bores me in the end. At least it did that gray day at the Frist. The Impressionists lack grandeur, in fact they were sick of it, and sometimes their technique looks, well, dauby to me. Go ahead, hate on me. They haven’t been really avante-garde for a hundred years or more, but they’re still around.

Some art makes me cry; some inspires me to go home and paint; some I like but it’s not what I want to do; some I don’t like so much but I respect the work; very little I hate, but some is indifferent to me.   It’s still unfashionable to love the academic painters as much as I do, but I can’t help it, I’ll always love their refined drawing, delicate brushwork, the grandeur and imagination. The Salon painters remind me of my favorite science fiction and fantasy illustrators: They paint a reality that doesn’t really exist so skillfully that the viewer can believe in it without a thought. The only way to do that is years and years of practice. The Salon painters make me cry, I respect the work, I want to go home and paint: The whole Art Swoon package.

Talking to Brian Stelfreeze at Wizard World Atlanta

JMSwizardworld2010Weekend before last, Ken and I drove down to the Cobb Galleria outside Atlanta for Wizard World slash Atlanta Comic Con.  I admit, the trip was mostly for my husband, who is a lifelong comics fan and wanted to go and spend hours and hours rifling through dingy boxes of old comics. I figured I would wander through the convention for a while and then go shopping. Actually, though, when I say I’m not really a comics fan that’s not true. I’ve always been a fan of comic art. I actually used to read a lot of comics, but my mother wouldn’t let me bring them home, so I read them at Standefer’s Drugstore in Pikeville, TN, after school. I loved The Fantastic Four and Archie, and my mom actually let me get a subscription to Creepy and Mad. And I once spent two months in 1992 drawing a 32-page indy comic which never saw the light of day, and to give full credit to my comic-hating mom, she took care of my son Alex while I drew all day long every day.

The comic is still sitting unpublished in an old portfolio. I showed it to an underground comic artist at DragonCon years ago and he said it was really good and original, but the local guy who wrote the script didn’t like the way I drew it. I think he thought he was writing a superhero comic but I drew it as a parody, because the story was silly, and I couldn’t have drawn a superhero comic anyway. And my very first paying publication was in Dave Sim’s Cerebus comic’s Single Page, where he used to highlight up and coming talent and actually paid a pretty decent fee for the time: I got an actual cashable check for $125.00, which I appreciated even more later on when I was often promised big money but ended up paid zilch.

Years later, I actually went out of my way to meet Dave Sim at a convention and say hi and thanks for the cash. What I actually ended up saying was, “But I’m not really a comic artist,” and he looked at me with a puzzled expression on his big, doughy baby face, like I was crazy or stupid, but really, I’d never done any more comics and considered it over. Considering how he finally went off the deep end and started writing misogynistic drivel, he no doubt thought I was stupid. After I read some of the stuff he wrote about women I began to wonder if getting published by him was a curse on my entire career, and I wished I could go back to that con and hand him his $125.00 in cash and flounce away. But it’s too late, that money’s long gone, so it would just be all for show.

Usually at comic cons, I hit the artist’s tables and find someone to talk to, but they were pretty crowded at that point, so I left and wandered down the Galleria. Then I wandered back to the con and headed around to the artist’s tables again, and saw a bunch of prints by Alex Ross.  It turned out that Alex Ross wasn’t there, but the man at the table knew him.  “See that guy down there?” he asked, and I turned to see another artist, a well-built young man in a t-shirt a couple of tables down. “He posed as the Flash,” and then he showed me the finished painting. I could see how Ross had taken what he needed from the guy’s face and physique and added costume and background. Neat. I’ve often taken pics of my husband and son and daughter to use for illustrations; it’s the best way to get the right lighting, although I used to feel guilty about using the dreaded photo reference, otherwise known as “cheating.” My kids used to complain endlessly about the poses I put them in. “Mom, this is impossible, no one can do this,” they would say while I tried to twist them into position to be a zombie.

“I love how Ross manages warm and cool light,” I commented to the man at Alex’s table, and we talked lighting for a few minutes. He told me that Ross always used photo reference for his paintings, in order to get the lighting right, but I had already figured that out. His comic art is a series of exquisitely rendered watercolor portraits. I’m not a watercolorist but I admire his technique a lot. He’s one of those painters who make me want to sit and ponder and figure out how did he do that? Next down the line, I picked up somebody’s indy comic, with an intro by Dave Sim. Pass. Then I talked to a guy named Cory Smith who does excellent superhero portraits.  Maybe he was the guy who posed for Alex Ross. Anyway, he and I talked about pencils, since I draw a lot with pencils and find pencils to be very interesting. Seriously. He did maquettes, too, which are little sculptures of comic characters, to help the artist look at them from all angles.

I did maquettes for my ill-fated indy comic. Years later, I glued the maquettes to the posts of a wooden chair and painted the chair and sold it for about $100.  But now I wish I had the maquettes back, or at least the chair. Later, I checked out one of Cory’s sites and he had some beautiful pencil drawings of nudes, with very lovingly drawn labia, which I find very sweet. My husband has some old comics by some South American dude who draws the most beautiful little naked women, each of them with the most elegant and yet economically drawn labia, a very pretty detail. My only beef with Cory’s nudes would be his use of the Hitler’s mustache style of pubes that’s currently fashionable.

After that I met an interesting guy named Dirk Strangely.  He was friendly and talkative and a lot of fun, a contrast with his art, which was very dark and macabre.   His paintings don’t make me want to figure out how he does it, like Alex Ross’s stuff.  Still it was interesting stylistically, in particular his paintings of women.  I picked up one painting of a nude woman with part of her face scratched out and “mother” written on her belly, and said, “This is really scary.”  The image was weirdly compelling, and if I’d had a few more dollars on me, part of me wanted to have it, while the other part found it repellent.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my own mother died a few months ago. Strangely said the painting was about American women’s self hatred and talked about how he wanted women to see their own true beauty. Hmmm. I found his argument somewhat less than convincing, although he seemed like a very nice, sympathetic guy, with his wife and kids hanging around behind the table, helping out. Nope, his work reminded me a little too much of Willem de Kooning, and even more of Walter Sickert, the Victorian English painter who some, including famous crime novelist Patricia Cornwall, think might have been Jack the Ripper. It’s probably best I left the original painting there. I ended up buying one of his indy comics, Graveyard Girl, and a narrative drawing postcard to stick up in my studio with my postcard collection. We talked a bit about crossover into fine art galleries, and he seems to have it down. The edginess of his work probably helps. I’ve found my edgier stuff can cross over easier than stuff that’s too cute.

I checked out the Wizard World schedule and saw that at 4 PM there was a panel of famous comic artists right there in room 4. Bingo, I had something to look forward to, even though none of the names was familiar. Like I’ve said, I’ve been out of the loop for a long time, even though I often look through Ken’s books just to see the pictures. I find a lot of comic writing just unreadable, especially superheroes, even while I often find myself looking at the pictures with awe and wonder. I sat down in the back of the room for the panel, and watched the room fill up and finally the four panelists walk in and sit down. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue who any of them were and I didn’t expect to be terribly interested. After about 5 minutes, I realized that I was really into the panel so I got up and moved closer. These people were really interesting, especially one man, a compactly built African-American man in a yellow knit cap, whose enormous eyes dominated his face, even from twenty paces. I saw the name Brian Stelfreeze on a huge poster behind him, and it rang a bell from my random comics perusals, and since it was over the man in the yellow cap, I figured it was him. (Here’s a link to his cool art blog.) It turned out I was right about who he was, but it could have been a coincidence that the poster was over his head.

I wish I could remember the other men on the panel: one of them was an editor or columnist from Wizard Magazine, I remember that, and there was a very tall blond chap, and another blondish fellow. A woman was listed on the program, but she must not have shown.  They got to talking about dealing with writers and how it could be difficult, and how some they didn’t ever want to work with again. I found myself holding my hand up and asking them if they meant hard to deal with personally or if the writing was the problem. It sounded like it boiled down to the writers’ egos, which  could get in the way. The artists agreed that they prefered a writer who leaves the script “open,’ instead of dictating camera angles. One artist said he told a writer, “I’ll let you dictate camera angles if you let me write dialogue.” Touche. The man who turned out to be Stelfreeze then answered a question about computer art;  he said (and I hope I can remember exactly what)  that too many artists nowadays aren’t learning basic drawing skills, with a pencil or ink on real paper. Instead, they go straight to the computer tablet and stylus, which enables them to wipe out lines too easily, so the young artist never learns to make a real decisive mark. Stelfreeze emphasized that making art involves making mistakes and correcting them and learning from them.  He seemed to be talking about sometimes utilizing the mistakes that happen when the artist is drawing with pencil and ink on paper, painting something out, making a new mark, and sometimes discovering something new in the process.

StelfreezeAtlantaIt made me realize that my own drawing process isn’t as awful as I’ve often worried. I still draw with a pencil, pen, and brush (or sometimes paint) on paper, and only utilize the computer for labelling and a few corrections. My “technique,” if you can call it that, makes use of my many mistakes. I am willing to stay up all night drawing tiny hands, if necessary, doing it over and over and over again which is why I can draw as well as I can. At work, when drawing fossils, I often paint out lines I don’t like and go over them; when I eff it up, I start over having found out what I did wrong, able to make the decisive mark finally. Somehow I thought other artists didn’t do this, but I guess they do. After the panel, I followed them into the convention room to their table, because I wanted to tell Stelfreeze how much I enjoyed listening to them and especially him. But there were numerous hopeful kids with portfolios standing in line waiting to show their art to the panelists. I stood back and listened. A young man brought out his comic art and showed Stelfreeze, who gave him a long and generous critique. The crowd bubbled around me, and I could barely hear what he was saying and bent in closer to listen more carefully. After about five minutes, I realized I was hearing the most astonishing drawing lesson I had ever heard. I wished I had a tape recorder, and only  hoped that my mind would retain some of what I was hearing.

Later, after we got back to the hotel, I sat down and tried to write down a little of what Stelfreeze had talked about. “You draw well,” he told one young artist, “twenty years from now you will never draw one bit better.” The kid stood up a little straighter. He told the young man that his job now was to develop a personal style, to convey a particular mood, and to make every single panel he drew serve that style and mood. “Art with a purpose,”  Stelfreeze said several times, “Comics is art with a purpose.” Comics are about conveying emotion and every image should carry that emotion forward. He said that the comic artist should develop a directorial style, like a movie director, and look at the work of famous movie directors with a mind to finding their own style. I remembered when I was drawing my indy comic, an acquaintance who had done comics and was quite good, much more facile than me, lent me a copy of an old classic book on cinematography which he said was key in drawing comics. At the time I didn’t quite know what he was talking about, but I kept the book.  I gotta find that thing. Stelfreeze also said that when you find your directorial style, you can throw out skillsets you don’t need. Wow, I had never thought of that.

Stelfreeze mentioned, I think, Sterenko as someone who decided he didn’t really need deep perspective. That was a real eye-opener for me.  I had struggled for so long to do everything, and perspective is hard for me, maybe because I am very nearsighted. Maybe I should just move on and do what I do well. Hmmm. I could see that Dirk Strangely, for instance, had a  good, clear vision of his own Tim Burtonesque style that hung together quite well, without worrying one bit about perspective. Stelfreeze talked about action too, in a way that made me understand the whole concept better than I had before. I’d always thought that “action” meant big ACTION, big beefy supermen hitting each other, which doesn’t really interest me much, but he talked about small actions, a man hitting a fly, someone sitting down slowly, panel by panel, a look, a twist of the body. I wish I could remember everything he said but I can’t. When he finished talking to the kid, I stepped up and told him how much I had enjoyed listening to him. In fact I said, “That was amazing!” which it was. He was really nice and open, and when I told him that I and my artist friend Pyra (she has done some comics already based on her own Noantri world) had been talking about how much we wanted to do our own indy comic, but we were afraid no one wanted to see comics by middle-aged ladies, he responded enthusiastically. “You have real experience to write about!”  he said. “Too many kids write indy comics before they have lived;  you have lived and have so much to say.”

I stepped back because a young woman had been standing there for quite a while with her portfolio, waiting for a review. I could have talked to him for hours. You can tell how much he enjoys doing what he’s doing, can’t you? I know how he feels.  Talking to other working artists is such an energizer. Now I feel jazzed up and creative again.

I thought a lot about what he said later. I’ve noticed for a long time that many young wanna-be comic artists have gotten a lot of training in basic drawing, but they seem to have had all the originality and style wrung out of them. Some of them seem to think that they are supposed not to have any discernible style and that has always aggravated me. I knew something was wrong with the way they drew: competent, but flat, with no personality. I think they get it from old books on how to draw pencils for Marvel. That’s what all teenage boys want to do: pencils for Marvel. They especially seem to have taken to heart directions on how to sketch in a face, drawing every face the same, the mouth a straight line, no feeling for the underlying muscles. I’ve seen some of my husband’s old pencilled comic drawings. They weren’t bad at all, and he had a better handle on perspective than I did for a long time, but they drove me nuts, because he had taken all his own style out, but I didn’t know how to put it into words before. If you’re a professional artist, however, learn from my example and don’t critique your husband’s amateur drawings.  He didn’t like it when I told him that he drew his hands and feet too small, but he did.


Nekkid Statues and Fallen Girders

The other night I got into an interesting conversation with another family member who might be taken as a pretty good example of the average Chattanoogan: born-again Christian, a Union man, not a big reader or college grad but with a good mind, father and grandad who raised two kids, and then got married again and adopted a little girl. He asked me how the art biz is going, or some such usual polite question, and somehow we got on the subject of my having served on a committee for public art in Chattanooga a year or two ago, and how surprisingly hard it had been.

I got picked for the committee because I had been president of Olde Towne Brainerd Neighborhood Association, plus I purport to be an artist. Being a sort of local Neighborhood Organizer turned out to be rather a downer in the end, because it became inevitably inmeshed in local politics, and that turns out to be nasty business, but this was fun. It involved attending several meetings with numerous other committee members and a nice lady who worked for Allied Arts of Chattanooga which organization I think partly funded the proposed sculptures. And I think part of the money, which was at least as much I have ever made in any one year as an artist on my own, also came from the state and the city. We were shown portfolios of about a dozen sculptors and sculpture groups from across the country. Hardly any of them followed all the rules for submission; we got rid of several of them because they didn’t submit any work that was even remotely suitable.

The sculptures were supposed to convey something about diversity, living together, and something else which I have forgotten, but you get the idea. Oh, yes, it was Community and Diversity. All very politically correct and uplifting in a corporate sort of way, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I really tried to get into the spirit and all. Some work submitted was very beautiful, and I would have liked to get it for my own sculpture garden if I had one: for instance, a series of white marble twisted tentacles which brought to mind a bunch of albino Cthulus being tortured. I thought they were actually really neat in a Goth sort of way, but didn’t think they would look so good in front of the Brainerd tunnels. Neither would the 50-foot-high steel outline of a nude woman whose enormous perky breasts instantly brought to mind Brainerd’s beloved Diamonds and Lace strip club. And we silently passed on the stone phallic structure whose creator had thoughtfully supplied Photoshopped images of how his work would appear in front of the enormous tunnels; the 5-foot statue looked, well, a bit inadequate even on top of its pedestal.

Later I learned that one of the more pleasing sculptures was by a Chattanooga artist I’ve met, but we didn’t know the artists’ names at the time. Part of our difficulty in choosing was finding two sculptures which looked good together, although looking back I wonder why we thought that mattered. The whole experience reminds me a bit of my one experience serving on a trial jury: the fear of doing the wrong thing, making the wrong decision.

I admit I came to the committee meetings with an agenda: to veto any sculptures which resembled a pile of steel girders. These hideous civic sculptures are everywhere, in every city, apparently chosen by art committees like the one I served with, but why?  I have a theory:  because they are abstract, they can’t really offend anyone. They are Big, and that is Good. They are perfectly meaningless, at least they are perceived to be, although to my eye, they represent a sort of unconscious symbolic representation of the destruction of Western culture. I know, I’m being a touch paranoid.  But look at them!  I know you’ve seen them! They’re everywhere, and to me they resemble nothing so much as the remains of a skyscraper, twisted and thrown to the ground by some enormous Destructor. I succeeded in stopping the inevitable desire of some committee members to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a pile of bent steel girders. What we got may not have been a whole lot better, being flat,abstract, and made of painted steel, but they at least addressed the themes, and were colorful and uplifting and maybe fun: Rolling Dancing Moons, by Reven Marie Swanson, and Winds of Change, by Cecilia Lueza. Plus the artists were women. Woo hoo!

After listening to my whiney complaints about the state of public art in Chattanooga, the relative asked me what kind of sculptures I did like. I immediately mentioned Daud Akhriev’s bronze statues The Four Seasons at the Market Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga. Here one of the statues, which is admittedly, nude, but IMHO about as tasteful as a nude statue can get:

When I said that the atmosphere in the room immediately went down to a few degrees above freezing.  The family member was very disapproving of the statues, not quite shocked, but definitely he felt that nudity in art, no matter how high-flown, is a no-no in public places.  “But they’re very tasteful, very beautiful, very well done,” I disagreed mildly. “How do you explain it to children?” he asked.  He had been very embarrassed recently when he and his wife took their very young daughter to the Hunter and there was a nude male statue with a penis for crying out loud, right in front of the museum for all to see.

I’ve been in front of the Hunter several times in the last year and I can’t even remember a nude statue of a man or a penis, but then maybe I’m just completely calloused. There have been a number of letters to the editor in the local paper which disapproved of Akhriev’s nude statues, one of them written by a little girl who found herself offended by their sleaziness.  Of course, the standard answer among Chattanooga’s intelligentsia (yes, they’re here, I know them! It’s possible someof them have even been to my house!) is that Chattanooga is too conservative and full of fundamentalists and that’s why the town has its head thrust up its bum. But I’m not sure if there is a connection between prudery and the prude’s politics or even religion. Now, the family member in question is very conservative socially, but I don’t have a clue how he votes, and I wouldn’t dream of asking him, but if I had to guess, I would say maybe he’s a Democrat, since he’s a union guy. But I could be wrong. Certainly naked statues would have shocked a lot of folks I grew up with in Pikeville, but my parents had lots of art books with nudity from the time I was very small, and no one thought anything of it, and I can’t remember noticing it very much.

My parents were conservative politically at that time, although they became much more liberal later, but they stayed pretty puritanical about sex; yet nudity in art didn’t bother them. And we went to the Church of Christ every Sunday. I’ve become somewhat more conservative politically in the last 10 years, but naked statues don’t bother me and never have. My husband is more conservative politically than I am, and he isn’t bothered by nude statues either. I remember fondly being in Europe right after I graduated from college and there were nude statues everywhere, including bronze statues of naked little Putti urinating water into public fountains, right there in downtown Rome, which I admit did shock me a little and made me giggle, but I was only seventeen.

Naked lady statues hardly seemed worth raising an eyebrow over, though. Even at the Hunter in the 60’s there were marble statues of pretty Sylphs with a stray boob slipping out of their nighties, which everyone seemed to be wearing in Classical art. And in Rome, Michelangelo’s naked women looked like men with bad implants, and I’ve read since that his models were men, so they could sit right there and not bother anyone. Is it just a level of sophistication, cultural urbanization? I find myself thinking that Chattanooga is headed for a rude cultural awakening, maybe having to do with its love for representational, traditional art. You just can’t have realistic art without eventually having nekkid statues to contend with. Otherwise, you just have Thomas Kinkaide.

Chattanooga has had quite a few Thomas Kinkaide galleries, and I bet he’s still very popular in spite of his recent downfall. The galleries used to hire local artists, most of them women, to dab paint on Kinkaide prints to turn them into one-if-a-kind “originals,” and I went to the mall once to check out a job and found it was for that. I needed the money but I wouldn’t do it. I have some standards, even if I have painted winged kitties and my son as a zombie.