Painting Gimmicks March 26, 2017 18:05

I went up to Boston last month and visited the Museum of Fine Art. Although it is horribly difficult to find things there, something great about this museum is that it allows you to get very close to the paintings so that you can really examine the technique and learn. I wanted to see some paintings by Heade, but they are on tour, so I looked at various other things.

Some of them were Dutch still lifes, which I have enjoyed reading about and appreciated for their virtuousity. I did come to think of them as a bit gimmicky with their flashy trompe l'oeil stuff--plates overhanging tables and whatnot. But I certainly learned a lot about painting glass from looking at reproductions of these paintings. So I was happy to see they had some originals there.

But I was sure surprised when I saw that some of them featured way more gimmickry than I had ever imagined. For instance, at points where a glass was depicted as glinting with white paint, the artist had put globs of something clear, resin perhaps, that stood out from the canvas to catch the light and sparkle. Even more surprising, at least one painting showed the underneath of a fancy goblet which was painted over with some kind of varnish containing tiny gold sparkles. Good grief. More and more, I think of these paintings as visual jokes. 

I can't remember who was the artist, someone famous, in another section of the museum who had painted some military person wearing a coat covered in gold embroidery with a lot of fine lines. I got very close to examine how it was done and saw that the artist had used a thick gold metallic paint to make it stand out and shine as the real thing would. So in other words, glitz and gimmickry.

Then I came across a Rembrandt painting of a woman wearing a large gold chain. This was built up on the surface with gesso to create a 3D chain that was then painted over with real gold paint. "Gee whiz it looks so real!!!" Hell no.

I really hate this kind of thing in art. I like realism and even photorealism as long as it is not too glitzy (save me from the chrome reflections in trucks and diners, please), but IMO sparkle paint, clear globs on the canvas, and three-D modeling with gesso go beyond realism into the realm of cheap special effects. I was disappointed and will not think of these paintings in the same way anymore. They have moved from art to kitsch. I can really see now why they were so popular with the newly monied class.

For me, art is about interpreting reality, not reproducing it. I love learning technique, but geez. IMO, technique should be a tool, not a goal.