Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A painting's "aura": repost


This was originally posted in October 2008. With over 600 posts on The Flying Trilobite now, I've been re-posting a few from time to time. Incidentally, the artwork featured here is available for purchase in a variety of card and print formats.

Reprinting today because originals versus prints has been on my mind again lately. Make sure to check the original post for the insightful comments there. 
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Today, I'd like to touch on how the artist feels about their own work, and its "aura", and how that differs for the Fine Artist versus the Illustrator. And no, I haven't lost my skeptical, rational mind.


The idea of a painting's aura is one I remember being presented without judgment by the prof in university. The concept has stayed with me.It's the notion that original paintings have an "aura" that emanates off the paint & canvas surface. Almost as though the original painting has a soul, or a living presence you sense when looking at it. It adds to their specialness. You have not truly experienced the painting until you've seen it in person. Our teachers tried to impart that this is mainly a macho, modernist idea.





In Fine Art, the modernist period was something fairly specific. To sum it up all too briefly, modernism in 
painting was "paintings with the subject matter of paint". You weren't painting a still-life of an apple: you were painting red paint. As an example, think of something by Rothko, or Pollock. Giant humongous canvases, covered usually in a couple of dominating colours. There was a lot of baggage that went along with this type of work, including that they should not ideally be viewed as reproductions.
Post-modernism in the fine art world, was (again, gross oversimplification) about deconstructing those modernist ideals of pure paint and pure sculpture, and of overthrowing the unique. A post-modern piece of art could contain both a painting and sculpture adjacent asone piece. Take that, modernist!
To look at one example, modernist Charles Demuth created the painting Figure Five in Gold, (1928). Classic Modernism, interplay of colour over a familiar, somewhat random symbol (5) we all know. It's distinct, and certainly was in '28.

Post-modern painter Robert Indiana created this painting,The Figure Five, (1963) as a way of overthrowing the originality of Demuth's Five. He disrupted the original by Demuth's claim to importance by making it one of many instead of unique. I see it as kind of a fine art world version of "screw you".


So paintings may have an aura you can only feel in the presence of the actual artwork, not a reproduction? Not likely. This smacks of vague New Age-y feelings-as-fact. I wondered about this idea for a long time. An exhibit, entitled 7 Florentine Heads came to the Art Gallery of Ontario, and I remember there was to be a Da Vinci drawing included. When I saw it, I anticipated the moment. I frickin' love Da Vinci, and his interest in science as well as hissfumato technique. I looked at each drawing in turn. Looked at one, read the placard, and saw it was his. I got an involuntary shiver down my back. Was it the aura?

Even back then in my proto-skeptical days, I knew there wasn't. I only felt it's "specialness" after reading who it was by. Looking only at the drawing, I saw another example of excellent work by a Renaissance artist. Context mattered to the aura, it seemed.
Which brings me to addressing the photos of posters peppered throughout this post. Is one of the differences between an illustrator and a fine artist -at least, a modernist one- how they feel about a painting's uniqueness and supremacy of being the original? 

Recently, the artist (and good friend of mine) Christopher Zenga took his artwork online for the first time. And when discussing how the first couple of posts about his Zombears looked glowing off of the computer screen, Chris remarked to me, that he just sat back and stared at them; he was entranced by his own artwork reproduced in a different medium. 

Chris is right. I was elated for months looking at my paintings and drawings online, and knowing others might see something of value there. Do I have a fondness for the originals? Of course. Some are hanging in my living room. And yet there is an undeniable thrill to walk down the streets of Toronto and see a poster up with artwork I laboured over.
Starting with a discussion on the nature of art over at Laelaps, author of Renaissance Oaf Sean Craven has had a lot of excellent points about whether how to judge if a piece of artwork can be deemed "art".

I would put forth there is a difference between art created for the purpose of Illustration, and Fine Art, and a small part of that difference is in how the artist feels toward reproductions. The tingly feeling is enhanced when the image leaps forth to new media and many eyeballs.

The photos throughout this post were taken downtown at the University of Toronto campus, and are of my posterfor the October 2008 lecture by PZ Myers presented by the Centre for Inquiry Ontario


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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2 comments:

Sean Craven said...

This read entirely differently to me than it did the first time around. Education!

Glendon Mellow said...

Me too. I have more mixed feelings about it as a creator now that my work has been shown around a bit. Repros may be a little tiny bit less tingly, at least internet-repros. They used to be intoxicating.

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