Thursday, June 21, 2018

POST # 162: Is it Art or Illustration?

At what point does one morph into the other? Not as easy to answer as it might seem. Historically, until the mid 1800s, most art was what we today would today consider “illustration.” It told a story: historical, biblical or mythological. Even something as non-literary as a 17th century Dutch still life or a Turner landscape painting had an underlying “moral” basis, maybe a condemnation of sin or a Momento Mori, a commentary on the briefness of life. I recently came across a book in my library entitled: Modern Painters and Sculptors as Illustrators, with dozens of examples of famous artists from Picasso to Matisse, Chagall and Rodin, They clearly had as their primary intent the creation of a work of art. The written word, the story it came with, was secondary. On the other hand, when you compare their work to the great American illustrators like Howard Pyle or the Wyeths, you can see the difference clearly; their primary goal was to clearly tell a story. I’m not making a value judgment; Picasso is not “better” than Wyeth, just different. You can be a hack artist or a hack illustrator. What makes the difference between artist and illustrator is intent. Is the purpose primarily to tell the story or to create a work of art? With shades of everything in between.

As you suspect, whenever anyone makes a statement about art or artists, the exceptions jump out  at you. If you gave a copy of a poem or a short story to ten different artists and ask them to illustrate it, you would get ten totally different interpretations – as you should. Let’s say, there is a continuum, ranging from a totally abstract interpretation of a work of literature to an image where there is an almost photographic adherence to the story. “Fine Artists” have always been derisive of illustrators, assuming that work done for a client is necessarily less valid as of a work of art. Certainly, there’s no historic or even artistic basis for that. Is Giotto’s mural for the Arena Chapel less a masterpiece because it tells a story? Hacks are hacks; mediocre “artists” are no better than mediocre illustrators.

Anyhow, let me give an assignment to everyone reading this blog, artists and non-artists. Find a piece of literature you like: poem, story, book – and illustrate it in the manner of your choice. You can interpret it realistically or fantastically or abstractly. Any way you like. In fact, try it a couple of different ways. It’s a great way to push yourself, get out of a rut. For example, the artist Chagall was at his peak, did his best, most creative work from around 1910 to 1920. Then, he fell into a formula that sold well, made him rich and famous: his “faux” Vitebsk ghetto scenes, with flying lovers, rabbis and (cash) cows. It wasn’t until he turned to illustrating works such as Les Fables de La Fontaine and the Arabian Nights that his genius re-emerged and he ended up one of the greatest artist/illustrators of modern times.

Here’s your homework assignment: Pick a poem or a quote, a proverb, a fable - and create an illustration for it! I don’t care if you are an “artist” or not – in fact – I’m curious to see what the non artist readers come up with!
GO!…and send me the results.

 Renee Kahn
Artist and Ersatz Illustrator

Friday, June 1, 2018


I was never much of a photographer, mainly because photography, especially back in the days when I was starting out as an artist, required a lot of technical expertise which I didn’t have, as well as expensive equipment which I couldn’t afford. But, since I drew pretty well the only time I really needed a photo was to jog my memory, provide some details I couldn’t remember and my $2.99 Brownie camera was just fine for that. Nowadays, thanks to the incredible I-phone cameras, everyone can take good photographs, be an artiste. What nobody seems to realize is that it takes more than equipment to make a good photograph.

Over the past few decades I’ve had the mixed blessing of being invited to judge a half dozen Camera Club competitions, mostly little local meetings, not the major shows that want big names. I would be invited, not because I had any expertise in photography, but because I taught art history at the local university and the club leaders thought I might add a “different point of view.” And that I did! At the beginning of the session, the judges would be introduced. No one had any idea (or interest) in who I was and why I was invited, so my first job was to inform the group that I had very little, if any, knowledge of photography as a skill, however, I could teach them something about photography as an art. The other judges got to critique before me, quick to point out smudged negatives, out-of-focus backgrounds, poor lens work, in other words, the technical aspects of photography.

The modus operandi of the meeting was to project the photos the members had brought with them onto a large screen for the judges to critique. When it was my turn, I would walk back to the projector and with a couple of pieces of masking paper crop their mediocre images into something that produced gasps from the audience. I would hear complaints from the other judges that cropping was “cheating,” that “good” photographers (like Henri Cartier-Bresson) cropped with their eyes before they took their photos. “B.S. I would reply, there are no no’s, only what works.” I would then proceed to give the audience a crash course in “Principles of Design 101”, the underlying basis for a good photograph or any work of art.

A few weeks ago, my friend Bob gave me his usual copy of the art section of the London Financial Times. Much to my surprise, there was a review of a newly published book of photographs by one of my all-time favorites Helen Levitt. She was one of a group of talented “street photographers” influenced by the great Walker Evans who roamed the city in the 1940s taking candid snapshots of run down New York City neighborhoods. She died over ten years ago in her mid ‘90s, leaving behind over 10,000 unpublished negatives and the images in the new book were taken from this archive. The FT generously reprinted several photos that were in the book along with the review. But something wasn’t right. The images they showed, although very interesting, didn’t have the flawless composition and punch of Levitt’s usual work. Maybe that’s why she never published them in her lifetime. Or maybe she never had a chance to work on them. I was bothered enough to get up in the middle of the night, find my copy of the newspaper, cut out the illustrations in the article – and crop them myself.  There ya’ go Helen Levitt! I went back to sleep, content. The next day, I proudly showed what I had done to a photographer friend. He looked puzzled. “They looked okay to me before.”

P.S. If anyone is interested, I can give a one-page intro to the “Principles of Design” in my next post. The rules are easy, but they’re only the beginning; you have to practice a lot.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

POST #160: FILTHY LUCRE: Working for the Mighty Dollar

As most of my readers know, I taught art history at the University of Connecticut for over 22 years. Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern etc. etc. All the great artists I taught about worked ‘on commission,’ rarely for their own pleasure. Today, we would have called them “commercial artists.” With few exceptions, everything they did was for a wealthy client, usually the church or royalty. They did not look upon themselves as “geniuses,” creating work that might or might not be sold. Of course there were exceptions, eccentric anomalies like a mystical Blake or an exiled Goya, or a wealthy JMW Turner. The greatest artist of all, Rembrandt, did his finest work towards the end of his life when he was no longer in demand and just scraping by selling prints and teaching a handful of students.

When I was growing up in New York City right after the Great Depression, the few artists I actually knew supported themselves and their families by teaching and an occasional sale of work. Unlike today, an artist could live inexpensively and most (men) had working wives who supported them. Currently, I do not know a single artist who survives off his or her art; they either have a pension, savings, inherited wealth or a working spouse. From time to time one of them will sell something, but if they had to depend upon sales or commissions, they would starve.

In a way, knowing that you can’t earn a living off your artwork is liberating. It means you can do whatever you like without thinking about a buyer. Where there is no art market, there’s no need to worry about it. For example, I can paint without concern about a buyer. If I die with an attic full of unwanted paintings, some starving artist will be happy to re-use my canvas and there’s always the recycling center at the dump.  I’m currently working on a giant, 6’x12’ triptych, the last in a series of three that look like Russian Constructivist stage sets. They’re the best work I have ever done. Nobody is going to buy them because no one has room to put them up. When I have some bills to pay, I can take on a historic preservation review project for the City’s zoning department and when that contract runs out, I can always take in boarders. That’s how people did it during the Depression when I was growing up. It beats making artwork that ‘goes with the drapes.’

I’ve done pretty well the past year or two, sold quite a lot of work, mainly from my “rooftop” series based on the view from my daughter’s New York apartment. They are a lot easier to live with than my voluptuous ladies of the night. Since I had a broken ankle, I couldn’t get to Curley’s Diner and the city skyline had to suffice as inspiration.

credit to:
Robert Callahan
In a way, I envy my artists friends who had successful careers as commercial artists and art directors in New York City. They do very finished looking work, nothing edgy or offensive, all of it eminently saleable. One of them puts layers and layers of varnish on her work: abstract paintings with beautiful colors. They sell like the proverbial hotcakes to office decorators. I know another who paints romantic clouds wafting over Florida beaches, also a best seller. This is what they were trained to do: create a product for a market. Even when they try to do something off the beaten track, there’s a slickness and a desire to please in their hand that they can’t get rid of. In a way, I envy the ease with which they turn out work that sells, but I was trained to be a starving artist (although I haven’t missed a meal yet!) 

Since I’m obviously not in it for the cash, what’s my current goal?
First, to keep working for a few years more; I think I‘m getting really good. And….
I would love a decent sized retrospective in a major gallery or museum while I’m still around to enjoy it.

Renee Kahn

Friday, May 11, 2018

POST #159: FULL FRONTAL – no nudity!

I have a friend who saves the art section for me from the London Financial Times. Writing about art, translating the visual into the verbal, is never easy and lends itself to pseudo-jargon and just plain bull s----. but FTs reviewers, especially someone called Jackie Wullschlager, manage to be erudite without being self-important or deliberately obscure. Every few weeks I climb into my bed with a stack of back issues and work my way through them. It doesn’t matter where the shows they write about are held or if they’re over by the time I read about them - I wouldn’t go anyhow - I always manage to learn something.

The March 18th issue had an article by the aforementioned Ms/Miss/Mrs/Mr. ? Wullschlager that discussed a show currently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam devoted entirely - reputedly for the first time ever - to full-length, life-sized portraits. Of course, being the Rijksmuseum, the stars of the show are two pendant portraits of a husband and his very pregnant bride painted by Rembrandt when he was in his twenties, two of only three such portraits in his lifetime. The idea of full-length wedding portraits only went back a century or so, invented by Cranach in 1514. I guess they were the equivalent of those elaborate formal wedding photos you used to see on everyone’s buffet. Most of the other paintings in the show, however, were of single figures, not pairs.

What prompted this post was a conversation I had with my friend Rachel who paints life-size, full-length portraits of ordinary people, i.e. the owner of a hardware store in Michigan and his wife. We were trying to figure out why artists seem to avoid full-length frontals and came to the conclusion that they are difficult to compose, given that the viewers’ eye ends up smack dab against the model’s belly button. How do you deal with that when you’d rather have them concentrate on the subject’s face. It’s interesting to see how some of the more famous full-length portraits in the history of art: Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy”, Goya’s “Duchess of Alba” or John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” deal with this problem. Rembrandt’s solution was to paint elaborate lace cuffs and waist trim on his pair, creating visual interest, but not enough to compete with their faces.

What prompted my interest in the subject was that several months ago I began a half dozen or so almost life-size oil sketches of people walking on 125th Street in Harlem. I’m working up to a series of semi-abstract paintings like the ones I did of the Lower East Side several years ago. The figures are placed on 2’x5’ canvas scrolls. I start with a photograph or a sketch from life and end up with something almost entirely out of my imagination. I think my goal is to create companionship for myself in the studio, what my psychologist husband used to call my “Only Child Syndrome.”  (I was an “only child.”) When the person on the canvas makes eye contact with me, talks to me, smiles at me, I know I’ve succeeded.  I’m like the Florentine sculptor Donatello, who notoriously would scream at his statues: “Speak, damn you! Speak!” There’s an element of magic involved in all of this and while I have no idea how I bring my painted people to life; I just know when they contact me.

Friday, April 27, 2018

POST #158: DEVELOPERS I HAVE KNOWN (and not loved)

One of the downsides of trying to preserve historic buildings is that much of your time is spent fighting development (and developers). Over the past years (decades actually) this has brought me closer to a cast of Trump-ian characters than I ever dreamed of knowing. The good part is that over the years they provided fodder for a lot of strong, satirical artwork, although recent events have far surpassed anything I could have invented. LIFE has now completely overwhelmed ART.  Nothing I might create would ever come close to what is going on today: the politicians, the shyster lawyers, the bimbos, their surgically enhanced wives, the Mussolini grimace our current leader thinks makes him look like Churchill.

I could probably name at least a dozen big time real estate developers I have locked horns with – their names will sound familiar. They range from pure, unabashed Mafiosos to pseudo ‘aristocrats’ with Princeton degrees and Saville Row suits. The relationship between them came to me one evening many years ago at a Planning Board hearing I went to with my late husband, a Clinical Psychologist. While we were listening to the proceedings, the next “item” on the agenda walked in: MR. BIGSHOT and his entourage. “Who are they? My husband whispered. “They look like gangsters.” “Oh, no!” I replied. “That’s ----------. He’s one of the most important developers in the country. He’s a well-known art collector. That’s his lawyer, his sons, their wives, the architect etc.etc. They’re here to present their next project.” - which of course required the demolition of a block of historic buildings in the downtown. Higher and Best Use, you understand.

I thought about the incident afterwards and how my husband, with his professional training, had intuited something about the expensively-dressed applicants, their attempts to look like gentry that only hid what they actually were: gangsters. I immediately began to draw (I never go to zoning hearings without pencil and pad.) Where else could I get such great subject matter – for free?

Recently, however, I find I can no longer be a satirist. Reality has gone beyond my gentle spoofs: too grim. It’s almost the way satire vanished in the Weimar Republic (George Grosz et al) once Hitler came to power. The brilliant social satirists of Germany in the 20s and early 30s left the country or hid away, hoping not to end up in a death camp.

There is however, a difference between Developers and Builders. Some of my best friends are builders. Most of them are small town guys who grew up and plan to stay here. They are essentially craftsmen and will save and restore historic buildings if given half a chance… and they don’t leave town with the profits as soon as the job is over. I’m friendly with at least half a dozen. They respect me and try to “do the right thing” both for the community and themselves. They do quality work and take pride in the finished buildings. Many years ago, a local planner and I got together and came up with an innovative zoning regulation that would allow builders to squeeze in a couple of extra units in return for preserving an existing historic building: Section 7.3 Historic Density Bonus. It was the first of its kind in the country. By using its bonus provisions, we’ve managed to save dozens of historic houses. In fact, it’s the only thing that has ever worked.

Of course, big-time developers are hardly ever interested in preservation; their plans are much too grand to waste time and energy saving old buildings. And what if they do tear down a local monument or affordable housing in the process? They don’t live here; it’s not their home.  One of them actually had the nerve to tell me that was why he didn’t live in Stamford: the City’s zoning regulations weren’t strict enough!
Renee Kahn

Friday, April 6, 2018

POST #157: CHAUCER UPDATED or Whores Are Not Bores

A friend lent me his precious modern translation of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” a few years ago because I wanted to do a blog about The Wife of Bath.  (Post # 80) Why is she so intriguing? I think it’s because her modern counterpart kept turning up in my life (relatives, friends) and now she’s on TV all the time. They are the lusty goddesses/ temptresses I loved to paint. My alter egos? The adventuress I would or could have been if I had had the guts (and the measurements.) 

Anyhow, the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s tale (now married to her fifth husband – the previous four died) is a very modern woman. In fact, she is so modern she recently dominated television news in the re-incarnated form of a tart turned tactician with the nom de plume “Stormy Daniels.” She refused to be a victim, instead, using her ‘know-how’ and her natural (or un-natural) equipment to equalize the gender gap, telling the men who lusted after her: “If you want to use my body, I will control you.” Chaucer makes no bones about her methodology, allowing her to brag about her endowments and skill in utilizing them.

Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” lived during the Late Middle Ages, a time when women were chattel; upon marriage their bodies as well as everything they owned became the property of their husbands. First married at thirteen, four husbands pre-deceased her leaving her their worldly possessions, plus what they had acquired from her at marriage. In the Prologue to her story, she makes it very clear that while the New Testament may have encouraged chastity, church leaders soon realized this policy wasn’t going to provide them with a lot of followers. It didn’t take our Wife of Bath more than a couple of husbands to learn how to manipulate men, keep herself from being a victim and get them to do what she wanted. Sound familiar?  $130,000? Not bad for a couple of hours of fun and games!

Every time I read a Stormy Daniels interview, I think of the Wife of Bath and how ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’ We are supposedly in an age of liberation and sexual freedom where women will no longer have to subjugate themselves to the whims of the men in their lives, I heartily approve of this brave new world, but women like Stormy surely make for interesting art. Where would Titian and Rubens be without them?

Friday, March 23, 2018

POST #156: TO SIGN OR NOT TO SIGN? (a good question)

An art dealer I know came by recently, looked at my work and commented: ”You shouldn’t sign on the front. Nobody does that anymore.” Of course the “nobody does that anymore” raised the hackles (what are hackles?) on the back of my neck. “I do!”  I angrily replied. And I explained that I didn’t do it out of “ego,” but because the composition required it, needed a touch of “something” in the lower right or left. I hate people who make rules for artists. Real artists don’t follow rules but I’m sure the ones he represents no longer sign their work on the front since he told them “nobody does that anymore.”

His condescending remark brought out the quarrelsome art historian in me. When did artists begin to sign their work? Certainly not in antiquity, although there’s an occasional identifying mark. The best example I could think of was ancient Greek pottery where craftsmen of note (i.e. Euphronius) proudly lettered their names onto their work. An occasional medieval artisan left his mark: “so-and-so fecit,” but for the most part, artists were considered craftspeople producing work in service of rulers or gods. When did this change and why?

I started checking in with my knowledgeable friends. We all agreed that for the most part signatures appeared when art became a commodity. If art was now to be bought and sold on an open market, you needed to know who did it to establish its worth. Seventeenth Century Dutch art is probably the first time artists routinely signed their works as there were now literally thousands of artists producing paintings for a newly rich merchant class.

And so it went for the next two or three hundred years with most art either signed or definitively attributed.  When we get to the Modernist era, the 20th century, a signature usually appears, modestly, in an unobtrusive corner. Some artists, like Stuart Davis in his later years, incorporated the signature into the design of the piece. Davis made his signature an integral part of the painting. one that represented the completion of the process of painting. I found a great quote from him on the subject:

“Manufacturers put their name on your refrigerator and automobile. They’re proud of it, So I thought, if it’s going to be there, it ought to be a decent-looking thing. In the context of a total composition, you plan a place for it and regard it as an object.”

Picasso had a very distinctive signature that he frequently incorporated into the design of his work.  He used his mother’s maiden name rather than Ruiz, his father ‘s because he thought it looked more interesting. It’s only recently, that it has become unfashionable for artists to sign their work. In my humble (unasked for) opinion, the current tendency to leave work unsigned is a kind of phony bravado, telling the viewer that if he or she is knowledgeable about art, they will immediately recognize who did it. Besides, so much current work is chaotic and gimickky that one would have difficult finding place to put a signature or locate it if there was one.

Anyhow, I sign and date most (but not all) of my work. I have no hard and fast rule. I like the way my signature looks; it’s a final flourish that says (proudly) “R.Kahn.” However, I noticed that my most recent paintings remain unsigned, not because as my dealer friend insisted, it has become unfashionable, but because it would ruin the composition which I like to think is perfect as is. I used to tell my art students that a work of art was finished when you could not add (or subtract) a single thing – even a signature.