Friday, May 23, 2014


The Lecherous Smile   Oil crayon on vellum   25"x19"
When I look back on some of my early work, the stuff I did decades ago when I first started to paint, I’m shocked to see how happy everybody looks. They all have smiles on their faces. Why? It didn’t take me long to realize that most of my subject matter in those days came from those stiff, posed photos I saw in the local Society Pages. Coming from New York City, I quickly became aware of how important it was in a small community to have your picture in the local newspaper: the Officers of the Glenbrook Garden Club, the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the Woman’s Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Hadassah, Retired Airline Hostesses and so on and so forth, all staring uncomfortably at the camera. “Smile,” the photographer must have ordered and they all obeyed. Their smiles are stiff and anxious, more a rictus than an expression of joy. Somehow, I had captured their discomfort and their fear of being photographed. Do I look O.K.? Is my hair in place?

The Sly Smile   Oil on canvas   32"x24"
After my early “newspaper” phase, most of the subject matter in my paintings came out of my subconscious, my imagination. So why was everyone smiling now? I certainly wasn’t saying that their life was good; most of my characters look anxious and distressed. However, I think I’ve come up with a reasonable explanation: the smiles were my subjects’ way of making contact. They say: “I’m not dangerous; I want to be your friend.” Smile and the world smiles with you; it’s really true. However, in looking at my work to find illustrations for this blog, I realize that not all smiles are alike: there are nervous, insecure smiles designed to placate; there are leering, seductive smiles, cold, calculating smiles, psychotic smiles, patronizing smiles. No end to what their smile can tell you about someone.

If you want to understand the importance of smiles in making something lifelike, you have to go back to the Ancient Greeks. In the 6th century B.C., when artists were beginning to study human anatomy and learn how to make their sculptures lifelike, they used the smile as a way of communicating with the viewer. The sweet, upturned lips that appear on the Greek Kouros and Kore of the period was called the “Archaic Smile” and art historians assume that it was meant to make the figure seem alive. In the periods that followed, once the technical problems of creating a realistic human form were solved, the smile disappeared; it was no longer needed.  But before that, sculptors needed to create life with a smile..

After all, what’s the most famous work of art in the history of the world? The Mona Lisa. And what is she doing? She’s smiling….a sweet, mysterious smile.

The Mona Lisa Smile  Oil on canvas   44"x34"

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