Tom Freudenheim former museum director and curator in 3 countries writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal. In one of his articles I came across the phrase “the artist as Photoshop master”. What a wonderful concept!
As you know by now I have a great interest in photography and have seriously taken photographs since I was in grade school. Some of my photos look surrealistic because of the juxtaposition of the people or objects in them. Every once in a while I feel that a photo really looks better shown upside down or with a change of color or a more elaborated enhancement. One such image was one I took from outside the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral Guggenheim museum. Flip that on its side and you are looking through the bars of a prison onto a barren landscape. This drives my wife nuts because it is not honest, ie it is not the picture that I have actually taken.
But wait a minute, what about the artist? No, not the abstract painter but the old master painter. We know that Canaletto, the painter of Venetian scenes did similar pictures over and over again. They were sometimes the same building from different angles around the Grand Canal and sometimes over a period of time as areas changed and buildings were added or demolished. Were these totally accurate? There is evidence that they often were But then he also would just add boats or people or make other small changes. These were surely just for the sake of variation and accentuation.
Similarly, Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) was commissioned by the Marquis de Marigny, Madame de Pompadour’s brother and art minister to Louis XV to paint the ports of France. He spent 12 years on the process and created hundreds sketches of the people and objects he saw around the ports. Then he painted his pictures of the ships in the ports and added the people and paraphernalia as he saw fit.
Gerrit Berckhede (1638-1698) convinces viewers to this day of the “photographic” accuracy of his Dutch cityscapes by his precisely detailed depictions, down to the brickwork, yet he would rearrange the view, to make a better composition, or show what the eye could not possibly see. In this scene of the Hague, which has not changed to this day, a building in the foreground blocked the view so the artist moved it and replaced it with trees.
Sometimes an artist will wish to paint a scene so that the viewer will see the scene with the same effect it had on the artist. In some cases, however, it is the client that may demand changes. Gilbert Stuart the portraitist best known for painting multiple images of George Washington is quoted as saying, "What a business this of a portrait painter - you bring him a potato, and expect he will paint you a peach." After all you must please your client.
One of the old master painters who brings major prices today is J.M.W.Turner and often the paintings that show vast abstract backgrounds of land or seacape with seeming little content bring the most money. I found out he left so many works unfinished. He found that he could sell better if he finished his paintings in front of his public, possibly including content that was requested. Therefore, he would finish his pictures while they were on exhibition. Needless, to say he would paint the background scene earlier and many pictures today that have found there way to the market with out content are actually unfinished.
Just as there is no one truth but many aspects of the same truth. No view is totally accurate. It depends on the time of day, the weather, and the view at the moment and the artist’s mood. We all add our interpretation even to a simple snapshot… or masterpiece in any media.