what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Generalising about Art

What do wine and paintings have in common? It’s very difficult to write about each! They impact on our senses (palate and nose; eye and brain respectively). Hardly surprising therefore that writing about art and wine produces a lot of nonsense – with adjective heaped upon hyperbolic adjective in an effort to justify the writer’s arbitrary opinions. Books about these subjects, of course, are often very beautiful – but the text rarely keeps pace.
Since I began my serious collecting of Bulgarian realist painters, I’ve bought a fair number of books about art generally and about specific artists (even about collectors and dealers) but have to confess that I have learned very little. The three books on realist painting, for example, taught me only one thing – that the term is a slippery one!
My recent posts on Romanian realist painters of the early part of the 20th century were inspired by 7-8 little second-hand books from the 1970s and 1980s about individual artists which I picked up in Bucharest recently. Charming books – thick paper, great fonts and mounted reproductions (modelled, it seems to me, on the great little Skira books of the 1950s and 1960s) – much easier to read than the 900 pages of Paul Johnson’s Art; a new history which I did however thoroughly enjoy
Simon Schama’s "The Power of Art" may also be a bit unwieldy in its 450 page coffee-table style but does adopt the same useful focus on individual painters rather than style or eras – Caravaggio, Bellini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gough and Picasso. And there is a nice blog which gives good detail on the background to individual paintings - eg some of Van Gogh's
For me, however, the most insightful stuff on painting remains the small book written in the 1970s by John Berger – Ways of Seeing. The link gives the full text. Although I did come across in a Sofia friend's flat a beautiful book about painting in 1920s Bulgaria which struck me as a great way to approach painting - capturing in one country how various painters relate to one another and the changing trends.

My viewings in the last few years of Bulgarian and Romanian art have led me wonder about the extent to which is it possible to generalise about a nation’s painting style. My little booklet on Bulgarian Realists ("Getting to know the Bulgarians through their paintings") gives brief notes about 140 Bulgarian painters – most of whom were born in the last decade the 19th century and before the First World War; I have not been able to find anything striking in Romania from the same period. The 10 great Romanian artists I mentioned in the last two posts were born some 30 years earlier (between the 1860s and 1880s) but seem to have been the last of their line. When Bulgarian landscapes and colours were blooming in their art, their Romanian colleagues were producing (for me) dark and insipid stuff.

If I am right, what is the reason? Romania was, of course, the larger country with a significant bourgeois class and attachments to French culture – Bulgaria more rural with freedom from heavy Ottoman rule going back less than two generations (the Romanian liberation was less significant for them because of the considerable autonomy they had won within the Ottoman Empire). The Bulgarian celebration (in their art of the early 20th century) of their land and peoples perhaps reflected a pride and spirit absent in the more cynical and worldly Romanian bourgeois?
And the paintings in the Bulgarian Orthodox Churches are so much more colourful (indeed sensuous) than in the dull and serious Romanians.
The first painting of Rila Monastery is by Mario Zhekov - the second (in my collection) by an unknown 

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