Thursday, June 6, 2013


The Rock
I wrote a while back about making my peace with certain simulated or imitation objects in my life; my only criterion was that they would be convincing enough to fool even me. I backed this up with a reference to the ancient art of trompe l’oeil (“to deceive the eye”). But I’ve changed my mind – at least as it pertains to my garden boulder. Caryl says I paid good money for this rock (although I find it hard to believe that I actually spent as much as she says I did. I won’t argue, though; she’ll produce the receipt.) The rock is very convincing; you would be hard-pressed to pick it out of a field of real boulders. The problem is that I tell everybody it’s fake. I can’t help myself. This sort of defeats the purpose—I think it’s like the criminal who has a deep-seated need to be found out. So, out of the shame I’ve brought upon myself, I’m going to get rid of it.

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper
This brings me to an only slightly more serious foray into the world of imitation. Recently, while dining at a very nice restaurant, I noticed a framed copy of  Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks hanging on the beautifully paneled wall across from our table. Now, I concede that this iconic image is not the most creative choice for use in a restaurant, but it worked for me. And it got me to thinking: Why not display framed reproductions of great art (known and unknown) in our home? Or, rather than “great” art, perhaps I should say art that has actually been meaningful, influential, or moving in one’s life—whether recognized as “great” or not—but is out of one’s reach in the original.

Let me pause and note that I can imagine a reader saying, “Gee, Dick, you’ve come up with the idea of art reproduction – nobody else has ever thought of that!” And maybe this will turn out to be an exercise in the obvious, but hear me out.

Caryl and I have two or three pieces of original work that we love; we have a number of limited edition prints that speak of important places or scenes or moments in our life. (We don’t have anything that was bought because it matched the pattern in the sofa.)

But we don’t have Van Gogh’s self-portrait, we don’t have a Renoir still life (which are fabulous), we don’t have Schedoni’s The Holy Family With The Virgin Teaching the Child to Read (right), which deeply moved the parent and grandparent and teacher in us when we saw it at the Ashmolean. Why not?

I regret that, mostly because of my disorganized life, I have not followed through with an early resolve to explore galleries and get to know the work of young or undiscovered artists and to purchase their work, not as an investment or to take advantage, but to find things a poor preacher could afford. I'm still interested in this endeavor
Untitled Ceramic Sculpture, Joel Froehle
(including more of the primally interesting ceramic sculpture of our son-in-law, Joel Froehle). But even so, the art I'm talking about would still be beyond our grasp. So...

I think many of us have avoided the reproduction approach to art and its place in our homes not so much out of snobbery (although we’ve probably all seen one too many warped-cardboard prints of The Starry Night or Sunflowers hanging in the furniture store), but because of a sense that it's just not done--there is one and only one original, and anything else would be, well, artificial. At one level this is, of course, true. But we don’t let this stop us with poetry or literature. We are not embarrassed to read a “copy” of  Paradise Lost rather than seek out the original manuscript. I once heard a book of poetry described as “a work of art that you can carry in your coat pocket.” One of the most enthralling hours in my recent life was the day, about ten years ago, when I took my newly-acquired small, slim, hardcover copy of the Poetry of R.S. Thomas out of my pocket and sat at the counter in Key’s Restaurant in St. Paul reading the poems while eating my bacon and eggs. (Hey – I was kind of an Edward Hopper character myself!)

Of course I’m not talking about filling one’s home willy-nilly with the pieces that easily come to mind (although a house filled wall-to-wall with Mona Lisa and Sunflowers and American Gothic and The Scream and other well-known greats could be it’s own kind of fun artistic expression. I think it’s called kitsch). I'm thinking rather of a loving and exciting exercise in exploration and the revisiting of or discovery of the things that strike at the heart – familiar or completely unfamiliar.

The great museums have great web sites, The Ashmolean in Oxford, The Art Institute of Chicago, The National Portrait Gallery in London, The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the great Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam…. Most give you the ability to browse the entire collection and download your selection, or to purchase a poster or an “archival replica” for a reasonable price.

If you have reservations about this approach, so do I. (For example, what would an "archival replica" of a piece of sculpture be?) Nevertheless, I think I’m going to make a gingerly start of it. But first I’m going to ask my art professor son-in-law what he thinks. He was kind to me about the fake rock – kind, and rather quiet.

And about that rock – it’s available. Caryl just showed me the receipt. I’ll sell it to you on the installment plan.


Joseph G. Crippen said...

I agree with this, wholeheartedly. Some day I want to find a good reproduction - there are some who do it with oil paint - of that very Starry Night whose cardboard version you dismiss - to hang in my home. It goes beyond art, too. I've been learning the devotional grace of icons, and I have a couple hand-written (painted) ones, but an Orthodox friend has assured me that reproductions are just as acceptable. So I have a number of them, and they serve well. And I've had a small, plaster Pieta (Michelangelo's) on my shelf for years. Small might be an unnecessary adjective - I doubt you would have expected full-sized were you to see my study.

Richard Jorgensen said...

Joseph, I didn't make it clear that I actually love Starry Night, too. It's on my list. Thanks for the reflections.

Tim Gustafson said...

Big philosophical can o' worms here. You're absolutely right to point out that poetry (and, I'd add music) have long been acceptable in reproductions (even if we might pay more to hear a live performance). But why not visual art? Modernism elevated (worshipped?) the original and the iconoclastic in the arts, and that seems to have stuck most in the visual arts. Earlier theories of art said that art is imitative. Moderns said art was not a mirror of nature, but a new, unique thing, of value in its own right. Is that why fake art is so scorned? Back to your rock--it imitates nature very well, apparently. In classical Greece or Renaissance Italy, it would have been recognized as art--skillful imitation of an ideal natural rock. But because you know it's an imitation, and imitation is not a part of the Modernist definition of art, you feel compelled to disown it. Does that sound right?