Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Kitsch, Criticism and Tretchikoff

Disclaimer: My background in art is strictly recreational. I like going to museums and reading the occasional art book for fun. I spend a lot of time on Arts & Letters Daily. My underlying philosophy is something like: Not enough people go to museums. People should go to museums. GO TO A MUSEUM ALREADY! So. I do not claim to be any authority on this matter.

When I posted about the Tretchikoff exhibit at the SA National Gallery I mentioned that the artist faced heavy criticism for making money as a living artist and for participating in the print-making and distribution process. Those criticisms were spelled out throughout the exhibit--on the panels around the works as well as in a documentary about the artist's life.

I was unaware that heavy criticisms of the work itself--subjects, execution, mastery of media--persist today.

And do they ever. In an Art Times review piece called "More Agony than Ecstacy, the Tretchikoff Story: Now showing in vistavision at the SA National Gallery" by Llyod Pollak, every element of Tretch's work and life come under fire. The work is kitsch (Pollack compares it to Disney); the female subjects are portrayed in an Orientalist light; his tag as "the People's Painter" is populism at its worst, appealing to the lowest common denominator; he has no feel for texture, color or depth; and this collection does not deserve the seal of approval that a collection at the SA National Gallery bestows upon it.

The language of the review is evocative, with descriptors like: Dead. Prosthetic. Intellectually null. Plastic. Hammy. Commercial. Garish.

You get the idea. And yet! I found myself enjoying the exhibit. I liked the colors, though I did feel some discomfort as I saw rooms and rooms filled with the same female body type, topless, with different ethnic features or skin tones. Who knew that every woman on earth has that same Russian ballerina body and gravity-defying breasts? But it would be grossy unfair to claim that Tretch was the first, only, or even most succesful imagist to present portraits of fantastical woman-like creatures to a viewing public. I JUST REALLY LIKED THE COLORS SOMETIMES. And I'm going to stand by that.

But I do not consider myself immune to the zietgeist of art criticism. I had a visceral reaction to this piece about Thomas Kincade, and agree with every snobby, sneering quip made by Jed Perl in the book review. Shudder.


  1. Is it so bad to be a painterly Walt Disney? I don't think so. After all, the images Disney created became icons of popular culture. They're loved by millions. They've brought joy into their lives. There's a time and place for a Disney cartoon and for a Bergman drama.

  2. I agree, though the criticism I linked to didn't imply that Tretch was the painter's equivalent of Disney--Tretch in this criticism WAS a Disney. Disney's name, to my American mind, doesn't just evoke an image of Steamboat Willy or Mickey Mouse. Disney isn't just an illustrator--he built an empire of amusement, and made money hand over fist doing so. Again, I don't believe an artist is compromised just because they make money in their lifetime, and I'm honestly impressed that Tretchikoff controlled his own print-making. I like seeing an artist in control of their own work.

    I feel like an equivalent criticism in the US, where I'm living now, is Norman Rockwell: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/01/AR2010070107266.html?referrer=emailarticle

    He's fallen out of favor for some here, for allegedly being too saccharine, and, that dreaded concept: popular. His images were prevalent as Saturday Evening Post covers, which he didn't print himself, but he absolutely made income off of in his lifetime.

    I'm just fascinated with how much art critics seem to hate popular, profitable artists.

  3. Well, not exactly. Damien Hirst or Jeff Koon are both popular and profitable. But they come from a very artsy background. They went through the gallery system and had been critically acclaimed before they became rich and famous. Artists like Tretchikoff didn't go follow the usual route. Tretchikoff, for instance, exhibited in department stores rather than conventional art galleries. And the establishment have always found his work 'not challenging enough' to be real art. Tretchikoff, unlike Hirst or Koon, is appreciated by ordinary people, the hoi polloi. Such popularity, for many art critics, is equal to obscenity.