Monday, January 14, 2019

Examples of Soviet Brigade Art

Aside from perhaps a few religious icons and early modernists such as Kandinsky and Malevich, my college art history class ignored Russian art. I don't know what current art history classes deal with, but it's clear to me that late 19th century Russian painters are becoming better-known than they were 50 or 60 years ago.

Still confined to obscurity is Stalinist Socialist Realism. In part this was because of its propagandistic nature. Perhaps an even greater reason for its disparagement by the Art Establishment was its use of Academic and other pre-modernist styles.

Due to all this, until recently I was unaware that along with collective farming and other individualism-suppressing practices, there was the use of "brigades" of artists who collectively created large paintings. This is dealt with in this book. On page 182 Matthew Cullerne Brown writes:

"In 1949 [Vasili] Efanov and a team of young artists painted Leading People of Moscow in the Kremlin. This work stimulated a revival in the practice of creating pictures by brigades, the method that had been adopted at the end of the 1930s for the New York international exhibition and the pavilions of the Agricultural Exhibition. Now a method of working once restricted to the fulfilment of special projects became commonplace. This accorded with the pressure on artists to ... produce bigger and yet bigger pictures in academic style -- while the party allowed no extra time for their creation....

"Brigade painting gained another justification, inherent in communal endeavour. This was the inevitable elimination of much personal style, affecting all participating artists. Their work approached an ideal of wholly anonymous academic execution; the brigade method predicated the whole Stalinist straining towards a mass culture and the eradication of individual difference....

"[W]hereas the huge paintings for the 1939 exhibition in New York had been created by groups of equals, now each brigade was led by one artist, usually an Academician... Typically, these artists would devise a composition and then employ younger, less well-established artists to carry out the chore of innumerable portrait and architectural studies."

The author goes on to note that those younger artists benefited because it enhanced their reputations and the work paid well.

The Russian Museum, Málaga branch had an exhibition of Soviet-era painting when I visited, and one of those works was a brigade effort. It and two other examples are shown below. Click on the colored images to enlarge.


"Leading People of Moscow in the Kremlin" - 1949. Brigade artists were the leader Vasili Efanov, Stepan Dudnik, Yuri Kugach, Konstantin Maksimov, and Viktor Tsyplakov.

"Lenin's Speech to the Third Congress of the Komsomol" - 1950. Artists were the leader Boris Iognson, Nikolai Chebakov, Nataliya Faidysh-Krandievskaya, Vasili Sokolov, and Dmitri Tegin.

"In the Name of Peace (The Signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Union and Mutual Assistance Between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China)" - 1950. Brigade leader was Viktor Vikhtinsky, but I have no information about the other artists. This is an iPhone snapshot I took.

A more detailed snapshot. I can recognize the following people (standing, left to right): Nikita Khrushchev,  Vyacheslav Molotov, unknown general, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Chou En-Lai.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Millions for an early N.C. Wyeth Illustration

The image above is an illustration titled "Hands Up," alternatively "Holdup in the Canyon" painted for C.P. Connolly’s “The Story of Montana,” published in McClure’s Magazine, August 1906. In 2016 it was auctioned at Christie's for just under $4.5 million (details here).

This amount was far above Christie's price estimate and even greater than previous prices for works by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth (1882-1945), considered one of America's greatest illustrators. Biographical information on him can be found here and here.

Both sources mention that he made two journeys from Pennsylvania to the West with the purpose of soaking up the spirit and details of that region from personal experience rather than second-hand via books or magazines. "Hands up" was one of many drawings and paintings resulting from those journeys.

I'm featuring it here because I'm pleased that classic American illustration is getting its due recognition as valued by the art market

Monday, January 7, 2019

Elegance Depicted in Soviet Socialist Realism

I'm pretty sure that even knowledgable art fans rarely give the Socialist Realism paintings of the Soviet Union much thought, if any. And that thought probably echoes the Art Establishment dogma that Socialist Realism was simply propaganda expressed in obsolete painting styles. Nothing much to see there.

It's true that aside from personal projects, Soviet artists had to produce paintings that followed the Party line, emphasizing the benefits and glories of the Motherland under scientific socialism. I've long contended that political art is almost always inferior art, especially to the extent that the political point being made dominates the work.

As for style, the Establishment view is simply an aspect of the now-aging assertion that, aside from Renaissance-era and 17th century Dutch painting (think Rembrandt and Vermeer), pre-modernist Western painting is largely worthy of contempt, and Modernism is the destiny of artistic evolution.

I've been disagreeing with that concept on the Internet for the last 14 years, preferring paintings that are interestingly and technically well done while for the most part depicting reality with reasonable fidelity given the artist's intent and capability.

So in this and related posts I examine some Socialist Realist paintings in terms other than political messaging.

I can do this because when I was in Málaga, Spain in November I visited a branch of Saint Petersburg's excellent Russian Museum. It was holding a year-long (ending February 2019) exhibit titled "The Radiant Future: Socialist Realism in Art." A fine exhibit. Plenty of examples, some of which I knew about before I visited. Of course I took lots of snapshots.

The painter featured in the present post is Vasily Prokofievich Yefanov (1900-1978), also spelled Vasili Efanov. His Wikipedia entry in English and Russian is minimal, so link here for information regarding him. It mentions that he "was a master of the ceremonial portrait, communist (since 1954), and five-time winner of the Stalin Prize (1941, 1946, 1948, 1950, 1952). Besides, a full member of the Academy of Arts of the USSR (1947) and People’s Artist of the USSR (1965)."

I deal with one of his large works below. Click on images to enlarge.


Artists of the Konstantin Stanislavsky Theatre Meeting Students of the Nikolai Zhukovsky Air Force Academy - 1938
The entire painting. You can gauge its size by reference to the plaque at the right and the museum floor: nearest subjects are depicted a little less than life-size.

What struck me about this work was how elegantly the people are dressed. Far from stereotypical collective farmworkers nuzzling their beloved tractors. The setting might as well have been in France or England. This probably had to do with the fact that theatre artists and military cadets were privileged people under the Soviet regime, so what was depicted was probably true. Also, note that this was painted at the time of Stalin's infamous purges of potential rivals including leading army brass such as Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky -- perhaps the USSR's greatest early military leader. Unsettling times. What especially caught my eye (probably intentionally by Efanov) is the contra-jour view of the woman in the white dress with her back to us. In the previous image you can see that her positioning makes her the painting's focus, -- not the standing speechmaker across from her who is theoretically the focus.

Panning farther to the left we can see how Efanov skillfully adjusts his brushwork to make background figures slightly out of focus.

And to the right: note in all these images that he took care to paint the young women more distinctly than the surrounding men in their black ties and Sam Browne belts. Efanov was really skillful.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Brangwyn, Cornwell and Murals

Reader Paul Sullivan's comment to this post about San Francisco murals by Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) inspired the present post. The concept is to compare Brangwyn's style with that of Dean Cornwell (1892-1960), a successful American illustrator who set aside his career for a few years in the early 1930s to paint murals for the new Los Angeles Public Library Central Branch Building. Information about that project can be found here. I wrote about those murals here.

Brangwyn was a famous and prolific mural painter, so Cornwell managed to become an assistant in order to learn the trade. He helped Brangwyn on one or more of the British Empire series of panels intended for the House of Lords. They were ultimately rejected, and can be found in Swansea, Wales.

Below are examples of Brangwyn's and Cornwell's works. Click on the images to enlarge.


Funchal, Madeira - 1891
Painted at the time Brangwyn broke away from traditional, illustration-style painting. Note his use of outlining, bright colors and free brushwork. From this point on, his paintings and murals featured a strong decorative component, one especially well suited for large murals.

A Venetian Scene - 1906
Outlining became something of a Brangwyn trademark, and was used by many mural painters in the 1920s, especially. In this painting most outlines in the foreground are dark, but those for background work are lighter.

Dance - 1895
One of Brangwyn's earliest murals, painted when living in Paris. Enlarge to better view outline colors. Some are very dark, some are brown, others are blue-gray.  I've always wondered if he had a system for selecting outline colors, but so far have only decided that darker, heavier lines were for dark subjects or where emphasis was desired. Let us know if you have cracked his code.

Departure of Sir James Lancaster for the East Indies, 1594 - Skinners Hall - 1901-04
Mural panel painted a few years later, also showing Brangwyn's use of a few strong reds -- a favorite touch.

Tank in Action - 1925-26
No strong reds here. This was an early attempt in the House of Lords project, but was rejected due to its subject matter. Plenty of outlining for foreground subjects, hardly any for the background tank.

British Empire Panel 5 - Canada
This was the kind of panel that Cornwell could have worked on. Outlines on the people and other foreground items are painted light blue, though some background outlining is darker.

Mission Building
One of Corwell's LAPL murals. He used light blue for many outlines, but other colors where he decided that a different emphasis was needed to clarity the subjects and their main colors.

Detail of a mural
Again, a good deal of light blue outlining plus some darker blue outlines. Like Brangwyn, Cornwell includes plenty of details to fill the space. Also like Brangwyn, reds and oranges are key parts of the color scheme.

Detail of a mural
A photo of a LAPL mural I took nearly 10 years ago using a camera not quite up to the job. Here we find nearly exclusive use of blue outlining. Cornwell's style is less dramatic than Brangwyn's, though these murals do retain a feel for the master's work.

American Federation of Labor triptych, Centre William Rappard, Genève - was International Labor Office HQ - 1955
This rather surprised me when I found it on the Internet because I thought that Cornwell had abandoned mural-painting by this late in his career. Here the Brangwyn influence is gone, replaced by Cornwell's 1950s illustration style.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Fascist-Era Roman Hotel

One of my pet peeves regarding the naming of architectural styles is the category "Fascist Architecture" (fragment of a Wikipedia entry on the subject here).

My contention is that so-called Fascist Architecture was largely the same sort of 1930s transitional (from historical ornamentation to ornamentation-free modernism) found in other countries including the decidedly non-fascist United States. Salient examples tend to be buildings built by governments. But non-government structures also sometimes followed that architectural fashion.

One example of the latter is the Hotel Mediterraneo in Rome, at Via Cavour 15, about two blocks from Rome's main railway station. The link is to the ownership group that holds three hotels clustered near the same intersection. One hotel is 19th century, but the Mediterraneo and the adjoining Atlantico were built in the 1930s -- the Mediterraneo in 1936, designed by Mario Loreti.

The Mediterraneo caters to tour groups, which is how I first stayed there a few years ago. Recently I booked myself on a western Mediterranean cruise and stayed two nights at the hotel before heading to the Civitavecchia cruise port. Below are a few snapshots I took before departing.


Mediterraneo exterior.  The entrance is at the near corner.  To the left is the Atlantico.  Note the tour busses parked on the Via Cavour.

Lounge area off the hotel lobby.

To one side of the lounge.

Dining room at breakfast time.

Wall and ceiling décor in the dining room.

What is shown above are essentially simple shapes and rich materials accented by small amounts of detailed ornamentation. In other words, characteristic of the 1930s transition to ornamentation-free modernist forms.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Floyd Davis: Successful Illustrator with No Training, Few Models

In those olden times when American illustration was in flower, there was no clear path for continued success for artists who had attained a certain degree of fame.

Essentially, this was the matter of one's style in the context of inevitable changes in stylistic fashion. An illustrator with a widely recognized style -- one whose work can be identified at a glance -- can rake in plenty of income while that kind of style remains fashionable. But when the fashion changes from, say, painterly brushwork in oils (1915-1927 or so) to thin linework and watercolor (1928-1935 or so), one's happy career could easily crash.

Other than dropping out of illustration to become an art director, taking up portrait painting, teaching and other non-illustration possibilities, the successful illustrator has two main strategic career alternatives. One is to continue his basic style, perhaps with a few minor adjustments. Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker did this, though Leyendecker's popularity eventually faded whereas Rockwell's did not. I suspect that this holding-the-fort strategy is rarely successful.

The alternative strategy is to try going with the fashion flow. That is, changing one's style and (if necessary) one's preferred medium. This can be very difficult for well-known illustrators because, all of a sudden, they aren't producing what made them popular in the first place. One successful example of this style shift is Mead Schaeffer, whose 1940s work is noticeably different from what he was doing in the 1920s and 1930s. Dean Cornwell shifted his style enough to stay competitive, but John La Gatta's career began to fade as he tried to adjust to the times.

Changing illustration style fashions often worked to the advantage of artists who were fairly successful, but not as famous as the ones just mentioned. The reason is, by not being famous, their initial style hadn't become a strong trademark. So as long as they were competent and could easily practice the new fashion, their careers could continue chugging along.

The present post deals with a top-level illustrator who never had a strongly identifiable style, and therefore easily went along with the changing scene, happily earning a nice income.

Floyd MacMillan Davis (1896-1966), known simply as Floyd Davis, thrived from the mid-1920s into the 1950s, though he dialed back by the latter decade. Background information can be found here and here as well as elsewhere on the Internet and in several books dealing with American illustrators.

Briefly, Davis never had serious formal training. He had a knack for illustration, and that was enough in his case. It seems he seldom used models -- unusual for other top-earning illustrators. And his work could include caricature-like distortions and small, humorous details that did not interfere with his main theme. As for how he approached his work, here is the text of a 1942 interview of Davis by Ernest W. Watson.

Below are examples of Davis' work. I have to admit that I find it surprising that he was so well-known and successful, given the visual variety of his output. All that I can offer is the thought that Floyd Davis was the anti- Normal Rockwell.


A 1928 advertisement where Davis uses contemporary fashion illustration style with a touch more modeling, less flatness.

This would be from the mid-1930s, following the end of Prohibition.

Story illustration from the mid-30s, the setting being a polo club.

DeSoto Airflow advertisement from 1936. Davis did at least two of these. In each case, the ad made a big deal regarding the artist, so Davis was clearly a Name in those days.

This is quite different from the other examples, though various Web sites contend it's his work. I include it here even though I can't vouch for it absolutely. Let us know in a comment if this really was/wasn't by Davis.

Comedian Bob Hope made special efforts to entertain American military personnel during World War 2 and for many years after. Davis was hired by Life Magazine to cover the war, and this cartoon-like painting apparently was from that effort. I don't have a date for this, but it might have been from around mid-1942 when the U.S. Army was transitioning helmets from the British-style Hope is wearing to the one most usually seen on wartime photos.

This is titled "Bar in the Hotel Scribe, Paris, 1944." It's now housed the the U.S. National Portrait Gallery, a work in oil that is a collection of caricatures of well-known people who flocked to Paris after the Liberation. Links to identification are here and here. The style Davis used here is quite different from the other shown here.

A graduation day scene featured in a H.J. Heinz advertisement form 1945. Again, it has a cartoon-like flavor.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Georges van Zevenberghen, Belgian Inspired by Chardin

As the title of this post mentions, Georges Antoine Van Zevenberghen (1877-1968), was presumably inspired by Chardin's paintings. Well, that's what this nearly-worthless French Wikipedia entry mentions: "Il partit ensuite pour Paris en 1903 où il admira les œuvres du peintre du xviiie siècle Jean Siméon Chardin qui le marquèrent durablement."

It seems that van Zevenberghen spent most of his long life in Belgium, enduring periods of German occupation in both World Wars. His main travels apparently were to Paris. The entry also notes: "En 1933, il devint professeur à l'Académie royale des beaux-arts de Bruxelles, fonction qu'il remplit jusqu'en 1948." So he was regarded highly enough to become a professor in the Academy.

Not many of his paintings can be found on the Internet. They are generally solidly done. There is one that stands out, however, as can be seen below.


La repasseuse - 1907
The earliest of his paintings that I could locate.

Les modistes - 1915
Painted during wartime when most of Belgium was German-occupied.

Le joueur de violoncelle
The cello player. Several of his paintings feature cellos.

Adagio - c. 1930
Another cello.

Le jugement de Pâris - 1937
A rare Academy-themed work done while he was a professor.

La cigale ou la musique - The Cicada or Music
I'm not sure what the title means. Also, apologies for the poor quality of the image, but it's the best I could find in that size range.

The Manet - 1922
I think this painting is the best of the lot, though it's not particularly characteristic of his work.