DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, August 23, 2012

All the News That's Fit to Paint

Ken Keeley's "Newsstand:" Reading as Art
Most people look at books and journals as reading material. But since the 16th Century, visual artists have been using books and other forms of the written word as symbols and images in their paintings, a point driven home with exactness at a recent lecture at the National Gallery.

The lecture, entitled All the News That's Fit to Paint: Reading as Art, served as an introduction to the gallery's upcoming major exhibition Shock of the News, which will examine how artists have used newspapers during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Virgin Mary reading
During the one-hour talk, Gallery Lecturer Eric Denker outlined the use of print in art from the Renaissance to the French impressionists of the 19th Century. Early such works were religious in nature, with painted scenes of the Virgin Mother or the saints holding or reading books, usually the Bible or a book of Psalms called a Psalter.

In England, the British painter William Harnett pioneered the use of various forms of reading material as still life. The writing in such works looked like real words but on closer inspection they were just unrelated markings painted to resemble the formation of sentences and paragraphs.

In the 18th century, broadsheets began using art work to illustrate points. In 2 famous related  drawings by William Hogarth entitled "Beer Street" and "Gin Lane" the artist drove home the point that while beer could provide stability and happiness, the demon gin would leave drinkers in ruin.
Hogarth's "Beer Street" on left; "Gin Lane" on right

American artist Richard Woodville provided a classic painting of the emerging power of newspapers with his "War News in Mexico" (1849). "The painting is a patriotic reminder of the victory over Mexico. The young man is reading the news. At the American Hotel, there is room for everyone. Meanwhile the man talking to the older man at the bottom may be symbolizing that reading is replacing talking as a way to convey information, " Denker said.
Woodville's "War News from Mexico"
 Indeed, after the 1850s, "the press not only reported the news, but it became the most important way to disseminate artistic news," Denker said.  By the 19th Century, painters were using reading as a subject to convey stability, family togetherness, and as an acceptable activity for women of all ages.

Many of the impressionists including Degas, Manet, and Cezanne employed reading and readers as a subject for their works. Paul Cezanne used his father reading a paper in one of his paintings. However, he used the title of an underground publication of the day, similar in nature to DC's The City Paper or Rolling Stone, as the paper his father was reading. "Cezanne's father would not have been reading that," Denker said. "Cezanne put that avant garde paper into his father's hands as a way of legitimatizing his own (new) art."
Paul Cezanne captures his father reading a paper

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
So what will the Shock of the News exhibit be like? Denker says it will include work from artists such as Andy Warhol and others to celebrate the last great years of newspapers. "Today, we are inundated with information, but it's less likely to come from newspapers and journals than electronically," Denker said. The exhibition will open on Sept, 27 and close on Jan. 27. According to National Gallery press, soon after the turn of the 20th century, visual artists began to think about the newspaper more broadly—as a means of political critique, as a collection of ready-made news to appropriate or manipulate, as a source of language and images, as a typographical grab bag, and more. The exhibition will examine this trend as it quickly grew into a phenomenon, encompassing both Europe and America, and will trace its development from 1909 to 2009. From Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Pablo Picasso to Ellsworth Kelly and Adrian Piper, most of the 60 artists in the exhibition will be represented by one exemplary work, ranging from collages, paintings, and photographs to a nearly room-size installation by Mario Merz, À Mallarmé (2003).

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