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Thursday, March 8, 2012

T-Shirts, Togas, or Au Naturel? : The Problem With Clothing In Art

It has been said that the foot is nobler than the shoe, but is the sandle nobler than the flipflop? In renaissance Italy before planes, trains, and automobiles biblical characters were represented wearing fashions from their current time. This is presumably because it never occurred to them that people would have ever dressed any differently. In Rembrandt's dark, jewel-studded biblical narratives he seems to have invented his own fanciful interpretation of Jewish clothing. But why don't these inaccuracies look naive or silly to us?

An interpretation of Bouguereau for a photoshop contest on worth1000.com

One of the snags of our over-scienced post-industrial age is that we now know everything, so we no longer need our imaginations. Another is that we don't make anything ourselves. Our day-glow hats and fanny packs are one size fits all, and will be out of vogue next year. Clothing is designed for the convenience of the manufacturer in worldwide uniformity. Shirts and jackets are emblazoned with company logos and pants are made extra baggy to fit our masses.

"Foreclosure" by Max Ginsburg

I don't mourn modern inventions, because they have afforded me more time and freedom to create.  The problem for a visual artist though is that it is difficult to make poetry out of the throw-away objects of mass-production.  The options before us are kind of like this:

1. Embrace modern fashion with tongue-in-cheek humor
2. Select less offensive or conspicuous contemporary fashions, or simplify by playing down the uglier aspects of them.
3. Invent your own clothing styles
4. Dress your models in period costumes, most likely mismatching different past eras.
5. No clothes at all.  (Easiest, but sometimes yields awkward results.)
6. Sheet.

Best of luck friends.



William Whitaker

Odd nerdrum

My painting "Iconoclast"

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  1. Nice post. First off, I am very much a traditionalist.
    If it is beautiful and a pleasing arrangement go for it.
    I once read that most painters of the past, like Rembrandt, were using props and costume of the previous generation. For one thing it was available, as folks did not have closets filled like we do now, and I think people have an easier time viewing it as history for some reason. It has a past, so it is in a sense not connected to the present and may even begin to feel timeless. (did that make sense?)
    In my still lifes I do not worry about being anachronistic. I tend towards objects of the past, but I don't worry about putting in something modern if it works in the design and is not too out of place.
    I am often turned off by paintings that feel like fashion advertizements. Unfortunately that seems to be a big thing at the moment. Paintings looking like a Vogue cover.
    Portrait work is tough, as the sitter often has some terrible thing they want to wear. In imaginative work we have a choice. I often scratch my head when looking at work. For example, your Micky Mouse shirt feels old, so it works somehow. Generally, I guess if you look at a painting and you end up thinking about the clothing it is not working. Nerdrum does a great job with this. It becomes a backdrop for the real subject.
    But in the end, if the painting works, I would say the stuff in it is irrelevant.

  2. Yeah, I've pretty much taken off of the options I listed. Really the ugliness doesn't stop at clothes though, it's everywhere, and I can't imagine past generations felt that like we do.

  3. Good post Stephen... although I was hoping you were leading us to some revelation at the end.

    I think your listed options are right; I can't think of alternatives.
    It's funny how the 'public' tries to be unique, expending great effort to avoid being generic (despite that when we take a step back it's all generic anyway), and in art we generally aim for something close to a generic quality for things like this so it doesn't disrupt the work.

    It's not always immediately apparent, but if we look back at painters past I think we find that they were doing the same thing. You're right to say they may not have viewed it as we do, but I have to imagine a lot of their work was deliberately not true-to life in terms of fashion.