Kitsch territory: Children and animals

After the Museum visit with the fantastic creatures last week I was thinking that to attempt to depict fantasy creatures like scylla, mermaids and angels for that matter is a very dangerous thing for any artist. It’s not like we really believe in these things these days – a personification of human fear of the open sea, hope etc. It can so easily become fake and kitsch.

The same holds true for cute things, like children and animals, as all too often it goes down the slippery slope of kitsch. The omnipresent wiki has some ideas of what kitsch is but I find that very unsatisfactory. I have yet to find a good explanation of what kitsch is to me, but it implies something badly done or sentimental but fake or superficial/too easy in some way.

But first I need to share with you the most hilarious picture that wiki uses as an illustration of “kitsch”:

Frederick Dielman. The Widow. c. 1861-1897. Chromolithograph. Location: Boston Public Library, Print Department. Source

That picture totally made my evening yesterday, I laughed so much. It’s so bad it comes out the other way for me. I would absolutely hang this picture at home (for some time).

To my mind, pictures of children are super dangerous territory, as are pictures of small animals. Children with small animals – it seems almost humanly impossible not to produce kitsch with that combination. Case in point:

A Boy with a Bird. Probably 1520s, Titian or Titian workshop. National Gallery.

Astonishingly Picasso kind of managed it – but really only just. But then – he’s the man. I think he is not quite in the kitsch territory because he abstracts the topic a lot and comes in with a rough way of painting. The realism of the Titian Workshop picture above gives the subject matter the final kick down the kitsch trap. Put in the angel’s wings and you have arrived fully.

(According to the museum’s description there are actually angel’s wings in the underpainting. And angels offer a whole new realm of kitsch subject matter. How do you make that one work? The only one I can think of who did this successfully is Chagall. Not even Picasso dared to venture there to my knowledge. And I’ve been thinking of a relief of mythical creatures for one of my sculpture projects… beware!)

Pablo Picasso. Child with Dove. 1901. oil on canvas. 73 x 54 cm. National Gallery, London, UK .

One of the most kitsch-prone things to me are badly executed pictures of children/small animals or both. For example below are 2 of my drawings of my son last year. The left to me looks borderline kitsch because of its poor execution as a drawing. I think the right one is an improvement. So the lesson is that you got to be somewhat abstract/expressive or really good in naturalistic drawing if you want to pull off a picture of a small child, especially with small animals? Or maybe I am just a bit paranoid here. If treated with skills and honesty and it’s not overly sentimental, if should be alright.

That all said, I distinctly remember the painting above the bed in my granddad’s home as it was in full view from my bed. It showed a blond mother playing with a naked baby on a table bathed in light with 2 little angels peeking in from behind the dark olive green velvet curtain. Idealistically rendered of course and very large. At the age of 4 I deemed it the most beautiful picture ever. So maybe kitsch also refers to pictures that are so sweet and straightforward that they would appeal to our infantile longings and tastes?

My pencil sketches of my son 2011: bad realistic drawing of children = automatically kitsch?

Ops, another theory entry into my logbook. Bring on more practical work, girl!

Update March 2012: I cannot believe it, but I just randomly found the picture that hung on my granddad’s wall in an ebay auction. I haven’t seen it in (erm) about 30 years. Apparently these sort of pictures became very popular in lower to middle class German households of the early 20th century as a towel format picture to hang above the bed. Hence the German name “Schlafzimmerbild” (bedroom picture). They were often sold by salesmen at the door and tended to have topics like mother and children, angels, religious, motifs. It became hugely popular in the 1920s, when my granddad was still a small child. It was derided by art critics as “sickly sweet kitsch” (sic). And I guess it is. No wonder I liked it as a 2-4 year old. It just pushes all the buttons that a child could wish for: gorgeous mummy loves me, and so does my sibling (not so in real life, ey?) and angels are watching after me. I am the bellybutton of the universe after all. Ok, here’s the thing: The over the top/unrealistic/foolish sweetness of the world that the picture creates is one major ingredient for kitsch.

Gosh, I am so happy I found this, totally brings me back to my granddad’s small flat and his garden with the huge digitalis that we weren’t allowed to touch.

"Schlafzimmerbild" (bedroom picture) that used to hang over my granddad's bed when I was very little.

Museum visit: Fantastic Creatures from the British Museum

The last weekend I was at the exhibition “Fantastic Creatures from the British Museum” at the Hong Kong Museum of Art (20 January – 11 April 2012). I was sailing through it as our 1.5 year old was in a foul mood, just recovering from a cold this week. And HK Museum staff were not amused when he started crying.

What was remarkable (you couldn’t take pictures for some reason, so not many shared pictures here) was the collection of imagined and hybrid creatures, many of them would be terrifying if you imagined them as a child. I have always been fascinated by the depiction of fears personified as monsters. And how devious are the ones like mermaids and like Scylla below, who come along in such semi-pleasant form.

I’ll keep this as an idea for the Bas-relief project of Sculpture I.

Terracotta relief showing Skylla. Greek, about 465-435 BC. From Mílos, Aegean Sea; Found on Aegina. Picture shown with permission from the British Museum

The piece above is a flat back terracotta plaque. Acc. to the British Museum description these plaques were typically pierced to attach them to other objects, maybe chests or coffins. These low relief plaques were a speciality of the Greek island of Mílos. (There might have been a factory on Mílos at the time, given that I found another piece below which is very similar and has survived for 2500 years too!)

If I am facing 2 bad options that I have to choose from I usually say, that it’s a choice between plague and cholera, which is essentially a translation from an idiom from my native German, I believe in English you have the choice “between Scylla and Charybdis” – a sea monster that devours you alive and a whirlpool that swallows your ship. Seems like a bummer choice too.

So the plaque above shows the said Scylla, a sea monster that devours men, with a rather pretty woman’s upper body and a snake’s/dragon’s/fish’s tail, 2 dogs leaping out of her waist. The wiki entry says she was described as having 4-6 dogs surrounding her waist. The woman’s body is not really consistent with the horrid sea monster description of some stories. Ovid’s narration tells the story of Scylla as one of a beautiful maiden, who flees from Glaucus, who is in love with her. The latter turns to Circe for help to win Scylla’s love, but Circe gets jealous over the whole thing and turns Scylla into a monster.

Following this story, it could be that Scylla is represented here as her past (beautiful maid) and her present (monster) at the same time. I like this idea. Obviously many artists and craftsmen in Greece at the time liked it too, as there are many representations of Scylla found on pottery, reliefs etc. Similar fantastic creatures in appearance are mermaids, who are a recurrent myth in many other cultures.


I wonder if the 2nd plaque above was from the same “factory” since it certainly has the same design, with only minor changes in the execution – e.g. the tail holes to hang up the plaque, the 2nd one has stylised hair.

I recently have been amazed at how moulds were used successfully already thousands of years ago. People were looking for ways to abbreviate lengthy repetitive work ever since a couple of brain cells worked together. Ingenious. So I bet these Scylla plaques were press moulded into shapes – maybe fired terracotta or plaster moulds?

Skylla/Skylla (clay, late second century BCE). München, Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Inventar NI 6691, Pferdemann & Löwenfrau K-126b. Picture source

The above Skylla appears to be more sculptural than a low reliefs. I couldn’t find a picture of it from a different angle, so I am not sure if it’s a full sculpture, a very vivid relief or potentially a corner element. She has a tail on each side in what looks like a 90 degree angle. Initially I wondered how she was identified as Scylla and not a mermaid. But if you look closely you can see the dogs heads coming from her waist.

Very vivid and modern – impressionist – as her shapes are indicated in a broad way, like washed over – maybe this is just the effect of 2200 years of existence. But she looks perfect like this, and gives the mind some freedom to complete the depiction.

On that note… (more art less words)

My uncle, the painter Harald Becker, said the following to me (I try to translate from German) last year:

“… Time flies. I am so spread out in my activities. And though I don’t procrastinate, I can’t seem to catch up. Yet looking back, I see so much time has passed already. Of course I need to know – in order to stay healthy – what else is out there. Otherwise, the return to my own garden would just be an immersion into a fool’s garden. But little of it is the other hand already enough so as not to lose the strength for the specific deed. “

And yes, I am aware this is another wordy post. (sic) So back to work. And I’ll try to switch off the visual stimulus from the outside world for a while, it does take away some of my strength to do art myself.

Tutor Assessment of Assignment I from Drawing I

I haven’t logged the Tutor Assessment of of Drawing I/Assignment 1 yet, which had quite a few good points to make. Let’s review that one now since I am still working on the next assignment, it could help.

General: Keep it up and do not stint on the quantity of work you do whether or not it relates directly to the course. (Turner said that all art is continual practice!). You will want to have a large body of work from which to be able to select examples for the assessment. I am mindful of the fact that postage/distance may prevent you from sending more of what you are doing. Your sketch book notes show you are taking a thorough, methodical and critical approach to your work which, if you maintain it, will serve you well.

I’ve enjoyed your blog – you seem to have a good grasp of the theory underlying the practice. Keep this going as well so that it informs your visual work (but don’t let words take over from the visual work).

Essentially that translates into “nice theory work but where is the hard work/the practice, my dear?” put in a really nice way. I love the British elliptical way of getting a point across. What shall I say, the man is right. And yet there are only so many hours in the day. Sure I did other work, but that’s largely for Painting I, a wee bit for Sculpture I (although that’s hardly worth mentioning), a couple of side projects like Learning from the Masters (I got a first shot at a Wilhelm Lehmbruck bust, but I have a long list with more artists that I want to understand better. I will stop whining here. Because again – the man is right. Schooled for so many years in analysis and thinking (training as an economist) I haven’t arrived at a level of actual art output I would want to have. Many thoughts and ideas (e.g. the long list of artists that I would like to get a better understanding of) – too little practical work. (And here I am writing a lengthy theoretical entry again…)

What I did change since this week is this: I dropped the night time reading and instead go through the picture folder of my phone and do sketchbook studies from photos. … and go to bed with a sense of completion. Every minute counts, I guess.

My brief summary of the detailed assessment (shown below in italics):

  • more work, less theory (given my fixed amount of time)
  • Be more experimental (using found objects, redoing/reusing frottage/ different media/mixed media)
  • look at the mark making of other artists (in detail) to learn
  • exaggerate tones a bit to give volume (darker shadows for example)
  • make shadows more deep by adding a bit of colour (black is too flat)
  • don’t overwork colours, or they get dirty
  • indicate the background to give the image a sense of space
  • sense of space would probably also apply to my own place – especially since Chinese art is so very fond of drawing and landscape (for the next project)
  • go to galleries to see original pieces of art (with plenty of time) – as opposed to merely looking at internet resources

A sense of space: I added what's outside to my assignment one piece. Better? I think so.

Sketch book exercises: I enjoyed looking at your sketch book – it is visually exciting and varied in both the content and media which you have explored.

Mark-making: – Continue with mark-making throughout the course, using it as a warm-up process.

Oil pastels – I think these work best when used thickly to cover the paper; try layering one colour on top of another and then scratching through the top layer to reveal the one beneath. They can also be made soluble for blending using white spirit or pure turpentine.

 Use found tools as well as more conventional art media, eg sticks, twigs, moss, stones, tissue with ink or paint etc. Draw with your other hand. Take a sketch book out of doors and mark make with whatever is to hand, eg earth, mud, dust, etc. Then take a bottle of ink outdoors and mark make with found objects. This all helps to free up the approach to image making and broadens your visual vocabulary.

When looking at a painting/drawing, look at the marks the artist makes – marks are the visual vocabulary of the artist and are as important as the content of the work. (eg. Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Paul Klee, Roger Hilton, Bernard Cohen, David Bomberg).

Jars & jugs – comment for still life studies generally – indicate the surface on which the objects are placed. This helps with the positioning of each in relation to the other on the paper; it also heightens the sense of depth/space on the flat surface of the paper. Carefully analyse the structure of a jug – the handle is opposite the spout. Draw a guideline that passes through the centre point of the jug linking the spout with the handle to ensure you draw jug accurately. Draw ellipses so that they follow a continuous smooth curve and are not pointed at either side.

The very basic principles of linear perspective include –

  • Receding parallel lines in the same plane (eg the side of a box) recede and converge to meet at a common vanishing point on the horizon (the artist’s eye level).
  • Lines below eye level recede up towards the horizon, lines above recede down to it.
  • Vertical sides/edges are always vertical (unless viewed from a long way above or below).

Establish where your eye level is and then, while drawing, keep checking back that you are conforming to the basic principles. Train your eye to judge whether the drawing looks right; if it looks “wrong”, ask yourself why and how it may be corrected. In your study the horizon is off the top of the paper. Two ways to deal with this – by eye ie look at the drawing and adjust lines until they look right; extend your picture plane by adding a piece of paper to existing drawing so you can include the horizon. You can also hold a straight edge (eg ruler) so it appears to lie along the edge you are checking, then transfer that angle to the drawing.

Supermarket study – Well observed and painted with a pleasingly fluid technique. Beware of overworking colours so they tend towards muddiness (when uncertain test colours on scrap paper and hold in place on the painting). Some darker tones in the shadow areas would strengthen the volumes of the objects.

Tonal studies – you seem to have a good grasp of what tone is. As a general principal aim for strong contrasts of tone to enhance volumes and add a dramatic interest to a drawing. Reflected light studies – painted still life – a pleasing piece of work which could be enhanced if you add a little colour (eg umber) to the black – this enriches the dark tones and takes away the starkness of the black.

Negative space is as important as positive shapes in any 2D art work, it is as much a part of a composition as the solid objects. But it also functions as a problem solver – often one gets stuck drawing a solid form, by focusing on the negative space contained by or surrounding the form, and to draw that can get one unstuck. Drawing a negative space also involves drawing the solid shape because they share a boundary. (See Betty Edward’s ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’) 

Texture studies – methodical studies, keep these going especially the observed studies (as opposed to frottage) using a variety of media, be experimental.

Still life – natural objects – the two charcoal studies are well observed and rendered. Both would benefit from a little more definition which is difficult to apply on this scale using only charcoal. Try adding definition with a charcoal or a carbon pencil (2B). The painted study is well done although the slices of bread are a little unclear and the loaf would benefit from slightly stronger tonal contrasts. If possible try using gouache which may give you clearer colours. Composition – the knife might look better if it was not so separate from the other objects. A way of experimenting with this would be to cut out the knife shape from a separate piece of paper and move it around the composition to see where it fits best. Final drawing – a pleasing well observed drawing; as with the charcoal drawings it would benefit from some more definition to make it crisper, together with some darker tones in the shadow areas.

Man-made objects – the texture study is strong with the objects having a sense of solidity. A weaker passage is the foreground shadowed fold in the cloth which does not read as a fold. I also initially read the apple as a pot, this is mainly to do with the colour.  Final study – this is good, well thought through and interestingly composed and surfaces well rendered. Two points needing attention – the ellipse of the bottom of the urn does not quite read as a true cylinder; the sink is tipped up slightly from the work surface – the perspective needs reworking.

Sketchbooks – see comment at start above. I enjoyed the child studies – sensitive and well observed. Keep drawing everything and anything to build confidence and visual knowledge.

Learning Logs/Critical essays again keep this going. Use the internet as a back  up resource – as far as possible look at art “in the flesh” in galleries etc. Look at the  work of artists across a range of cultures.

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