Tuesday, April 17, 2012
The Prisoner of Expectations
There is a meeting I attend somewhat regularly that’s held in one of the adjunct rooms of a local church. On opposing walls of that room are two paintings I find myself studying when my attention wanders from the discussion at hand.
Both paintings are depictions of a rocky, wave-battered coastline, with high cliffs rising dramatically above the water. They look as if they could be Big Sur, which is not far from here, but the scenes could be based on plenty of locations in Northern California, and probably the rest of the world, for that matter. I’m guessing they were donated by a church member who was learning to paint on the weekends, because for all the drama of the competently depicted subject matter, they lack a sense of vision or style.
That’s not something that could be said of the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, who died recently at the age of 54. Kinkade marketed himself (and he was a great marketer) as “The Painter of Light,” and there was no mistaking his romantic, sentimental paintings for anyone else’s. At the time of his death it was estimated that one in twenty American homes had one of his paintings (or more likely, a print of one of his paintings) on the wall.
Kinkade was not a great artist in the “serious” sense of the word, and as his sales soared, so did the piling-on by art critics. Following his death, news stories quoted family members as saying he had taken to heavy drinking and was depressed by the critical put-downs and felt misunderstood. My take on it was that he was understood perfectly well, but suffered from the inherent biases of the art world.
If he had been a sports cartoonist or a commercial painter who did magazine covers and advertisements, he most likely would not have been held to the same standard as a “serious” painter. But because his work was meant to hang on walls and was sold through galleries (some of which he owned), Kinkade was relentlessly judged against artists he couldn’t compete with. If that’s not a recipe for misery, I don’t know what is.
When Linda and I were in Paris a decade ago, we made the obligatory trip to the Louvre. Walking down a corridor toward the Mona Lisa, we passed painting after painting. Most of them we’d never heard of, and even some of the artists were unfamiliar, but just about every one was so powerful it took your breath away. You didn’t have to be an art history major to grasp that this was the real deal.
No Kinkade painting is likely to have that kind of effect, but much of his work, pictures of cottages by streams, with smoke curling out of the chimney, captures an idealized sense of bucolic solitude. It’s cozy, not powerful.
Years ago, when I was president of my Rotary Club, our pianist, Richard Stauff, presented me with an autographed print of Kinkade’s “The Rotary Club Meeting.” It shows various men (they were all men, then) arriving at a restaurant in a white clapboard house, just after a rain had fallen. The cars parked in front are of 1930s vintage, and one, incongruously, has an American flag decal on the rear window. The people, never Kinkade’s forte, aren’t quite right, but the mood is captured, and that took a certain level of talent. It speaks to me at a certain level of my own experience, and I’m willing to respect that accomplishment for what it is — no more, no less.