Friday, 3 December 2021

Hang five: Poul Friis Nybo, painting of a farmhouse with a large tree

This is the fifth in a series of posts looking at my art collection. I’m taking questions from an old school friend and answering them. Roger lives in the north of the state and I live in Sydney but we’re both passionate about art. He asks five questions, each of which I answer below.

You have grouped these pictures together for similar subject matter – both are pretty pastoral scenes [showing the countryside]; Bodalla NSW and a sylvan vista from the Dane Nybo. My first response is that, from a distance, they both look to be perhaps the same artist's work and both appear to be watercolours. The photo close-up reveals the second one to be acrylic or oils on board but the impressionistic style has the same softness of touch of the watercolour. The play of light is captured beautifully. Did you deliberately link the stylistic similarities, as well as obvious links in subject matter, when grouping these two?

Yes, you’re right that they both capture the scenery beautifully, but the stylistic similarities were quite serendipitous. I think that this kind of domestic landscape – a view of human habitation mixed with a natural vista – is what made me choose to group the two artworks together in the first place. It’s remarkable that the Danish oil that is the subject of our conversation is so fantastically light in appearance, however, as though Nybo had been attempting to emulate a watercolourist when he made the painting 90 years ago in distant Denmark.

My friend Grant whose grandfather was Danish and who’s been to Denmark says that this painting was probably made on the peninsula. This deduction depends on a cursory analysis of the soil visible in the painting, which appears to be sandy. Most Danes live on the islands, and Grant says that the Germans took most of the good bits of the peninsula for their own use. 

On a more tangential tack, you may have experienced watercolours to be an unforgiving medium where one can’t retrace steps to fix a mistake in execution. Acrylics are more forgiving, though not as much as slow-drying oil paints are. Wiki research tells me that Impressionism coalesced in the 1860s with the emerging plein air paintings where new, pre-mixed and quick drying paints allowed easier outdoors painting and freed up painting techniques. This makes me wonder how much the innovations in the painting medium itself determined the new art movements (a current bugbear of mine is the 'Pandora’s box' of machine art that computers have enabled). Form determining content … your thoughts?

Definitely there will be innovation around the edges as new techniques are made available, it’s in the nature of the species to venture into new zones for occupation – we’re made of stars after all. But just as it was hard for Nybo to completely give up figuration it’s difficult for artists experimenting with a new medium to discover, immediately, exactly what is possible to do with it. The word “experiment” suggests that you have to move away from the edges, but doing so takes courage and therefore time and so it won’t be every, single practitioner who alights upon the perfect way to express him- or herself in the medium of digital art. 

The AI-determined artworks that I’ve seen however demonstrate that the artistic landscape will change in decisive ways at some point in the future. Meanwhile, stalwarts will continue to make more conventional works of art as they try to earn a living and to express themselves. This is how Nybo’s Modern Impressionist works got made; he was using brushstrokes in ways the Impressionists had pioneered 50 years earlier in France, but his aim was still intensely figurative. You can see the way the work was made – Nybo wasn’t covering his tracks and is, in fact, making a feature of the work’s painterly underpinnings – but the demands of figuration were uppermost in his mind. Rather than trying to show the atmospherics – as the Impressionists had done – Nybo is trying to paint a thatched house and a large tree.

Originally, the impressionist movement of the 1800s was a radical portent of the abstract painting that followed. History tells us abstract art didn’t peak until the middle of the following century. When Nybo painted your picture, 90 years ago, such relatively new art perspectives were challenging to the bourgeoisie – it may be that they still are, with many viewers having never progressed beyond strict realism. Do you think an awareness of the timeline for the various art movements, and how they influenced each other, is necessary to appreciate art’s evolution? Or in these post-modernist times, should the differing styles all collapse into the ’now’ for anonymous consumption by a generally uninformed public? Can education help ‘the great unwashed’ or is this the idle musing of an unrepentant flaneur …

It’s good that you are able to stroll in the forest of artistic endeavour with your eyes open. As you point out, many people haven’t progressed very far beyond Impressionism, though if you found an Impressionist work for sale on Facebook Marketplace it’d probably command a high price because most people recognise an Impressionist artwork for what it is. I recently watched an Australian Broadcasting Corporation program where ordinary people were filmed giving their opinions about pictures in the National Gallery of Victoria. One guy said he much preferred a figurative 19th century painting to a cubist Picasso. 

Evidently he’s one of your “unwashed”, and I agree with you that more education is needed; but most people would rather spend time at a football game than going to the gallery. I’m also an unrepentant flaneur and get up to do the dishes when the sport comes on during the evening news. Like you I appreciate the fact that it’s possible, nowadays, to use any number of influences to make new art. It’s possible in 2021 to quote a large selection of styles – most, as you point out, pioneered in the 20th century – in an effort to express something about yourself, or about the world you live in. Or even about your relationship with that world. The sky’s the limit!

The Nybo painting has strong links, as a family heirloom, with your own personal history and its provenance lends your curatorial role an aspect of being also a historian. Monetary value can be such a motivating force in the so-mercenary commercial art market but you clearly value other factors. Certainly some artists make financial concerns their raison d’ĂȘtre; Damian Hirst comes to mind (reportedly the UK’s richest artist/collector). But such considerations may be a secondary priority to the genuine collector and art lover. How important is a) a picture’s provenance, b) its inherent beauty, c) market value, to your personal appreciation of it? Is any of your collection primarily kept for investment purposes and the sometimes exorbitant inflations of the ‘art game’? Do you see any conflict of interests between these various motivations? 

I’m attached to all of the artworks in my collection, and our talks are part of the storytelling that provenance implies. The works I’ve bought on Facebook Marketplace for a few dollars are just as valuable to me as the ones I’ve bought for a lot more at commercial galleries. Obviously if a painting accrues value I’m going to be happier than if it does not but I can’t understand why a collector would buy a painting purely as a repository for value, or purely as an investment. It seems to me perverse to hang something in your living room – where you spend a good deal of your time alone – that you don’t enjoy for its inherent qualities as an object. For me, everything that I buy is beautiful regardless of whether it cost tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Who was Elmer Johansen and why did he collect Danish oil paintings?

Elmer was married to my grandfather’s sister. Madge Dean married Elmer on a Pacific island in the 1950s or 60s. She’d been working in Japan with the occupation forces and then travelled to Europe to work before settling on an island (I forget which one) where she met a Danish stevedore. They eventually settled in New Zealand where Elmer became a tugboat captain in Auckland Harbour. Madge was a keen photographer and I have hundreds of slides with her works. Perhaps I’ll get some of them printed and framed one day – they’ve very beautiful – and we can talk about them. 

Madge and Elmer had a collection of curios in their house and with the paintings they went to Uncle Geoff before my cousin Douglas, when his father died, gave them all to me. Madge died of cancer in the 90s and at that time Elmer came over to Vaucluse to spend some time living with my family but he used to go down to Watsons Bay Pub and get drunk. Dad kicked him out because Elmer would cry in his room (my brother’s room; my brother had left to live in the US by this time). Dad was teetotal and had little sympathy for this relative in his extremity, but this sort of callousness was typical of the man.
I had the paintings professionally cleaned – Elmer was a pipe smoker so they were discoloured by nicotine – and reframed in 2013. I’m not sure about the frames and think that perhaps I should’ve taken more time to choose frames but unfortunately in that year mum was diagnosed with dementia so I had a lot on my plate at the time so the pictures weren’t the most important consideration in that year. At some point in the future I might get the paintings reframed, but not right now.

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