Monday, January 16, 2012

Varnishing Day

As we all know the deadline for entries into Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantasy Art is coming up fast. I just got my entries off today. I am a huge fan of this publication, have been in it many times and think it is a showcase of some of the best artists of our generation. That said, there has developed an almost mythological quality to this annual. Artists rushing about frantically trying to get work finished before the deadline, sleeplessly going over what to submit, what to leave out, then waiting with bated breath to see if they got in. Careers have been made in Spectrum. At the same time there are artists who refuse to enter. They feel it is too political, too random to place that much credit upon a small group of subjective jurists.

Whatever side of the fence you fall on, this time of year always reminds me of Varnishing Day. Varnishing Day was the most important day in the artistic calendar of the Academic Salon artist. It was the last day that artists could make final alterations to their work before the Salon would open to the public and the judges would cast their ballots. The entire year for an artist came down to this one show! If you got in and won an award it would make your year in sales and commissions. If you won the Grand Prix it would make your career! The better you did at the show the better your sales, the better your sales the more students you got in your workshops. The more students you got the better your print sales and the better you would do in the show next year, and around and around. This academic salon system became so ingrained in the culture that to be an artist you could not work outside the academies. Famous artists like Manet and Delacroix bristled at the Salon System, but tried to work within it. By the late 19th Century the younger generation of artists had had enough of the politics and began to display their works in alternative shows.

In 1873 a group of Franco-Prussian War veterans and conscientious objectors who had fled to England returned to Paris and were refused entry into the Salon. Being a bunch of twenty-something post grads who didn't know any better they got together, rented some cheap space and put on their own show. That group included Pissaro, Monet and Degas among others. This group sardonically called themselves The Refused, but were ridiculed by the establishment as The Impressionists. (This could be likened to being called The Doodlers, today.)

This revolution of individual artist's freedom to work outside the academy and the academy's standards changes art forever. By the end of the 19th Century the academic salon system had grown so big and political that it could not evolve with modernity, and like the dinosaur it was, went extinct. In 1893 one critic reviewing the art salon at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago containing the works of such Victorian luminaries as Bouguereau, Leighton and Waterhouse remarked, "This exhibition has done more to set back the advancement of art than any event in the past twenty years."

In 1913 The New York Armory Show would seal the coffin on the Victorian Salon System and give way to the twentieth century modern Gallery System. An exhibition by artists and for artists. You can see by the poster left that the artists are referred to as "guests", this was a private invitational exhibit, not a state funded juried show. Instead of paintings shoehorned together like a patchwork,"salon-style" each painting would be displayed by itself, "gallery-style". Instead of one huge institutional juried show there would be hundreds of little independent private shows run by the artists themselves. Each small "ism" could find its own niche, and its own followers. These would become the model for today's successful trade shows like Comic Con and Illuxcon.

In the 21st Century this evolution has continued. The Gallery System is now under threat by artist-run websites. Today artists do not even need the galleries or publishing houses gathering millions of followers on-line circumventing the exclusivity of the galleries. Today there is a venue for any kind of art you can imagine and you can follow along directly with the artist. Whether this is a better system is arguable. A direct Democracy of Art where page views and followers equates to quality, or is there still a role for the juried show in contemporary art? Check back in a hundred years and I'll tell you how it turned out.

So this week as you put the final touches of varnish on your painting for selection in the Spectrum Show lets all remember how far we've come, and where the future may take us!