Modern art that everybody understands

THESE ARE THE PICTURES MOST PEOPLE ACTUALLY BUY IN 1962

ROBERT FULFORD August 11 1962
Modern art that everybody understands

THESE ARE THE PICTURES MOST PEOPLE ACTUALLY BUY IN 1962

ROBERT FULFORD August 11 1962

THESE ARE THE PICTURES MOST PEOPLE ACTUALLY BUY IN 1962

Modern art that everybody understands

ROBERT FULFORD

THE PROFESSIONAL PAINTERS OF CANADA have never had it so good. There have never before been so many art galleries showing pictures, or so many collectors willing to surrender good money in return for canvas covered with paint. The rich and the well-to-do of Canada, like their counterparts in all the western democracies, are in the grip of what an art dealer friend of mine calls, his eyes gleaming, 'art hunger.”

But these people, and the painters who please or excite them, are only the most visible section of the art market. Consumers of art are divided into two sharply distinct classes: the painting-buyers, whose activities arc widely publicized, and the reproduction-buyers, who are allowed to operate in near-secrecy. The reproduction-buyers are by far the more numerous.

They buy something like 20,000 reproductions a year, at a cost of something like half a million dollars. They pay anything from $1.98 to $60 for what they hang on their walls but, as often as not, they pay more for the frame around the picture than for the picture itself. Painting-buyers, on the other hand, pay as much as $1,500 for a Canadian painting and several times that for foreign ones; the frames usually come free.

The two worlds know very little about each other, since contact is limited: painting-buyers go to art galleries, while reproduction-buyers go to department stores. This isolation is fortunate, since an inhabitant of either world would be baffled in the other. The standards are radically different, and so are the names vou hear.

In the art galleries these days the abstract painters occupy the front of the stage; in the department stores they are rarely given even the status of bit players. The stars there are painters of landscapes and French street scenes. In the art galleries you hear talk about Harold Town and JeanPaul Riopelle and Fred Varley: in the department stores these names fade into the background, to be replaced by those of people like Peter Hayward, Robert Spencer, and Robert Wood.

These painters are all pretty famous unknowns. Their works decorate the homes of thousands of Canadians, but nobody ever mentions them on television, invites them to conferences on the arts, or asks their opinions about anything. Harold Town has been the subject of articles in every major magazine in Canada, as well as some minor ones; but the people who outsell him by a hundred to one are never referred to in public. It is as if reproduction art were somehow scandalous and the persons who bought it were some isolated backward tribe which respectable people preferred not to discuss.

Reproduction-buyers are poorer than painting-buyers, certainly, and their activities provide them with considerably less prestige. But they have one enormous advantage: nobody tries to tell them what to do. There are no critics in the world of reproductions (nobody reviews the latest silkscreen at Eaton’s), and nobody demands that reproductionbuyers support unknown, struggling young artists. Nothing is asked of them but their money, CONTINUED ON PAGE 42

CONTINUED ON PAGE 42

POPULAR ART

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A typical reproduction-painter paints fast, gets very little publicity and a lot of money

and not very much of that. They set their own standards, and they make their own heroes. Occasionally these heroes are the same as those of painting-buyers — Vincent Van Gogh, for instance, manages to cut across class lines—but for the most part the heroes of reproduction-buyers arc unknown outside the department stores and the hundreds of thousands of homes of the buyers.

One such hero is Robert Wood, a painter of slapdash landscapes. If you judge the importance of artists on sale in Canada by popularity alone, then Wood is first and the rest arc nowhere. Most artists count their sales of originals in the dozens, and a really popular painter may work his way into fifty or sixty homes in the course of a good year. Even those famous painters who are widely reproduced, like Renoir or Degas, probably sell only a few hundred reproductions a year in Canada. But Robert Wood always sells in the thousands. In Toronto alone 3,000 Wood reproductions are sold every year, and about 500 of these are of his best-selling picture, October Morn. Last year, between August and January, a single department store, Simpson's, sold 600 Wood reproductions. During this time no critic wrote about him and no women’s committee gave him a prize. But he was, easily, the Toronto public’s first choice among all the artists of history.

Wood is a seventy-three-year-old Englishman who lives in Laguna Beach, Calif. He is a typical reproduction-painter in several ways: he receives practically no publicity, he makes a great deal of money, and he paints very fast. He holds, in fact, what he believes is the world record for fast painting by oil freestyle. “1 painted a hundred pictures one day,” he says with pride in his voice, “another hundred the next day, and seventy the day after that: a total of 270 pictures in just three days. What's more, I sold every one of them. However, I’ve slackened my pace during the past few years.” Sales of Wood reproductions have by now gone into the millions, and department stores all over North America promote him. One time an American department store advertised “Reproductions of famous masterpieces by such painters as Utrillo, Renoir, Rembrandt, Robert Wood . . .” His originals also sell handsomely. They are handled by wholesalers.

Though reproduction-buyers seem to unite in their affection for Robert Wood, they are divided in other wavs. Predictably, women prefer Degastype ballerinas, water-colors of flowers, and views of Paris. Men are more likely to buy Canadian pictures, not out of nationalism but out of an alfection for rugged landscapes. Franz Johnston, the Canadian artist, is a favorite; his Cabin in the Woods and Loggers’ Trail are so popular that at times he’s almost in the Robert Wood class. There is some evidence that reproduction - buyers, men or

women, arc addicted to reproductions which aren't quite what they seem to be. Cole’s, the chain of cutrate bookstores, has a fast-moving line of “art masterpieces with luxurious frames” (from $1.98 to $9.98) whose chief attraction seems to be that they look a little like genuine hand-painted pictures; the surfaces are so contrived as to suggest the uneven texture of paintings.

But there is another kind of sleightof-hand which is even more popular among reproduction-buyers. This is the masterpiece which is painted by someone other than a master. Huldah’s French girls are in this class: they look rather like Renoir or another Impressionist, but they are, in a way, more Impressionist than the Impressionists ever were. The artist emphasizes the sweetness and gentleness of the master, drops away the other qualities, and leaves the buyer with a hazy impression of nineteenth-century French painting. In the same way a kind of mock-Utrillo is popular: certain popular Paris scenes borrow Utrillo’s charm and manage to make it even more charming. What is left in this case is Utrillo without the talent.

Some reproduction-buyers do not much care exactly what they buy. The manager of one Toronto store’s art department admits that “People who arc really interested in art won't come to a department store to buy their prints.” Women frequently come to the department stores bearing samples of drapery fabric which they want to

match with a painting, but the woman who recently turned up at a store with an old frame she wanted filled was unusual. Frames do, however, have a crucial importance in the reproduction trade. The department stores, offering similar lines of prints at similar prices, compete in the framing: Eaton’s prides itself on elaborate provincial frames in which the join scarcely shows; Simpson’s claims it has the widest variety of frames.

Where the two worlds of paintingbuyers and reproduction-buyers nudge each other, a little nervously, is at the reproduction counters in the public art museums. The patrons here and the patrons of department stores are two quite different groups, as the sales of Van Ciogh reproductions last year demonstrated. When the great Van Ciogh exhibition was touring the country, the department stores as well as the art galleries stocked up on reproductions of his best pictures; the galleries sold them, but the department stores couldn’t give them away. Department-store patrons, it turned out, just didn't care about the work of Van Ciogh.

Most of the public galleries sell cheap reproductions of their major pictures, though the high cost of engraving—$1,000 to $3,000 a picture —keeps them from reproducing the whole collection. The Art Gallery of Toronto has reproduced twenty-four, the National Gallery at Ottawa fortysix. In sales the National is easily the leader. Last year it sold about 4,000

reproductions, for around $60,000. As at the other public galleries, the Group of Seven painters were the favorites. A. Y. Jackson's Red Maple, at $10, and Arthur Lismer’s Rain in the North Country, at $8, were the 1961 bestsellers.

But not all the art galleries are happy about their role as merchandisers of reproduced art. Art gallery directors tend to feel a responsibility to sell the work of living artists, or at least make it possible for such work to be sold. All those sales at the reproductions counters make the directors wonder whether the same buyers couldn’t afford to purchase original oil paintings—or, at least, prints, the lithographs and engravings which come from the artist's own hand.

William Withrow, the young director of the Art Gallery of Toronto, has obviously been brooding about this problem for some time. “It's time the Canadian public was weaned from reproductions,” he says. "People with $200-$300 to spend on a picture should have the courage to support their own artists instead of falling back on the safe and familiar prints. And it's time stores tried improving public taste by stocking the highest, not the lowest common denominator of popular art. It might take years but it would work.”

Most of the people in the Canadian Art Establishment — the succcssfu, painters and the hordes of critics, directors, and curators, who surround them—look on reproduction art with hostility and even disgust. Alan Jarvis, the former director of the National Gallery, says “Most of the reproductions sold in Canada are terrible junk.” What can be done about it? One store that tries to follow Withrow's advice is the House of Prints, on Hayter Street in the village area of Toronto. Jens Nielsen, who has run the reproduction department there for the last year, is one answer to the departmentstore managers who stock only what they know will sell: he’s an informed dealer who can and does influence the taste of reproduction-buyers. The favorite at the House of Prints is a cubist painting by the American artist Lyonel Feininger. Nielsen has sold 150 copies of it in the last year, by promoting it enthusiastically. He finds it's a great argument-solver: when a husband wants to buy an abstract picture and a wife wants an Impressionist, Nielsen produces Feininger and makes a sale. This is the way of the art educator.

But even Nielsen’s customers haven't graduated quickly to buying original oils. There is a theory that people become familiar with art by owning reproductions and then eventually move over to buying originals. But it can also work the other way: reproductions can spoil the taste for paintings, or limit the possibility of such a taste being developed. Reproductions tend to be stronger and clearer and more pleasant than the paintings themselves. The colors are often more intense, and the brush-strokes are neatly hidden. To someone accustomed to reproductions, paintings can even seem vaguely offensive: their

scratchy, messy surfaces seem unprofessional after the slick, smooth surfaces of reproduced art. The class line between the two kinds of art consumers is still not an easy one to cross. ★