Friday, 12 February 2016

CANADIAN REALISM AND THE EGG TEMPERA REVIVAL

CANADIAN REALISM AND THE EGG TEMPERA REVIVAL

Niccolo Semitecolo tempera painting from 1367

Egg tempera is an ancient painting medium. For thousands of years tempera was the leading method for painting on walls, murals and panels. It might be best known for its use in medieval and early renaissance International Gothic style painting, before oil took over as the main medium of choice for painters around the beginning of the 16th century. Tempera paintings have the exceptional characteristic of retaining their vibrancy. A 600-year-old painting in tempera is still extremely bright with rich reds, blues, greens, yellows and more. Oil paintings younger than these will even appear more aged, as oil paintings darken over time. Egg tempera paint is a mixture of powdered colour pigments, egg as a binder, and some other agent such as water. Unlike oil paint, egg tempera dries almost immediately and does not spread around on surfaces at all. This may seem like a disadvantage, but it allows for an incredible degree of precision and detail that is less achievable with oil paint. Egg tempera paint can be layered for various effects and opacities without disturbing or mingling with underlying layers. This is because previously applied paint becomes insoluble to water once it has dried rapidly on its support. The precision and detail obtained with egg tempera comes at the price of requiring great skill and an abundance of patience. Each brushstroke is minute and must be tediously dabbed on in small un-blending lines to build up the overall image. One can see why the greater ease of oil painting took over when it was introduced. However, the end result of an artist’s work in tempera is undeniably impressive and exceptional.

Italian 15th century details of tempera paintings by Benozzo Gozzeli, Sandro Botticelli, Carlo Crivelli and Paulo Uccello

During postgraduate studies in art history, my classmates and I were required to sample this ancient painting method on typical gesso-primed supports in order to truly understand the massive effort and proficiency required of old master painters. We most certainly left the class with an even greater appreciation for the medieval masterpieces that we had been copying mere segments of. I found it very difficult and I finished with a copied out religious figure that looked stiff as a board and more greensick than holy. I have the uttermost appreciation for masters of this medium, and it is no wonder oil painting took over in the early modern era for ease.

Many historical revivalisms have happened throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Egyptian and Greco-Roman Revivals, the Gothic Revival, Medievalism, the Viking Revival and many others. Some revivals mimicked historical styles verbatim, where as others appreciated historical styles more indirectly through the use of revived art techniques and traditions from the past. Examples include the Arts and Crafts movement or the Woodcut Revival. During the 20th century there was also an Egg Tempera Revival associated with artists of various camps of realism in North America. They would not be the first to harken back to this technique, as the Pre-Raphaelites toyed with egg tempera in their quest to recreate the traditions predating Raphael and his contemporaries. In 20th century North America artists appreciated this age-old artistic tradition by honouring its use in their contemporary artwork.

JR Spencer Stanhope, Love and the Maiden, tempera, 1877 (Pre-Raphaelite)

An appreciation for traditional art methods made egg tempera an appealing medium to experiment with and master for these 20th century realists. Because realism is characterized by the intention to depict subject matter with verisimilitude and avoid stylization, the precision and ultra-detail of egg tempera was perfectly suited to capturing the almost optically photographic imagery of the style. This optical verisimilitude to reality was a feature of 20th century realism, regardless of whether an artist’s subset of realism was a movement such as naturalism (which heralded everyday life) or magic realism (which mimics the seemingly ordinary but inserts fantastical elements).

During the 1960s in Canada, a branch of realism organically grew out of the Maritimes. The group of artists whose work would show certain characteristics developed under the influence of its forerunner, Alex Colville, and indirectly by pioneering American magic realism, Andrew Wyeth. Alex Colville and Andrew Wyeth rose to international acclaim and prominence in the early 1960s for their efforts working in realism, despite the adversity that at this time the international art scene highly favoured the trendiness of abstract art. These two artists and their followers were able to overcome the overwhelming affinity that the art world had for abstraction at the time, and gained recognition for their art individually and as a collective. This included Wyeth and his followers and offspring in the US, and Colville and his pupils in Canada.

Andrew Wyeth, Blackberry Picker, tempera, 1943

Alex Colville, Family and Rainstorm, tempera, 1955

The renowned 20th century Canadian art scholar, Paul Duval, coined a term for this organically developed group of important Canadian realists and wrote a seminal publication about them in the mid-1970s. He called it High Realism, and it truly is an important international art development, and came straight out of Maritime Canada. He noted that following are shared features of High Realist art:

Objectivity of vision

sharpness of definition

precision of technique

accuracy of detail

excellence of craftsmanship

(From Duval, Paul. High Realism in Canada, 1975)

The above features, coupled with a deep respect for traditions in art, would lead many of the High Realists towards egg tempera. This method of painting peaked their interest because it was steeped in history and tackled the accuracy and detail these artists desired in their work. Thus through High Realism in the 1960s, Canadians were prominent in the 20th century revival of egg tempera painting.

There are many important Canadian High Realists who worked in other painting mediums, but because this blog is focused on Canadian involvement in the egg tempera revivals I will not be showcasing their work. I would like to give a peak at artwork by Canadian High Realists done in egg tempera.

Alex Colville used many mediums throughout his career, including tempera. He eventually settled on a modern equivalent that also dried very quickly, called acrylic polymer. Colville is well covered in publications, exhibitions and sales in recent times so I will not give further biographical details as we all know of his success. Another popular Canadian realist that achieved international attention for his artwork is Ken Danby. He had a stable financial existence through numerous professional artistic outlets- such as set design, television and newspaper illustration. He started out dabbling in abstract art during his spare time but was blown away by and Andrew Wyeth exhibition he came across at the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo late in 1962. A fervent commitment to resurrect his earlier interest in realist painting ensued, and he never turned back. He preferred rustic scenes and added his own touch to that which he observed around him. Paul Duval wrote that Danby, “…came to handle the difficult egg tempera medium with an almost virtuoso dexterity. Few artists have wrought from it such a remarkable variety of technical variations from the softest blendings to almost staccato textures.”

Alex Colville, Hound in Field, tempera, 1958 (National Gallery) and Soldier and Girl (Thomson Collection)

Ken Danby, the Mill Cat, 1968 (Private Collection)

Andrew Wyeth, Outpost, tempera, 1968

Tom Forrestall was nurtured to be a great draughtsman and artist from early childhood. He revered the work of old masters Titian and Rembrandt and considered a trip to continental Europe to be “one of the most useful experiences in his career.” He too studied under Alex Colville at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Teaching and working as a cartoonist gave him enough income to be able to take his time painting on the side, and he could therefore begin to work with the labour-intensive egg tempera. Duval noted that Forrestall’s “choice of [egg tempera] was confirmed after examining the originals of Italian 15th century masters whose paintings in tempera on gesso remain as brilliant today as when they were painted.” Although his use of white gessoed panels is the typical support for egg tempera, his came in all sorts of unusual shapes and sizes. He cited ancient classical times as inspiration, as circles and ovals existed in classical art. He used these shapes and medium to project a contemporary perspective onto a lineage of artistic traditions.

Tom Forrestall, Best and Company, tempera, 1970 (Private Collection) and River Valley, tempera, 1971 (Private Collection)

While travelling through continental Europe was an inspiration for Forrestall, artist Hugh Mackenzie claims it was not a creative inspiration to him. His interest in egg tempera and high realism stemmed more from their being technically difficult and precise. His background in the arts was a mechanical illustrator. His job required that he make complex and accurate designs in drawing and he became highly proficient at perspective and intricacies as a draughtsman. Duval indicated that Mackenzie “…believes his three years as a mechanical illustrator deeply affected his future style and themes as a painter.” He also wrote that by 1966 Mackenzie had “perfected his personal egg tempera technique using a subtle combination of light washes and fine cross-hatching to slowly build his forms.”

Hugh Mackenzie, Girl and Volkswagen, tempera, 1968 (Private Collection)

These are just a few of the High Realist artists active in Canada from their heydays in the 1960s and onward. Acknowledgement of a handful of others includes Jeremy Smith, Bruce St. Clair, Fred Ross, Christopher Pratt, Christiane Pflug, and Patrick Cox.

By: JILL TURNER

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