Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Pictorialists vs. Group f/64

By Kim Grant
Associate Professor of Art History, University of Southern Maine

I was delighted to be asked to teach a mini-course on Pictorialist photography and the Group f/64 for the Portland Museum of Art. Not only does the course provide an opportunity to show and discuss a great many beautiful photographs from the early 20th century, it also directly addresses an issue that I find fascinating: the debates on what makes a photograph a work of art. Nowadays, when many people (although certainly not all) have accepted that pretty well any sort of object might be considered a work of art, it seems incredible that for over 100 years people argued vigorously about whether or not photography could be an art form. The Pictorialists and the Group f/64 disagreed on many aspects of what made a photograph an artwork, and their debates renewed earlier 19th century debates on the same subject.

Where do science, technical concerns, and mechanics stop and art begin? There really is no final answer; each time finds its own solutions. In the first half of the 20th century people often seemed more certain of what art was and what it wasn’t than they do now. Another striking difference from today was the respect given to amateur photographers in the early 20th century. Then it was the amateurs who were artists, while professional photographers were often viewed as commercial technicians. Of course, in reality the distinction was often blurred, and professionals made artistic photographs as well as producing commercial images to order. Now we might find their commercial images more interesting, and sometimes even more artistic, than the photographs they considered art. Tastes and attitudes have changed. What once seemed like a revelation of beauty becomes stale and is replaced by something completely different. I wonder as I look at the photographs of the Pictorialists and the Group f/64 which style would most appeal to people today.

Professor Grant will be teaching a three-part mini-course at the Museum on Thursday, September 30, October 7 and 14, from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Price: $40.00/$30 members/Free for Museum Docents, K-12 teachers, and Maine college students. Learn more.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

By Jon Courtney
Screenings Programmer, SPACE Gallery

What makes an artist legitimate? Arriving at an answer may be less important than having the discussion and it emerges as central to the heart of the hilariously engaging “documentary” Exit Through the Gift Shop. Exit declares itself to be A Banksy Film, noting the notoriously clandestine British street artist, but what that equates to is hard to define. We are rewarded with unprecedented access to the artist (though his appearances are always blurred or backlit and his voice is digitally altered) but as no producer or director is credited in the film, we’re left to speculate as to the extent of Bansky’s actual filmmaking involvement.

Exit follows Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman from L.A. with a near-compulsive habit of videotaping everything around him. During a family visit to France, Guetta makes a chance discovery that a relative is the acclaimed street artist Invader (née Space Invader). Captivated by Invader’s pursuits, Guetta begins to accompany him on his nocturnal excursions, all the while documenting Invader’s work with his ubiquitous camera. Ostensibly working on a definitive film about street art, Guetta’s association with Invader earns him camera time with almost every major street art player, including artists like Seizer, Neckface, Borf, Buffmonster, Ron English, Swoon, and Shepard Fairey (of Obey and Obama campaign poster fame). The missing piece of Guetta’s collection is the reclusive Banksy, but when an assistant is detained due to visa problems on a trip to L.A., Fairey recommends Guetta to Banksy as a trustworthy replacement.

For Banksy, Guetta proves invaluable in providing documentation of street-level public reaction to his work, a facet as important to the artist as the work itself. Guetta, through persistence and loyalty, (most notably demonstrated during a four-hour detention after a Guantanamo-inspired prank at Disneyland goes awry), gains access to the innermost workings of Bansky’s world, including a tour of the artist’s London studio and a behind-the-scenes view of his wildly popular 2006 Barely Legal opening in L.A. Having captured street art’s rise from its shadowy origins to a highly-lucrative and collectible genre, Guetta is encouraged by Bansky to assemble his massive, but poorly organized archive into a finished product. Deeming the resulting film as an unwatchable work by someone with mental problems, Bansky wrestles the film away from Guetta, encouraging him to try his hand as an artist and Exit takes a narrative turn. Interpreting Bansky’s suggestion as a directive from a respected mentor, Guetta enthusiastically reinvents himself as “Mr. Brainwash” and sets about launching his artistic career with an overly-ambitious warehouse show in L.A. Whether Mr. Brainwash’s premiere is a success is worth the suspense of watching the film, but the questions about artistic legitimacy couldn’t be presented in a more entertaining package. Yes, Exit Through the Gift Shop does serve as a detailed document of the rise of street art, but it’s Guetta’s sweet-but-bumbling foray into the genre and Bansky’s dry commentary that make this more than just a chapter in contemporary art history. The film has enjoyed near-unanimous praise since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Ever the showman, Bansky even created a dedicated underground cinema for the film’s London premiere.

This event is the first collaborative screening between SPACE Gallery and the Portland Museum of Art with the aim of combining audiences for exceptional films. Collaborative screenings of Matthew Barney’s vaunted Cremaster Cycle are also scheduled for November 18 through 21 at the Museum.

Tickets are now available at the Museum’s admission desk.

What is So Interesting About That?: Untitled by Frits Thaulow

By Vanessa Nesvig
Coordinator of Special Projects

This piece is one of the most loved pieces in the Museum by our patrons. I guess that is a testament that even more than 100 years later, this beautiful and calming picture still is appealing to most people. Thaulow was known as a “master of the slow moving river” and painted many such scenes in his lifetime. He painted close to 50 paintings a year, most of which he was able to sell.

What is interesting about this piece to me is where and why it is hung in the second floor gallery. Though painting in the age of the Impressionists, he was not the most cutting edge of painters. What you might not know is that he was the brother–in-law to Paul Gauguin. Both Thaulow’s wife and Gauguin’s wife were sisters. So though they had very different styles and philosophies about life, Thaulow and Gauguin got together at family gatherings, and the families even shared nannies. When Thaulow went back to Norway and organized the first Impressionist exhibition there, he invited all his French Impressionist friends to exhibit, especially Gauguin.

When you look at this work in the Museum, look two paintings to the right and see Gauguin’s Clovis, and picture them all at the holidays together talking about painting, kids, and the future of Impressionism.

Image credit: Frits Thaulow (Norway, 1847–1906), Untitled, circa 1897, oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 31 11/16 inches. Portland Museum of Art, Maine, 1998.147.