M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Telling Stories in Paintings

Burton Silverman near two self-portraits

Silverman's New York Studio and several paintings in progress
I visited Burton Silverman's studio (http://www.burtonsilverman.com/) to interview him for an article in the spring, 2010 issue of Workshop magazine (http://www.artistdaily.com/), and we talked about the workshop he recently taught at the Art Students League of New York (http://www.theartstudentsleague.org/), his career as a teacher and artist, and the potential of representational artwork to tell meaningful stories. As you probably know, Burt used to do portrait drawings for The New Yorker magazine, paintings for the cover of Time, and lots of other editorial illustrations; and he has been one of the top portrait painters and gallery artists for the past 50+ years.
While talking about his illustrations and a collection of drawings he did of civil rights workers in the 1950's, Burt pointed out that while illustrations are often dismissed by critics as being slick, obvious, or shallow, they do have the power to express significant ideas. "Until the late 19th century, almost all art told stories from the Bible, history, mythology, or politics," he explained. "Even the great portraits by Velasquez, Rembrandt, and Sargent told stories about the times in which the person lived. For centuries it was acknowledged that artists could create powerful 'illustrations' that were also great works of art."
Burt pulled paintings out of the bins in his studio to show some of the themes that have interested him in recent years, including portraits of laborers, paintings of nudes posing in his studio, studies of clothed models, and commissioned portraits. He explained that the laborers appealed to him because they were confident, proud individuals; or because they gave him an opportunity to paint figures in the landscape. He pointed to one oil painting of a young man wearing a scarf on his head and a backpack over his shoulders, and another of a shirtless cement mixer. There was a commissioned portrait of a lawyer on his easel, and he pointed out that the man's posture said a great deal about his personality. "I don't get commissions from people who want to look as though they lived in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century," he explained. "When they see samples of my portraits they know I am interested in showing who they are, not what they might have looked like 100 years ago."
The conversation with Burt reminded me of the paintings I saw the day before when I toured an exhibition a The Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/) titled "American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life (1764-1915). The 100 paintings are view until January 24, 2010 and travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from February 28-May 23, 2010. The museum describes the exhibition as one that "examines stories based on familiar experience and the means by which painters told their stories through their choices of settings, players, action, and various narrative devices. The artists' responses to foreign prototypes, travel and training, changing exhibition venues, and audience expectations are examined, as are their evolving styles and standards of storytelling in relation to the themes of childhood, marriage, the family, and the community; the production and reinforcement of citizenship; attitudes towards race; the frontier as reality and myth; and the process and meaning of art making. " There is a catalog for the exhibition.
Those of us who, like Burt Silverman, are challenged to tell stories through our art may find this exhibition and the article in Workshop to be of interest.

1 comment:

  1. Illustrators have had an enormous influence on artists that are my age (over 55).

    As a child, I was influenced a great deal by Andrew Wyeth, and his father N.C. Wyeth was a prolific illustrator who studied under the father of illustration Howard Pyle.

    Illustration has also provided a means of income for artists over many years that has allowed them the means to continue painting and honing their skills.