Monday, March 7, 2011

A little side trip, 11b

I want to show you some engravings after John Flaxman. I mentioned him as having been an influence on Ingres and although I am not adding him to my !00 artists series I think he rates an aside. Flaxman is a great example of the classical chain that runs through our art history. The romantics and the classicists are opposites. In the late 19th century the Romantics won the battle and there is little of the classical ideal surviving in our modern world.

The victory of the romantics has had the effect of defining "art" itself through the romantic lens. When people talk of passion and even self expression in art and champion the heightened individuality of the artist, they are using the romantic definition. That's fine, but there have been other ways of looking at what art is. I mentioned The Classic Point of View by Kenyon Cox and several people in the comments noted that it can be read online here. I cannot paraphrase the book in this post but it is well worth a read. As I said last night, it is not a terribly easy read, but it is informative and will make you think about what art might be beyond the definitions that are so accepted today. I wrote about that in this post.

Flaxman 1755-12826 was the son of a man who owned a plaster casting business. He made the reproductions of sculpture in plaster that were shown in museums in those days, and are still used to train artists. As a child, John was in the habit of drawing the casts in his fathers shop. At fifteen he began to both show and study at the Royal Academy. At nineteen he was employed by Josiah Wedgewood who had industrialized the making of pottery in England. Wedgewood developed and marketed among other things, a type of pottery called Jasperware. Below is an example of that, designed by Flaxman.

On odd combination of events made this happen, the first was the excavations at Pompeii and other ancient sites that brought a new awareness of ancient Greek and Roman drawing and design, this renewed interest in the classical also occurred in government. Our own Republic is an example of that. The French revolution was awash in Classical posturing.

The second factor was the industrial revolution which made possible the mass production of wares such as these. After textiles, pottery was the second great thrust of industrialization, a good deal of this was shipped to America. As it never rotted or decomposed, the antique shops of New England are still selling it, and the beaches are salted with fragments of pottery from the holds of ships that carried it as ballast till they arrived in American ports. I fed my children every night from 19th century English pottery.

After more than a decade Flaxman left Wedgewood and made his living designing funerary monuments and doing illustration. He did sculpture in the round too, but always seemed the best at the art of bas relief. The illustrations on this page are from the Illiad and the Odyssey. He was particularly suited of course for illustrating those texts.

Flaxman was a close friend of William Blake who occasionally who used his engraving skills to transfer Flaxmans drawings onto the steel plate for reproduction. Another odd little connection here too, like several other artists who I have remarked upon, Inness and Metcalf, Flaxman was a student of the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish scientist turned religious philosopher and mystic. That guy keeps popping up again and again too.


Diane said...

This, as usual, was really interesting. I knew nothing about Flaxman, his connection to Swedenborgan and Blake.
I have often wondered about the Swedenborgan influence on Inness and other artists of that time.

willek said...

I don't think I want to be conversant in Swedenborgian principles, but how important do you think it is for present day landscapists to be well read in the writings of Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman? Are you?

Libby Fife said...

I took an art appreciation course in college. We got quite a bit on classical Greek art. I am of the opinion that a well rounded education is important so thanks for the side trip.

billspaintingmn said...

I just got in from shoveling more snow, and the plow came by and dumped a snowbank in my driveway~

This is all new information to me, and enjoy finding this out. If I only had more time, I could/would research this like a hound dog!

Thanks again Stape! You are the "Go To Guy" for artists today!

Mark Heng said...

Very interesting observation about the Romantic and Classical fight...Reminds me of the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses as explained by Iggy Pop here around 4:15:
I just read that he cribbed the idea from Jim Morrison.

Julie Riker said...

The first picture made me think instantly of William Blake and it was not until I read your text that I realized the connection.
I am really enjoying your posts on art history. Thank you so much for your time and research.

JonInFrance said...

I just love a good chariot! Feel sorry for the bull though.

Anonymous said...

Aaaaiiiiyyyyyaaaa! I clicked on the 2nd link and got lost in the info...... it was 11:30!! I had blown thru the morning! Jumped up and ran to the studio (I have to start my week painting!) Now having accomplished something I am back to finish another great post! I can only go back in your blog when I have a whole day to read! Sooo much great info and soooo useful, thank you, Terry

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have tried to read Swedenborg and found it impenetrable. I have a general idea what he was about.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I Know Thoreau and Emerson well, Whitman a lot less well. Swedenborg is only a historical curiosity and interests me not at all other than his influence on Inness and Metcalf.

Stapleton Kearns said...

If knowledge becomes a problem you can ignore it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am fond of Flaxman. I like that clear linear look.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I saw Iggy Pop open for Led Zepelin in 1969 or 1970.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

The bull was later recycled by Herb Alpert and lived to a ripe old age.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. I am used, therefore I am useful!