Thursday, July 25, 2013
Birthday Boy: Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu
Maxfield Parrish turns a spry 143 today, and what a pleasure it is to wish him many happy returns.
Parrish is the sort of artist who goes very far in and out of style, and I feel at the moment, he's at rather a low ebb. Norman Rockwell had a bit of a stir a couple of years ago, but the two, although contemporaries and frequent presences at around the same time on the nation's newsstands through their magazine covers, could hardly be more different.
Rockwell is a scrupulously observant chronicler of what at first appears to be daily life, but is actually a very carefully calculated kind of storytelling. The calculation allows one to analyze Rockwell for elements well beyond the surface sentimentality, to create the possibility of distance from how the art was originally meant to be received (Then: oooh, a GI is coming home to his family - see how happy the dog is! Now: what a composition! And see how the artist captures the anomie of lower-middle class existence in the mother's faded print dress, and...). Parrish, by contrast, is sheer fantasy, the master of crags and valleys and waterfalls, and there in the front, nearly-but-not-quite dwarfed by it all, a perfect nymph, all against a sky of the most individual and intense blue Or, as here, of a kind of fever-dream of whimsy, a gaggle of Pierrots and their lanterns (one of his most consistent commercial clients was Edison Mazda lighting - in some ways for him what The Saturday Evening Post was for his coeval - a steady gig that allowed him to follow his own artistic inclinations, as long as they remained more or less marketable). You more or less have to accept it at face value, admiring its virtuosity, or simply dismiss it as kitsch. Which it kind of is - but kind of isn't.
I was fascinated by Parrish as a child, by his world of white and gold and brilliant, brilliant blue. Grandmother Muscato had a framed print on the landing up to the attic (probably banished there after the Second War, when illustrations of the kind he did were particularly unfashionable), and it seemed like a passport to a different, idyllic place. Even now, there's a power in the work, a genuineness that I think comes from the artist's own belief in it the places he created, from his skill in depicting it, from the warmth that he imparts to what otherwise might have just been showy bits of painterly bravura. There isn't a scintilla of cynicism in his entire oeuvre, and that carries him through.
In the last few years, there's been some hack playing around with a title that should have been Parrish's, and now that that sad (not to mention cynical) spectacle is all but over, perhaps he can reclaim it: The little boy born today in 1870 in Philadelphia grew up to be America's great Painter of Light.