Describe the features in each of these paintings that you think correspond to Greenberg’s view that kitsch ‘imitates the effects of art’. in other words how has the artist made the painting look artistic – as if for a sophisticated taste.
In his 1939 paper Avant-Garde and Kitsch [1: 546], Greenberg wrote ‘If avant-garde imitates the processes of art, kitsch … imitates its effects’ .
According to the course notes (p53), ‘One way of putting this is to say avant-garde art is authentic because it depends on its own means, but kitsch is second hand because it depends on art.’
The course cites works by Vladimir Tretchikoff and Jack Vetriano, ‘both look artistic – ‘imitating the effects of art’ – but both seem composed of fake sentiments’.
In his paper, Greenberg, compares how an ‘ignorant Russian peasant’ might appreciate art compared to that of a ‘cultivated spectator’. He examines how such people might interpret paintings such as those by Repin in contrast to paintings by Picasso.
To put Greenberg’s analysis in context, I searched for a painting by Repin, and while I initially searched under the prolific works of Ilya Repin (1844 – 1930 Russian), I found a painting which fits well with Greenberg’s description in a painting by his son Juri (or Yuri) Repin (1877 – 1954) called Battle of Yalu River (fig 1).
Then I searched for an example painting which might fit Greenberg’s argument from the works of Picasso. and chose his 1920 painting Woman sitting in an Armchair (fig. 2)
Greenberg sums up his analysis saying [1: 546]:
‘Ultimately, it can be said that the cultivated spectator derives the same values from Picasso that the peasant gets from Repin, since what the latter enjoys in Repin is somehow art too, on however low a scale, and he is sent to look at pictures by the same instincts that send the cultivated spectator.
But the ultimate values which the cultivated spectator derives from Picasso are derived at a second remove, as the result of reflection upon the immediate impression left by the plastic values. It is only then that the recognizable, the miraculous and the sympathetic enter. They are not immediately or externally present in Picasso’s painting, but must be projected into it by the spectator sensitive enough to react sufficiently to plastic qualities. They belong to the “reflected” effect. In Repin, on the other hand, the “reflected” effect has already been included in the picture, ready for the spectator’s unreflective enjoyment. Where Picasso paints cause, Repin paints effect. Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art. Repin, or kitsch, is synthetic art.’
So, turning to the pictures in question for this exercise, I think I should look for aspects of the painting which offer obvious sentiment, which is the ‘predigested’ or synthetic art
The Chinese Girl (1950) Vladimir Tretchikoff
I think the overwhelming sentiment is one of peace and serenity. The pose in which the hands are hidden in the folds of the sleeve suggests to us she has little to say – she doesn’t show us anything, or point to anything, or express any emotion through the clasping of hands – she keeps her gestures hidden, at peace in perhaps the way a nun, or a priest, would fold their hands into her sleeves while contemplating or listening to someone.
The gaze of the girl appearing to be down and to our right, not looking at us (in contrast to so many pin-up posters of the 50’s) – it’s a submissive or reflective pose – it doesn’t challenge us to engage with her. I wonder if we should turn to images of The Virgin Mary (fig. 3) to see if there are any parallels.
Perhaps there is a connection between images of the Virgin Mary, and the peace and salvation which she apparently offers to Christian believers, which ties into the painting of The Chinese Girl. Perhaps Tretchikoff really does pull on a range of sentiments offered by popular religious images of the Virgin Mary.
The Chinese Girl is not a religious painting, but it does offer the image of a glamorous woman – someone from the Orient, a place seen to the working classes in the 50’s and 60’s as a relatively unknown and mysterious world. Tretchikoff has exaggerated the colour of her skin to make her appear unusual, and complemented her skin tones with fabulous oriental clothes with colourful and intricate design, where yellows dominates. According to the web site Psychological Properties of Colours [http://www.colour-affects.co.uk/]:
The yellow wavelength is relatively long and essentially stimulating […] the stimulus is emotional, therefore yellow is the strongest colour, psychologically. The right yellow will lift our spirits and our self-esteem; it is the colour of confidence and optimism.
I think Tretchikoff contributes fake sentiments by choosing to paint the garment yellow, and to make the colour reflection onto the chin and cheekbones, to give her an air of self confidence and optimistic feminism.
And we see that she is in some way Westernised – by the coiffured hair and bright red lipstick. She is someone who is using products of the flowering consumerism of the 50’s – adopting a fashionable style of the young women of countries in which this image became popular (UK, Australia, Canada and South Africa).
As Tretchikoff’s biographer, Boris Gorelik, claimed in an article for the Independent on-line web site in 2013 when addressing the question about why The Chinese Girl prints became so popular :
‘I think they matched people’s expectations of the exotic,’ … ‘In the 1950s and ’60s, people wanted to travel to foreign lands. Like rock musicians, who have a certain period when what they do matches popular taste – this is what happened with Tretchikoff. Somehow, he reflected their hopes and aspirations.’
Do you leave footprints in the Sand? (2002) Andrew Hewkin
The sentiment coming from this painting is about holidaying or living in a beautiful place, perhaps being that woman in the painting, or having a relationship with that woman. People attracted to this image might find hope in their dreams to escape the drudgery of everyday work for a brief escape to the sun. Perhaps the title of the painting gives us a clue, it asks whether we go on holidays in such beautiful places – do you leave footprints in the sand?
The loose fitting garments give us a hint of the outline of her body, and an exposure of her right breast – there’s a sense of airiness, an escape from the heat – an allure and seduction. We can’t see her face, we can’t see her expression – she is anonymous and chic. We might imagine ourselves as this woman, or imagine ourselves being in these beautiful stylish surroundings meeting such a person.
The sentiment is obvious, no ‘second reading’ is needed – it sends us immediately to a place of our summer holiday – maybe we have been there before, or it’s a dream to come, but either way by owning this poster we can dream it will come true, and ultimately see whether we leave footprints in the sand.
General Research into Kitsch
Avant-garde art concerns itself with the process and materials of art, and art which requires thought and interpretation by an audience educated in interpreting the clues and symbols contained therein.
Kitsch is mass produced art – available as posters, or in magazines – art which is easy, requires no thought, which is pre-digested or synthesised.
According to Sturken and Cartwright [3: 57], ‘The term Kitsch formerly referred to images and objects that are trite, cheaply sentimental and formulaic. Kitsch is associated with mass-produced objects that offer cheap or gaudy versions of classical beauty …’.
I searched the web for classic examples of Kitsch. First is the lava lamp which is generally though of as a kitsch object, but where is the ‘predigested’ sentiment in this object? I guess it’s the fascination of seeing globs of acid colour ascending and descending, reminiscent of the psychedelic images emerging from the hippy culture of the time. I can see how it can later become kitsch to those who reflect back sentimentally on times they might perceive as better, when their own lava lamp graced their bedside table.
In the 1990’s the popularity of the lava lamp had a resurgence. According to Sturken and Cartwright [3: 57]:
‘Certain objects formerly deemed “tasteless” of just silly, the everyday artefacts of the everyday middle-class or working-class consumer, were given new value over time precisely because they had become iconic artefacts of a past era. The educated connoisseur can collect and display hese now-valuable artefacts to demonstrate engagement in the culture of lowbrow aesthetics.’
And then there are the china figurines which some people used to collect – prancing horses, wide eyed dogs, and cute kitties in a variety of clichéd poses. The sentiments are obvious, with an inward ‘aawww – that’s cute’, quickly giving way to a yawn. But I guess certain people never tired from needing to own such objects of extreme kitsch.
Solomon wrote in his paper On Kitsch and Sentimentality [4: 5]:
‘Kitsch and sentimentality provoke excessive or immature expressions of emotion. It is true that kitsch is calculated to evoke our emotions, especially those emotions that are best expressed by that limp vocabulary that seems embarrassingly restricted to such adjectives as “cute” and “pretty” or that even more humiliating, drawn-out downward intoned “Aaaaah” that seems inappropriate even in Stuckeys’ – Stuckeys was a US roadside convenience store selling candy, novelties, food, fuel.
It is also true that the emotions provoked by kitsch tend to be unsophisticated and even child-like (as opposed to childish). But is the charge that kitsch provokes too much of these affectionate emotions, or that it provokes them at all? And when the critics of sentimentality call an emotion “immature” or “naive” are they really contrasting it with more mature and knowledgeable emotions or are they, again, dismissing emotions as such?’
Some of the best known paintings produced as posters in the 1960’s were made by J.H Lynch, two of the most famous being Tina in 1961 (fig. 7), and Nymph produced sometime before 1965 (fig. 8).
All his women look at us directly, challenging us to look at them in various states of undress with backdrops of some dark forest, or mediterranean village. The only sentiment is that of allure and seduction – the idea that these women exist somewhere in foreign lands. It appears to have been acceptable art in working-class homes of the 60’s. The art is poor, and the sentiment crass.
Athena posters were all the rage from the 1970’s. Stephen Pearson’s 1972 poster Wings of Love (fig. 11) is a popular Athena kitsch image from my childhood. It uses the graceful shape of a swan as a metaphor for love, and the man and woman taking their place like a biblical Adam and Eve, watching the eternal setting sun. The negative shape bounded by the swan’s neck and wing on which the man stands makes the form of a heart shape, and the woman observes her object of love, following the direction of the swan’s head to her beau, while he contemplates the sunset. I think there are many contrived sentiments here which must make it a kitsch classic.
Which leads me back to Solomon’s 1991 paper On Kitsch and Sentimentality in which he discussed how a seemingly perfect painting can be seen as kitsch, and uses William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1900 painting A Childhood Idyl as an example (fig. 10).
Solomon says [4, 3-4]:
‘Being moved by one’s emotions, in contrast to paying attention to the more formal and refined aspects of a work of art, is at best a distraction, if not a “dead give-away” that one is having a “cheap” emotional experience instead of a cultivated aesthetic response. High-class kitsch may well be “perfect” in its form and composition: the academic painters were often masters of their craft. Thus the accusation that a work is kitsch is based not on lack of form or aesthetic merit but on the presence of a particularly provocative emotional content. (The best art, by contrast, eschews emotional content altogether)’.
‘What makes Bouguereau kitsch? What makes it bad art? From an aesthetic point of view it is the “perverse perfection” that is so offensive and cloying, the absence of any interpretive ambiguity or dissonance on the part of the viewer, but most important (for our purposes) it is the manipulation of emotion, the evocation of “cheap”, “false” emotions than makes this otherwise “perfect” painting perverse.’
And with this in mind, I refer back to Pearson’s Wings of Love, a painting which appears perfectly executed, but indeed it is offensive and cloying, it’s just an overload of cheap emotions for uneducated consumption.
I want to end this reseach by going back to Greenberg where he discusses what I think is being classified as Totalitarian Kitsch. In his paper [1: 548] Greenberg talks about how totalitarian regimes need to use kitsch rather than avant-garde as a method to promote their propaganda, he says:
‘The main trouble with avant-garde art and literature, from the point of view of fascists and Stalinists, is not that they are too critical, but that they are too ‘innocent’, that it is too difficult to inject effective propaganda into them, that kitsch is more pliable to this end. Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the ‘soul’ of the people. Should the official culture be one superior to the general mass-level, there would be a danger of isolation.’
This sort of kitsch tries to engender a love, or sympathy, for the ruling classes. It use the same basic principles of projecting a simple emotion – love for country and patriotism.
Reflecting on this exercise
Kitsch images have come into our lives one way or another, and I found the journey rediscovering some of the kitsch images of my youth quite entertaining. However while researching the subject I find again it is difficult to put my arms around the boundaries of the subject. I would never have thought that the Bouguereau painting in figure 10 would be classified as kitsch – and similar paintings by other of the great masters are thereby also classified as kitsch.
List of Images
Figure 1. Repin, J (1914) Battle of Yalu River [oil on canvas] At: Primorye State Picture Gallery, Russia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Yalu_River_by_Repin.jpg (Accessed 20 July 2017)
Figure 2. Picasso, P (1920) Woman sitting in an armchair [oil on canvas] 89 x 130 cm At: https://www.wikiart.org/en/pablo-picasso/woman-sitting-in-an-armchair-1920 (Accessed 20 July 2017)
Figure 3. Tretchikoff (1950) The Chinese Girl [oil and charcoal on canvas] At: Private collection http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/chinese-girl-the-mona-lisa-of-kitsch-8537467.html (Accessed 20 July 2017)
Figure 4. Hewkin, A. (2002) Do you leave footprints in the Sand? [on-line] https://fineartamerica.com/featured/do-you-leave-footprints-in-the-sand-andrew-hewkin.html (Accessed 20 July 2017)
Figure 5. The Lava Lamp, montage and advert
Figure 6. Cute kitty figurines
Figure 7. Lynch, J.H (1961) Tina [poster on-line] http://www.jhlynch.org/ (Accessed 23 July 2017)
Figure 8. Lynch, J.H (1961) Nymph [poster on-line] http://www.jhlynch.org/ (Accessed 23 July 2017)
Figure 9.Pearson, S. (1972) Wings of Love [poster on-line] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/15/athena-posters-miranda-sawyer (Accessed 23 July 2017)
Figure 10. Bouguereau, W.A (1900) A Childhood Idyll [oil on canvas] 102 x 130 cm At: Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado, USA https://www.wikiart.org/en/william-adolphe-bouguereau/a-childhood-idyll-1900 (Accessed 18 July 2017)
Figure 11. Example of totalitarian kistch [on-line] https://pervegalit.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/more-totalitarian-kitsch/ (Accessed 23 July 2017)
 Greenberg, C. (1939) Avant-Garde and Kitsch first published in Partisan Review, New York, VI, no. 5, Fall 1939, pp. 34-49. Extracts for this exercise taken from Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000, 2nd Ed., Oxford, England, Blackwell Publishing.
 Bell, M. (2013) Chinese Girl: The Mona Lisa of Kitsch [on-line] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/chinese-girl-the-mona-lisa-of-kitsch-8537467.html (Accessed 20 July 2017)
 Sturken, M. & Cartwright, L. (2009). Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture – 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Solomon C. (1991) On Kitsch and Sentimentality published in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 1991), pp. 1-14. Wiley. Extracts for this exercise taken from paper published on Scribd by Wiley-Blackwell publishers.
Agent Lynch: How I Fell in Love with Tina [on-line] http://agentlynch.com/2010/03/30/how-i-fell-in-love-with-tina/
BBC News: Lava lamp creators mark 50 years of 1960s [on-line] icon: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-23754303
Vladimir Tretchikoff [on-line] http://www.fineartandyou.com/2015/04/vladimir-tretchikoff-vladimir.html
Queens of Vintage: Mysterious girl: Tina and the art of J.H Lynch [on-line] http://www.queensofvintage.com/mysterious-girl-tina-and-the-art-of-j-h-lynch/
Jones, J on The Guardian on-line: Kitsch art: love it or loathe it? [on-line] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/jan/28/kitsch-art-love-loathe-jonathan-jones
Chinese Girl on Wilipedia [on-line] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Girl
Jones B on CNN on-line: ‘Mona Lisa of Kitsch – World’s most reproduced painting sells for $1.5 Million [on-line] http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/19/world/europe/kitsch-mona-lisa-auction-tretchikoff/index.html
Sawyer, M on The Guardian on-line A Temple to Athena [on-line] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/15/athena-posters-miranda-sawyer
J-H Lynch Mysterious Artist [on-line] http://www.jhlynch.org/
Martin Eder’s Erotic Kitsch Nightmares (NSFW) [on-line] http://beautifuldecay.com/2012/05/23/martin-eders-erotic-kitsch-nightmares-nsfw/
Cuban Art News – Kitsch, Eroticism, and Bad Taste in Havana [on-line] http://www.cubanartnews.org/news/kitsch_eroticism_and_bad_taste_in_havana-222/2099
Martin Eder [on-line] http://www.martineder.com/martin_eder_paintings2004.html
Main research during this part of the course
- Studying Greenberg’s 1939 paper ‘Avant-garde and Kitsch’.
- Studying Robert C Solomon’s 1991 paper ‘On Kitsch and Sentimentality’, available on Scribd.
- Continued my general reading on the subject of visual culture using Sturken and Cartwright, Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture, chapters 6 and 7.
- Reading Post Modernism for Beginners.
- Tried to start re-reading Monochrome and the Blank Canvas.