Saturday, February 7, 2009

the first hippie

the more i read about arthur wesley dow, the more i find him reported to be as spiritual and ecumenical about everything, his art, his studies, as he is about his religion. a quiet man without whose presence, an art seminar was considered a failure.

"The prints exude a sense of serenity in keeping with Dow's larger philosophical agenda of educating the public to make choices, in life as in art, that deliver harmonious results." 1

after studying in all of the most upstanding and academic parisian schools, and meeting and learning from the nabis, dow returned home to ipswitch, deflated. he hadn't found what he had sought.

the academie dictated copying antiques, sketching models. "Truth in the form of representa- tional accuracy has no relevance in art, Dow came to feel. Only beauty matters, beauty realized through expression, not imitation.

To unlearn the rules drilled into him in France, Dow immersed himself in private study of art both foreign and ancient--Egyptian, African, Oceanic and Aztec. He found his inspiration in 1891 at the Boston Public Library, in a book of Hokusai prints. 'One evening with Hokusai,' Dow wrote to his wife, 'gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures.'" 1

when i look at his photography, and then his prints, sometimes his paintings, the photos seem clearly to be 'sketches' for his prints, but his great-grand-daughter says that wasn't the case. at one point his photography became his primary focus -- "just a newer way of printmaking," he said. but since he wished neither to be known as a photographer rather than a painter, nor to compete with kasebier and stieglitz.

sometimes he would go out to attempt to recreate some of his prints and painting with his new tool, the camera.

i have to wonder though, still. really?

An impas- sioned advo- cate of synthesizing lessons from East and West in the teaching and practice of art, Dow proved himself adept at doing just that. Less an originator of ideas than a consolidator and popularizer, he channeled diverse tributaries of influence into one concentrated, easily navigable river.

"A tremendous social force, art had the power to usher in progress, but also to inhibit it, Dow felt. The future depended on a deeper appreciation of beauty in everyday life. Art was hailed as an inner, ethical necessity, primary nourishment for the soul. To Dow, alluding here to Emerson, art was "the expression of the highest form of human energy, the creative power which is nearest to the divine." 1

i promise we'll go into dow's book, composition, soon, but first, there he is sitting overlooking the marshes, in a photo taken by his brother dana, with such a sweet, young, flirtatious tree at the fore.

is it the same as the young cherry in the painting, are they the same as the one in the print? i like to believe so, and to see dow as the first hippie, in the very best, most honorable sense of the word.

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