The value of obscurity

Does fame make artists conform? Critics impact our careers, but what makes their judgments ‘right’?

Woman Reclining of 1928 (Marguerite Kelsey), 1928, Meredith Frampton, courtesy Tate

I’ve dedicated my brief staycation to reading detective stories by the late Georgette Heyer. Heyer is famous as a romance writer. Artist Meredith Frampton was her contemporary and countryman, and he is just being discovered. There are many parallels between their work: they are both sleek, smooth, and perfectly finished. Intellectuals may scoff, but their work burbles with joy.

Meredith Frampton was the only child of the distinguished British sculptor, Sir George Frampton, and his wife, painter Christabel Cockerell. While Frampton was raised in affluent, arty St. John’s Wood, he was also the grandson of a stonemason. His painting reflects an ethos of craftsmanship and hard work.
Sir Ernest Gowers, KCB, KBE, Senior Regional Commissioner for London, Lt Col AJ Child, OBE, MC, Director of Operations and Intelligence, and KAL Parker Deputy Chief Administrative Officer in the London Regional Civil Defence Control Room, 1943, Meredith Frampton, courtesy Imperial War Museums
Frampton attended the Royal Academy Schools, where he won both a first prize and a silver medal. During WWI, he enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles. This was a famous Victorian volunteer corps that had expanded to include members of other professions. Frampton served on the Western Front with a field survey unit, scrutinizing aerial photographs and making meticulous maps of enemy trenches.
During the postwar period, he resumed his career as a painter, focusing on portraits of academics and beautiful women. He was, however, a victim of his time and place in culture.
A Game of Patience, 1937, Meredith Frampton, courtesy Ferens Art Gallery
“At that time, the Tate was fixated on this idea that what mattered in 20th-Century art was the forward movement from one progressive ‘ism’ to the next, a kind of handing on of the torch,” saidcurator Richard Morphet, who has championed Frampton throughout his career. “And art like Frampton’s, which didn’t exemplify stylistic innovation, was regarded as having nothing to do with that story. That’s why I wasn’t allowed to show it.”

Frampton had only one significant show, two years before his death. It has never been repeated.

Frampton was a slow, meticulous painter who worked largely by commission. That meant he never had inventory lying around for a gallery to pick up and show. He did, however, participate in the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, sending 32 paintings over a period of 25 years.
It would be easy to dismiss his paintings as reactionary realism in an era of enormous upheaval. However, Frampton was very much a visionary. There is a strong sense of surrealism in his glacial, immaculate, perfectly-ordered surrounds.
King George VI as the Duke of York, 1929, Meredith Frampton
Like his fellow realist Andrew Wyeth, Frampton sold paintings even as the rainmakers ignored him. His career tells us something about the power critics and gallerists hold over artists. Perhaps even more important, his subsequent rediscovery tells us something about the limits to that power.
It’s much easier to paint within the conventions of your time and place, but Frampton reminds us that’s not the only path to greatness. Moderate success, followed by obscurity and then rediscovery, was the career path of Rembrandt and Bach.
I’m still pondering the impact obscurity had on the paintings of Erik Lundin. In his case, and that of Meredith Frampton, the lack of adulation seems to have given them the freedom to follow their own muses.

American history through British eyes

Death on the Ridge Road, 1935 by Grant Wood. Williams College Museum of Art

Occasionally a painting gets stuck in my head. Such is the case with Death on the Ridge Road, by Grant Wood, above. Viewers in 1935 understood this painting as something painfully probable in rural driving: innocent passengers careening happily toward their imminent deaths. One could see it as a metaphor for life, since we’re all in that state of happy ignorance. We are, however, in a new era, and current conventional wisdom is that it is a metaphor for Woods’ own privately tortured sexuality.

That’s a contemporary American viewpoint, however, and it’s unlikely to hold up. Death on the Ridge Road is currently in London, in America after the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. If I find any spare change, I’m going to see it before it closes. It’s not that I can’t or haven’t seen these paintings here in their native home. I’d like to see them interpreted through British eyes.
Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, Alexandre Hogue, Philbrook Museum
The Telegraph called this show “a pungent mix of American horror stories,” but there’s more than a bit of Schadenfreude there. We Americans don’t necessarily think of urbanization, industrialization, or any of the other themes of the Great Depression as horror stories. They are the stories of our parents and grandparents, repeated down through the generations.
Nor were they the end of an idyllic past, as the title implies. We had been riven by Civil War two generations earlier; we had suffered through rocketing financial depressions before. Ours was a society that was constantly in flux.
It was, however, a “decade like no other,” as the Royal Academy describes it. The impulses in art were varied and many. Painting wandered down many different by-ways, from the regionalism of Wood to the Symbolism of Philip Evergood, the Precisionism of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the folk expressionism of William H. Johnson and the modernism of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was a ferment that we can only begin to sort out in retrospect, and it happened in literature and music along with painting.
Gas, 1940, Edward Hopper, MoMa
“He’s putting the pump back, he’s staring into the dial, he’s falling apart: who knows? The garage stands empty, its light sinister as the dusk descending over the woods, presaging a thousand movies. The rural past meets the industrial future in this vision of a lone American lost out there in the spreading vastness,” wrote the Guardian about Edward Hopper’s Gas.
I, through my American eyes, see the homely Northeast in that painting. It’s the Maine of my childhood, moving from Mom-and-Pop gas bars to whatever it is today. 
Meanwhile, in 1940, when Hopper painted it, Britain was enduring the Blitz. It seemed as if defeat at the hands of Luftwaffe was inevitable. A British public has to see the night sky in Gas as intensely personal. It’s more about them than us.