Monday, September 30, 2013

Chocolate Box Paintings

I was watching a British TV show the other night and a character referred to a painting as being a "chocolate box", a term referring  to the type of overly sentimental, sweet paintings that decades ago were used as illustrations on the covers of boxes of chocolates. This is one of those terms that maybe means something only on the other side of the pond, since to me, "chocolate box" means a yellow Whitman's box, or possibly See's or Fanny Farmer's.

It's hard to imagine another style of painting on a box of chocolates. It's not as if you're going to sell candy in a box with a painting featuring a dead goose, for example.

The British don't use this term as a compliment - it's a disparaging term, meaning that the painting is too cute or "twee" (another British word)  to be taken seriously. I don't think it's a good thing to have one's art referred to as chocolate box. One of the sources I consulted in my web search mentioned this 19th. c. painting as an example of a typical chocolate box painting.

"The Daughters of Eve", by George Dunlop Leslie. Image courtesy of The Art Renewal Center

What do you think of this painting? Seriously. Not what you should think of this painting, but in your private heart, what's your gut reaction?

For all I know, your eyes are rolling back into your skull and you're spitting your Pimm's Cup down your weskit.  Or maybe you're an ironic hipster who snickers at this painting and finds it so deliciously mawkish that you must have it for your collection. But then again, maybe you're searching Sotheby's and Christie's right now for available works by G. D. Leslie.

Do you honestly care what I think about this painting? Well, would you care about the opinions of magazines like Art News or Art Forum? What if I were Sir Kenneth Clark or Robert Hughes, pretending for a minute that they were still around to opine on such matters? Who validates your gut response for you?

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. For one thing, I don't like labeling art with disparaging terms, and since I'm a representational artist, I especially don't like it when those terms are used around that style of art, though I have been known to rant about a few things and let's be perfect frank here, there is a lot of representational art I don't much like. A person's taste is what it is, everybody is different and hooray for that, too.

The American word for overly sentimental artwork is not exactly similar, but close... schlock.

I'm always wondering what, exactly, is schlock. It is probably different for everyone. It seems to me that there's some suspected element of dishonest art-making in schlocky art, some whiff of market-pandering trickery that's going on. Yet I have never met an artist who isn't trying to create something honest and meaningful and lasting in his or her work. Such fraudsters may be out there, and yes I've heard rumors, but I have to tell you, I have never personally met an artist who is not doing the best that he or she can to transmit themselves and their passions to the viewer in their artwork, even if they're working in a narrow, commercial situation like illustration. The artist's soul is trying to dance around in there somehow. What you might think of as schlock is to them, generally speaking, completely sincere. Many artists don't operate in the snide or edgy range, they are earnest, straight-arrow types and even if they're painting something really off the wall, they are quite serious about it. Nobody is trying to pull  your leg, an artist is trying to show you what he or she thinks is meaningful.

Maybe "corny" is a better word that schlock. It's a lot less gutteral, for one thing. It's a gentler word, bringing to mind simple pleasures like apple picking, making cookies and other long-ago pastimes involving actual human interaction, if you had any of that type of interaction.

What I'm trying to say is this: If a painting - if this chocolate box painting -  reaches you in a meaningful way, you shouldn't worry in the least what other people have to say about it. I'm encouraging you to follow your heart in these matters and not to worry if you appear to others as unsophisticated, naive or corny.

I found the corniest song I could think of to end this post, seasonally appropriate to boot. There's another version on YouTube where the group is much younger, but I prefer this version, it's more heartfelt, I think. This group was before my time but we will all get to this age, if we're lucky. I've been singing this along with them all morning.


Joaquin said...

Good post ! The version of the song, is more heartfelt, as you say. Maybe because now they know for sure, that just goes back to yesterday, with a song.

Alexandra Tyng said...

Good point, Linda. In the 1950s when I was very young I remember hearing this song. I associate it with my elementary school which was in the country. I loved book illustration, which was my first introduction to realistic art. It seemed that the whole world was a good, beautiful place. Then I grew up and discovered that illustration was not fine art, and sentimental art was schlock, etc. You could call it a rude awakening. It is-- but it can also be a reminder to keep a balance in your life and in your art. Everyone finds a different balance.