Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas in the Arts

The true spirit of the Christmas season is surprisingly difficult to summarise.  Initially a Christian festival, the midwinter holiday across the Western world now encompasses a much broader church of pagan ritual and secular trimmings.  Equally, the portrayal of Christmas in the Arts is as challenging to package as a giftwrapped bicycle.

Happy Warholidays!

Christmas was pretty straightforward for artists working during the theocratic times of the Classicists.   Classical art was dominated by the Christian church and was without pretence in its non-nonsense approach to Christmas as purely the celebration of the Nativity story and the birth of the Christ child.  Enduring examples include Giorgione’s Nativity (1507) from the Renaissance and Gerard van Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1622) from the Baroque tradition – but the supporting cast of infant Messiah, Virgins, Angels, Kings, shepherds and assorted farm animals can be found in literally thousands of works.

Gerard van Honthorst, Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)

This unwavering religious embodiment of the festival would continue until artists began to creep out from under the waning yoke of the patronage of the church. It is not until the 1800’s that we first see the gaze of the artist turned from the Romantic and the Divine to the rather more Humanistic.

The Christmas embodied by this next wave of artists focused not on the Nazarene or the Magi but instead on the more contemporary recording of families coming together, celebrating hearth and home.  There are innumerable examples of this work across the European and North American art movements of the late 19th and early 20th Century.

Viggo Johansen’s A Happy Christmas (1891), Carl Larsson’s Christmas Eve (1904) and Albert Chevallier Tayler’s The Christmas Tree (1911) reflect this shift in festive themes.  These depictions of a family Christmas, from the Impressionists to the Arts and Crafts Movement, all share a common whimsical theme to the point that they become almost indistinguishable.

Albert Chevallier Tayler, The Christmas Tree (1911)

For many it is the Victorian Christmas that conjures a romantic ideal of the season and it is around these vignettes that the contemporary image of Christmas begins to solidify, like goosefat around a tray of roasted potatoes and frost on the rosy cheeks of the cockney street urchin.

Even now, the perfect image of the Dickensian Christmas holds much inexplicable allure – perhaps in its evocation of simpler times when extreme poverty, inequality and austerity seemed to do little to dampen the determined celebration of the season.

Norman Rockwell, Christmas (1950)

Clearly following in this tradition is later American artist Norman Rockwell, whose unashamed celebrations of American family and small-town values make him, for many, the unofficial biographer of the American Christmas.  By the 1950’s, however, Rockwell was already becoming a lone atavistic voice in a changing cultural landscape.

The Modernists were coming and they had little time for santa, snowmen, tinsel and glitter.  Such whimsy was so much poisoned eggnog to the carefully constructed outsider status of the Modern Artist; but that isn’t to say some of them didn’t at least try.

Salvador Dalí’s Allegory of an American Christmas (1934, left) and Christmas (Noel) (1946, right)

As might be expected, Salvador Dalí’s Allegory of an American Christmas (1934) isn’t so much iconoclastic as just downright perplexing.  Featuring the unfamiliar festive motif of an airplane flying into an egg, it is said to symbolise Dalí’s rebirth of creativity following his emigration to America.  In Dali’s defence, the use of Christmas in the title was simply a reference to the season of his arrival in his adopted country.  He would attempt to redress this misdirection with the more unambiguous Christmas (Noel) (1946) – although it’s only in the company of the earlier work that this painting could ever really be described as unambiguous.

In the latter half of the Twentieth Century artists began to embrace the dark arts of marketing and this most vigorously commercialised of all festivals once again attracted attention.

Andy Warhol Christmas Card (left) and (unofficial) Jeff Koons Balloon Dog Christmas ornament (right)

Perhaps inspired by his early incarnation as a commercial artist, Andy Warhol produced a wealth of charming festive merchandising during his career, featuring every permutation of wreath, ribbon and shining star.  Some may suggest that Warhol was making a high camp comment on consumerism but the sheer proliferation of Christmas imagery suggests that maybe Andy just loved Christmas.  The fact that it is so difficult to clearly identify Warhol’s intentions leaves him simultaneously playing the role of both David Bowie and Bing Crosby in this Seasonal house party.

The difficulty of deconstructing novelty and ephemera is that there is little more to find wrapped inside than more novelty and ephemera.  Furthermore, Christmas itself has its own magical powers of assimilation.  Consider the gaudy ironic pop culture constructions of artist Jeff Koons. As far as I am aware, Koons has yet to tackle Christmas directly and yet his absurdist ironic imagery has proven remarkably popular repackaged in unironic Christmas cards and decorations.

Ron English, Merry Christmas (2011), Banksy, I'm Out of Bed... (2011)

Even the more aggressive attempts to satirise and eviscerate the season from artists such as Ron English and the ubiquitous Banksy result in images that still sit cosy and comfortably neutered on the mantle between Nativity scenes and comical cartoon reindeer.

Instead, perhaps the most subversive, important and undoubtedly influential Christmas artist is the little-known commercial painter Haddon Sundblom.  It was Sundblom who created Santa Claus, at least in the form we all now know and love, as a seasonal advertising mascot for dentist worrying soft drinks company Coca-Cola.  Whilst he was not the first artist to create an image of Santa - the curious fusion of various folkloric figures with the Christian Saint Nicolas - it was Sundblom's 1931 vision that created the archetypal jolly, round, white-bearded man now recognised the world over.

With his brand-approved red coat, white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers and black leather belt and boots, Coca-Cola’s Santa artworks would change our perception of Father Christmas forever and would be adopted as the popular image of the North Pole's most famous resident.  However, the fact that Sundblom's Santa was so quickly extricated from his corporate beginnings and subsumed back into his mythical roots, once again proves the resilience of the season to irony and commercial appropriation alike.  

In a way, this is further proof that, despite a swollen rolling snowball of confused influences and meanings to many people, the true spirit of Christmas might really just be that spirit itself.

Happy Holidays!