Dennis Nolan's KEEPERS OF THE FLAME

I have a treat for you today, dear readers! Longtime friend, Hollins colleague, children's book author, illustrator, and professor, Dennis Nolan recently celebrated the opening of a gallery show, Keepers of the Flame, that took him ten years to pull together. The show traces the lineage of some of our greatest illustrators back to some of our greatest painters, and it has a fabulous book that goes along with it. Truly, this is an accomplishment of a lifetime and a treasure to the public good. Read on!

e: What was your inspiration behind the show, Keepers of the Flame?
Dennis:
As a dual major in Art History and Painting, and having dual careers as a professional educator and practicing artist, I have long held an interest in the training of an artist and the passing on of traditional methods of drawing and painting. I first became interested in the heritage of "Western" painting when my first drawing teacher stood me in front of two paintings, a Gerome and a Bouguereau, and told me that his teacher traced his lineage back to both of them. Fifty years later that moment led to an investigation of the student/teacher lineage revealed in the show.

Bouguereau, A Thanks Offering, 1867

e: Did it really take you ten years to pull everything together?
Dennis:
Ten years ago I gave a talk at the Norman Rockwell Museum tracing Rockwell's lineage back through his teachers and his teachers teachers. The curator, Stephanie Plunkett heard the talk and commented that it would make a nice show. For the next couple of years we discussed the idea until we finally decided to make a list and search for artists and paintings we needed to see if there was enough for a show. There was, so we moved forward, starting the formal process five years ago. It finally all came together, loans, and catalogue, about two months before the show opened.

Rockwell, Saying Grace, 1951

e: I’m especially interested in the transition between narrative art and modern art that you discuss in the book. It sounded like you were in school on a formative side of that argument. So many people think of modern art as the continuation of the masters’ tradition. However, I have long argued that modern art is the tangent, as most art was indeed narrative (and commissioned - what would be called ‘for commercial purposes’ today). What do you think?
Dennis:
The European/American tradition of narrative picture making that the show focuses on was a constant from the first flowering with Giotto, and persisted throughout the centuries, including the paintings of the Golden Age of Illustration in America and continues today in the hands of narrative artists producing work for books, magazines, animated films and games, and paintings in a wide variety of genres. All artists are driven by a desire to produce art and most hope to sell that art to a client or collector. Why a particular piece of artwork was commissioned, what the subject matter is, and what purpose the art was used for has little to do with the principles guiding the production of a painting. The narrative artists in the European/American tradition used illusionistic devices and accurate drawing based on observable phenomenon to create worlds seen through the window of the picture plane.

Bronzino, Holy Family, 1528

e: Where do you think the schism between the words art and illustration lies, and do you see them reaching any sort of compromise?
Dennis:
Artists who embraced the tenets of modern art movements moved away from subject and narrative-driven pictures, guided by different concerns and philosophies, forging a decidedly different path away from the traditional mainstream of art. Narrative art making flourished in the hands of the Golden Age Illustrators in America. Illustration is a market, a client, a venue for the narrative artist. Narrative artists have always worked for clients, fulfilling their needs and wishes, whether commissioned directly or purchased after the act of creation. Clearly read and universally understood stories in picture form require training, practice, and expertise in the creation of illusions.

Lippi, The Virgin Adoring the Child, 1459*

e: After living in this topic for so long, what were your biggest takeaways/lessons learned?
Dennis:
Narrative picture making is as old as the earliest examples of art in existence. For thirty five thousand years the desire to make a visible record of the world we live in has driven artists to formulate devices that aid in the creation of an illusion of the three dimensional world. Stories are just as old, probably older, and are the glue that holds humanity together. Picture stories transcend the limits and barriers of written and spoken language, a communication that needs no translation. The last century and a half of American Illustration follows solidly in that path, using the same principles that were rediscovered in Florence during the birth of the Italian Renaissance. The keepers of the flame continued to pass on the rich heritage of centuries of accumulated knowledge through historic upheaval resulting in story pictures for church, state, private collectors and commerce.

e: Finally, where can people see the show, for how long, and if they should miss it, where can they learn more online?
Dennis:
The show is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge Massachusetts through October 28, 2018. You can check out the NRM website and order a catalogue online.

e: Congratulations Dennis on such a tremendous achievement and thank-you for sharing it with us!!

*A Fra Filippo Lippi from 1459, 500 years before the Norman Rockwell painting of Saying Grace from 1951, both showing devotional subjects painted with illusionistic devices to tell their stories clearly. In the 500 year span, other examples in the lineage include the Bronzino, the Delaroche, and the Bouguereau. The Lippi, Bronzino, and Delaroche paintings were originally commissioned as altarpieces to be reinstalled in a church, the Bouguereau for a private collector, and the Rockwell for the cover of a magazine. All are now hanging in museums, no longer serving their initial function. All display a common language of drawing and painting and all tell us a good deal of the human experience without the need for verbal explanation.
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