The latest issue of International Artist is now available, and if you have not yet seen it, I am proud to announce that it features a review by me, of Warren Chang: Narrative Paintings, the first book dedicated solely to the artwork of this talented artist. That review, in its entirety, is reprinted below.
In the middle of the nineteenth-century, political upheaval combined with expanding industrialization and the increased growth of the urban populace, caused progressive French artists to seek their inspiration not from their modern, ever-changing city environments, but instead from the stable and sensible, agriculturally rich regions of the French countryside. The farm worker, whose societal position in France had been elevated after the labor-oriented Revolution of February 1848, became, for the first time, a subject deemed worthy of High Art. “The charm and wholesomeness of rustic ways, the nobility of living close to the soil, the beauty of preindustrial landscape, and the social harmony of the agrarian community,”¹ were the new ideals of late nineteenth-century French art.
Examples of the field worker in prominent art began surfacing in the French Salons of the early 1850s. Earliest among those most successful in this genre were Jean François Millet (1814-1875), the son of a Normandy peasant whose intimate knowledge of labor informed his realistic depictions of the pain and fatigue caused by toiling the land, and Jules Breton (1827-1905), a member of a prominent family from northern France’s rich farmlands whose Academic training resulted in idealized portrayals of field workers in compositions filled with mood and tranquility. Other artists soon took to this genre, including Gustave Courbet, William Adolphe Bouguereau, Julien Dupré, Léon Lhermite, Jules Bastien-Lepage, and Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, to name but a few. By the 1890s, depictions of peasant scenes had become extremely popular, not only in France, but throughout the western world.
With the rise of modernist art movements in the twentieth century, however, the appreciation for this rich tradition came slowly to an end, reaching its nadir with the last exhibitions of the Peredvizhniki, a group of Russian painters who championed the working class. Struggle and strife became the purview of Modern Art, while the literal depiction of farm workers, when they were represented at all, was left to photojournalists. Few painters since the 1930s have had the willingness nor ability to seriously pursue this honored subject in representational art, even now, when early practitioners of the genre have regained some of the recognition they deserve.
In today’s political climate, with laborer’s rights and workplace safety once again taking a more central role, it is surprising that more painters have not also returned to the subject of the hard life of the agricultural workforce.
Artist Warren Chang, is one of the few exceptions among contemporary painters who have decided to use their skills to express the struggle of today’s largely-forgotten field workers. Chang (b.1957) enjoyed a successful twenty-year career as an illustrator in New York City, before returning to his native California to pursue a life in the fine arts. Resettling in Monterey County, Chang was put in mind of local hero, author John Steinbeck who, through literary creations such as The Grapes of Wrath, supported the workers’ movement, and Chang, who saw the plight of local migrant farm workers on a daily basis, felt, much like Steinbeck – strong sympathy for the distressed and disenfranchised members of society who honorably worked the earth. Though the faces had changed, little else had for these abject farm workers since Chang’s childhood, nor since the days of Steinbeck’s first observations. For more than a decade now, Chang has lent his artistic voice to the description of the wretched human condition of these suppressed laborers.
His paintings themselves bring together the best of past masters of the genre. In each work can be seen the humanist sensibilities of Millet, the draftsmanship and mood of Breton, and the tonality and paint handling skills of the Naturalist painter, Bastien-Lepage - and yet the aestheticism is all Chang’s own. These truthful representations of the field workers of California mark Chang as one of the leading social realists of today.
And now, a newly-published book, Warren Chang: Narrative Paintings, showcases these beautifully-rendered and compassionate images by this award-winning artist. The book, originally conceived as a catalog to an upcoming exhibition by the same name, features more than two-dozen pictures of Chang’s field worker paintings, including thumbnail sketches, preliminary drawings, color studies, under-paintings, and finished works. But it also goes beyond that, and gives proper due attention to the other themes in Chang’s oeuvre, from his still lifes to landscapes, from his self-portraits to candid paintings of friends and family, and from his depictions of fellow artists at work to his magnificent biographical interiors. In all, this 112 page volume contains more than 70 full-color images of Chang’s artwork, interspersed with essays and commentary by Thomas Valenti, President of the Allied Artists of America in New York City; Max Ginsburg, artist, illustrator, and popular instructor at the Art Students League in New York; Steve Hauk, Director of the Hauk Fine Arts Gallery in Pacific Grove, California; and from Warren Chang himself.
This is just the latest in a series of high-quality, hardcover books from Flesk Publications dedicated to important American representational artists. Other painters previously profiled by Flesk include Harvey Dunn and James Bama, two other master storytellers who turned from illustration to the fine arts. Warren Chang: Narrative Paintings is currently only available directly from Flesk, as a signed edition, with a worldwide distribution date set for March 1, 2013.
In this period, as representational artwork is once again gaining in recognition and value, Warren Chang is a very important artist. Though he is informed and influenced by the past, he is very much an artist of the present, and also serves as a bellwether for where today’s up-and-coming, academically-trained students might seek the messages to be borne by the vehicle of their technique. It is no surprise, the accolades Chang has garnered in the short time he has been a fine artist, nor that a straight-forward exhibition catalog would be enough to display his accomplishments.
For those who appreciate representational painting and the art of visual storytelling, Warren Chang: Narrative Paintings would be a welcome addition to one’s library collection.
¹ Sturges, Hollister, Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition, (Josyln Art Museum, Omaha, NE, 1982), p. 8.
Warren Chang: Narrative Paintings is now also available at Amazon.com.