When we experience a masterpiece, perhaps a fugue by Bach, or a painting by Rembrandt, our respect makes it hard to imagine them as anything but successful from the moment of inception. The great works of the past seem to us now as solid as monuments and as magical as if they sprang into being whole. It is easy to believe that they have always been admired. But nearly every creative work, no matter how grand it might become, begins small: perhaps the observation of a passing moment of beauty or feeling, or an insight that begs for development. It grows by trial and error, accompanied by great frustration. When finished, its first presentation to the audience is marked by uncertainty and apprehension. Experienced artists know that every presentation will be followed by criticism.
Works that survive the hurly burly of contemporary competition to become regularly applauded might seem to be safely accepted into the canon, that is, the collection of masterworks taught to each succeeding generation. But the path is not always straight. The compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach fell into obscurity after his death. We have them now because they were rescued: their qualities were recognized and promoted decades later by other composers. Rembrandt’s career took him from youthful stardom to old-age neglect. He died impoverished, his work out of fashion. His artistic contribution was contested for more than a hundred years, until the nineteenth century. Then he was re-discovered by rebellious young artists, who adopted him as a hero: the master of authentic feeling. We still think of him that way today. But his comeback in that period dismayed many of the older masters who ran European academies. They thought Rembrandt’s work a terrible model to follow: it flouted classical principles; it was sloppy and dark. The academic masters not only lost the argument, but also lost their place in the canon. In the ensuing century, their works would fall from grace, get taken off the walls of great museums, and be relegated to basement storage. Lately, though—in my lifetime—those academics have been restored to view and re-examined, after long obscurity, because a new generation of artists and scholars are making a case for them. The wheel of fortune turns.
The tools of art suffer their ups and downs, as much as the artists. Cameron Carpenter is an organist, playing a grand instrument that was, during Bach’s lifetime, the most complex type of machine in Europe. Its starring role has changed through the centuries, though, as new music and instruments were developed. Through his passion and virtuosity, Carpenter aims to restore its centrality in music, to modernize it, for the contemporary audience. You are here tonight to enjoy his music, and also to hear his case. When practiced at its highest level, art is an argument for what is important in our experience of the world.
Painting is dead. Since 1839. So claimed the painter Paul Delaroche in that year, upon seeing the first exhibition of daguerreotypes in Paris. Of course, the matter isn’t settled yet. Art forms may come and go, but Delaroche has not yet been proved right. In Newlin Foyer you can see an exhibition of works by the artists of Zeuxis, a group of painters devoted to still life. We—for I am one of them—take our name from an ancient hero of art. Zeuxis worked in Greece, about 2400 years ago. He was famous for his illusionistic skill, and there is a tale that he depicted grapes so well that birds flew down to peck the painting. Since his era, still life painting has cycled through periods of high and low regard—even falling into utter neglect for centuries, only to be restored. Since photography was invented nearly two centuries ago, critics have questioned the relevance of any and all painting, but the art form has shown a stubborn persistence. We believe in its vitality, and in its relevance for a contemporary audience. It’s up to us to prove it, and up to you to see it and decide—for now.
H.W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of Art and Chair of Art History & Studio Art programs
Sheldon Tapley was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela to British parents. He was raised in Europe and North America. He has taught at Centre College since 1983, and held the Paul L. Cantrell Professorship of Art from 2002-2005. In 2005 he was named Stodghill Professor of Art. Tapley is a nationally recognized artist whose paintings are held in museum, academic, corporate, and private collections across the United States. In the spring of 2004, the Evansville Museum of Art presented a major retrospective exhibit of Tapley’s art, displaying thirty of his still-life works from the last ten years.
American Artist magazine published one of his large still-life paintings on its cover in November 1999 along with a feature article inside. In that article the writer asserts that Tapley “masterfully blends hard-earned classical technique with a vision that is thoroughly modern and personal.” The New Yorker reviewed his 1998 show at Tatistcheff Gallery in New York City, commenting that the “works are intelligently composed and executed with polished skill.”
At the beginning of his career in the early 1980s, Tapley was a printmaker and abstractionist working with bold colors and textures. Gradually, he returned to the direct observation that made his first experiences in art exciting. A desire to describe his own surroundings led him to paint the landscape, making modern realist images that won wide praise in a series of exhibitions at Linda Schwartz Gallery. In the mid-90′s, the artist changed his focus again, creating the energetic still-life images for which he is now known.
Artwork: “Dust” by Sheldon Tapley. Oil on panel, 16 x 20 inches