Art that celebrates the multi-faceted Christmas season is alive and well at Art, Artists, Artwork. Part of me was beginning to think that the world of fine art had left Christmas aside with the advent of modernity, that Christmas stories and symbolism that were so prevalent in art since the Medieval times and was so pervasive all though Romanticism had by now been relegated to the realm of “fantasy” art or to “old-fashioned religious stuff.” I am pleased to say that I speculated entirely in the wrong. Indeed, not only do AAA artists celebrate that favoured holiday, they have broadened the boundaries of the Yuletide season so that traditional events are celebrated along side the feelings associated with them.
Let’s begin by looking at a couple of fine art representations of Babbo Natale by an artist appropriately named Mandy Joy. The first, “Silent Night,” (below) is fine art not only for a wonderful rendering of the famous character, but also for the many ways in which Mandy Joy tips her hat to so many others. The title itself is a double nod, once to the famous Christmas hymn of the same title, then also to Van Gogh’s famous painting, “Starry Night,” which is also pictured below. The allusion to Van Gogh is made clear by the visual quote of it in Joy’s painting. However, unlike Van Gogh’s work which features a small village, Joy has placed her depiction of Saint Nick at his North Pole home, as shown by the rolling dunes of snow that unfold almost seamlessly out of the rolling swirls of stars, perhaps combined with wind-blown snow? In addition, Joy pays respectful homage to the famous Coca-Cola Claus, but with a wonderful twist: The Coke Santa is shown with an expression of pure “joy” on his face, whereas Joy’s depiction does not. If you look closely at him, you see an expression more of “welcome” than of joy—certainly not joyless, but the emphasis in Joy’s work is on Pere Noel’s sincere reception of viewers to his home, in contrast to his clandestine visits to our homes. Joy’s work is weighted with light-hearted meaning.
Click images for enlarged crisp clear view.
Joy’s other Santa image, “Snowy Old Saint Nicholas,” shows a somewhat less known tradition of Santa Claus, at least, as far as North America is concerned. His suit, for example, is not the red one we might be familiar with, but one that is more from northern European. He is also framed by deciduous trees, rather than the coniferous ones we might expect, but they are, nonetheless, decorated for the season. Still, Mandy Joy doesn’t leave us stranded in a European tradition, but brings us home again with the allusion in the title to a North American Christmas carol “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.”
“Another Christmas favourite revisited in fine art is the Christmas angel depicted by Romanian artist Ottilia-Bogdan Cormos, who offers two reverse oil paintings on glass, a technique that gives her art an “other world” quality not easily captured any other way. What strikes me is the stylization of the angels that seems at once, very traditional and also very modern. Her use of colour in both is powerfully Christmas-esque, but it’s interesting that the angel is seldom the focus of a Christmas scene, but is more often a lesser part, while it is the focus in Cormos’ art. Still, these angels are rendered with the traditional submission to God who is not depicted and is yet distinctly present on an emotional level.
Remaining in northern Europe a moment longer, we can see Dasmang’s “The Nutcracker,” which is still about as traditional as you can get for Christmas, but Dasmang also works in some “new” things with this old tradition. Since Dasmang’s art is expressionism, viewers must look as much at their own reactions as they do the art. It is Dasmang’s negative space, the areas that are not the subject, that offer the emotional component to his work. Sometimes his negative spaces make statements of their own; other times, they are just part of the scene. In this case, given the use of colour with the lighter blues toward the top of the painting, and the darker blues toward the bottom—but always happy blues, not depressive ones—it’s the feeling of the childlike joys of the holiday that come across. In addition to that, however, the more abstract background gives the nutcracker subject of the painting a greater sense of being a three-dimensional object, as though he were able to simply step off the canvas and into our own world. Click images for a better view.
Stepping for a time out of the nice and into the naughty, we have “Santa Baby” by Janna Doughty—not “naughty,” but not far away either. She tips her hat to the Christmas song of the same name that was made so very popular in 1953 by the sultry singing sensation Eartha Kitt. Then, in something of the tradition of Norman Rockwell, who was also painting in 1953, Doughty surrounds the painting’s subject with the names of the many would–more-than-willingly-be beaux in the negative space of her painting, as though all the names were written on a wall of fame for her own recollection. Even the subject, while distinctly more risque than anything Rockwell would have employed, is nonetheless reminiscent of Rockwell’s style, and even calls to mind the girls of WWII nose art for military aircraft. Altogether clever.
Naughty or not, Doughty isn’t alone in the Christmas Risque department. Brandon Scott has proved himself to be a bit more than mildly cheeky in presenting “The Present” to viewers. It would be Scott’s style to include a splash of colour on the face of his subject—her eyes or lips, but clearly, it is not her face we are to find interesting in this more whimsical piece. (Wiping beads of perspiration from brow) That’s enough on this fine piece of . . . wonderful art.
The Christmas Tree is also remembered in the fine art of Milly Martionou. Her style of painting is “abstract impressionism,” which means that viewers are offered the impression of an image that is rendered, most often, by the use of extreme pointillism—that is, small dots that work together visually to create an image. Her “Forest in the City” does just that: it gives viewers an abstracted image of a Christmas tree that becomes visible only at a distance from the painting. In this case, the tree is shown with all the usual colourful Christmas trimmings.
As we move a bit more away from tradition and more into the emotional components, we begin with one image that, from where I’m standing, should have been a symbol for Christmas always, but never was so far as I’ve experienced. It is the symbol for one attribute of God; it is the symbol for peace; it is the symbol for love and affection, and can also be the symbol for mourning and loss, all of which are ideas related to Christmas: it is the dove, in this case, portrayed by Dawn Rodger in her painting, “Peace on Earth.” She presents viewers with an image of two snow-white doves receiving comfort–perhaps against the cold–from each other. They are contrasted with a charming, dark blue evening sky with faint stars beautifully rendered as series of concentric circles of starlight. It is no challenge to see in this single painting all the symbolism that I listed above, and yet, they are not presented visually. I’ve never seen something like this before—at least, not with such poignance, and, of course, the phrase, “peace on earth,” is quoted directly out of the biblical Christmas story. The colour of this painting alone is all about the Christmas story for me.
Steven Christian Reed offers his viewers a starkly impressionist winter scene in “Fallen Trees.” It is not so much a Christmas painting as it is a winter painting, and yet, there is something of the wonderment of the season (winter, not Christmas) that is magical on its own but that cannot be separated from Christmas either, and it is that perplexing magical picture that makes this scene so very Christmas-like without any of the usual accompaniments. It is a pictorial version of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” without ever alluding to that famous song, and, in fact, the simple view Reed presents reminds me of many a trek through snow-covered glades and glens.
For something entirely abstract, Evie Zimmer paints no image whatever, but the feelings for Christmas come pouring in via her use of exciting colours and rhythms. She refers to her painting, “Pucker,” as her “candy painting” and says that it’s “colourful like a Christmas tree.” I am reminded of those jars of hard candies that we used to covet as kids. Mom never had them in the house, but Grandma always did—every year! The swirling colours and mixed shapes. Ah, yes! This is Christmas.
Then there’s her painting called “Overflow,” which is likely a reference to Psalm 23: 5: You prepare a banquet table for me in the presence of my own vicious enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup of blessing overflows (paraphrased). Of this painting, Zimmer says, “to me, [it’s] about being grateful for all that I have. Even though at times it doesn’t seem like much but then, I think about it, and I have a lot.” In this image, I can see the flow of blessing that seems to pour right off the canvas and into her various viewers’ lives. It is a painting purely about how a person can feel about Christmas.
Bringing us back to something less abstract, we have “Three Wishes” by Susan Doyle. (See further down) There is no snow, no tree, no Santa, no angel, no visible cheer, no gifts—nothing to speak of Christmas, and yet, for me, it speaks of Christmas as much as any of the others I’ve discussed. I knew a budding artist when I was 12; we were both in grade 6, and this little girl I befriended could really draw and colour; her name was Wendy. One wall of our classroom was covered with seven poster-sized bulletin boards on which, during most of the school year, we were to display different attempts of colourful homework. For the Christmas season, however, our teacher designed a contest. The class was divided into small groups, and each was to use one of these bulletin boards to illustrate what Christmas meant to us. Wendy and I weren’t in the same group, but I remember vividly that I had to start all alone because every member of my group was gone for the beginning of this project. I drew a large, lounge chair, a decorated Christmas tree and a few gifts. It was all I knew about Christmas at the time.
Everyone in Wendy’s group knew that they’d win this little contest. They used her design and created a gorgeous Nativity scene. The faces of the several characters were obscured in the same way that the girl’s face is obscured in Doyle’s painting: rounded, simplified, subtle and charming. Yes, Wendy’s group did win the contest. She knew that she was an artist to be; I learned that I really loved her art. It was then that I began exploring this wonderful world to which my contribution would be made through writing alone. It hasn’t diminished my passion for art, that I can’t paint or draw too well myself, although I am always given to trying. Doyle’s painting helped me remember as much as Wendy’s depiction of the Nativity let me learn how much I love art. Of all these Christmas scenes we’ve examined together, Susan Doyle’s is the one right now that I’d like most to bring home.
As I conclude, I would like to point out one last thing about Christmas art such as these pieces we have looked at together, and that is that seasonal paintings are NOT at all like the Christmas songs we know and love so well, but (for so many of us) ONLY during the Christmas season. A work of pictorial art is completely different from songs. A painting of the nutcracker, a Christmas angel, doves in love, a winter scene—even a painting of Pere Noel himself can be displayed year round. It’s a contrast that I don’t understand between the music and the paintings; why would the music be so necessarily seasonal only, but not pictorial art? And, the truth is that I don’t have an answer. I suspect it has to do with the idea that a piece of pictorial art can be looked at, appreciated, studied, analyzed, loved and then set aside while there is conversation or meals or whatever else may be going on, while music, by its nature, consumes time that pictorial art does not. That seems plausible. But whatever else it might be, I know that when I buy a Christmas piece, you’ll be able to see it in my living room year ‘round, because you can.
About the Writer
A. J. Mittendorf does not have a degree in art, but he does have equal credits—perhaps more—in art history, appreciation and interpretation, and he has continued to study art on his own since the end of his university days. He is a long-time educator, having taught high school and university courses in both Canada and the U. S. He is also a poet, an actor, and a musician with symphony experience. The arts are his passion, and he longs to keep all of them in the forefront of our society