Art is more than just a pretty painting

Apr 7, 2011

Yeffe Kimball, Fawn and Spirits, 1942, oil on canvas, 19 in x 29 in, Portland Art Museum, gift of Dr. William K. Livingston.

I recently fell in love with this painting at the Portland Art Museum.  I tried to find more information about it on the internet but couldn't even locate an image.  I eventually contacted the museum, who is permitting me to use this image for my post. 

Information on the artist Yeffe Kimball (? - 1978) is scarce on the internet, but the little information I did find was fascinating and quite controversial.  Kimball,  who is a noted figure in the modern Native American arts community, is believed to have fabricated her ancestral connection to the Osage tribe.  This raises a lot of questions for me on how an artist's personal life impacts our opinion of their work.  Here we have an example of an artist whose artistic career greatly benefited from her cultural claims. Her works have hung in numerous museums and galleries, some dedicated solely to Native American art.   

I would be lying if I were to say that this doesn't bother me.  If Kimball doesn't have any Native American roots, then her work shouldn't be recognized as modern Native American art. 

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist),1950, National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1976.

I realize that a lot of great art comes with controversy, controversy related to the art itself and controversy pertaining to the individual artist.  I watched the film Pollock for the first time just last week.  I have always been a huge fan of Jackson Pollock's art, but, while watching the movie,  I was reminded again of the details surrounding his tragic death.  While drinking and driving, he killed himself and a passenger in his car.  I struggle with the fact that his reckless actions took another life, and yet his painting, No. 5, 1948,  sold for $140 million dollars in 2006- the highest price tag for a painting to date. 

Art is not meant to be black and white, I get it.  And, as much as we like to talk about "pretty" art, sometimes we need to ask the hard questions.  So, what do you think?  Should the details of an artist's personal life have any impact in our response to their art?


Katherine Statsenko said...

I am torn. It's wrong that she lied but it's like when women hid behind man's name because womens' work wasn't valued as much or the time when women weren't allowed to write nor speak. So maybe that was her only chance of ever having her work excepted into the galleries. I think she did it because there was probably no other way for people to take her seriously.

Another thing, I love Pollock but let's be honest. Even though most "men artists" with whom I have talked with don't really addmit, but Pollock was influenced by his wife Lee. She was actually more successful than he was. And it wasn't until she took him under her wing that he started flying and became popular. Lee had a lot to do with Pollock's work - he stole her style but made it his own. Art is so complicated.

rachael said...

I'm glad you wrote this post. Sometimes people forget that creating art is an outlet for people, some who are filled with great pain and facing struggles, and their personal lives aren't always as glamorous as we'd like to imagine.

I agree with Katherine that perhaps fabricating her heritage was her only way to break through a few doors. Perhaps she was inspired by the tribe's art and wanted to be associated with them, told a white lie to one person, and it just rolled out of hand...(I am giving her the benefit of the doubt haha).

And yes, Lee Krasner was amazing. Pollock was a madman and a drunk. Such is life.

only daydreaming said...

I suppose it depends on how much you love an artist's work - is my first thought.

Right or wrong, Yeffe Kimball's painting had me going "whoaaa" the moment I landed on your blog.

I'm not sure what my answer would be just yet, but you've got me thinking. Great post.

annekata said...

I've always had trouble separating the art from the artist and Pollock is a good example. I saw the movie a few years ago and remember it well.
Really enjoyed this post and it certainly made me think.

April said...

Great post- I will be thinking about this. I do know if it was something I was going to hang in my home I would like it to have a background that I felt good about to go with it. However, when visiting a museum, I love the diversity and viewing art while knowing the backgrounds- nice or not- makes it that much more interesting.

resolute twig said...

Great post and discussion. For me often details of the the artists life make me more drawn to a piece of art. And I tend to love a piece more when I feel that personal connection as well as like the art itself.

Becky said...

It is a difficult one but I think that the things about an artist that might make you not like them as a person are also the things that make the artist who they are so if they were a 'better' person they wouldn't make the same art. I often like the art someone has created without liking the person who created it.
But if the person has done something really bad purely to gain success then I would probably think twice about giving them the statisfaction of having their art looked at and talked about. My boyfriend just told me about a female artist who got a lot of recognition for her art based on how she was sexually abused by her father but my boyfriend knows someone who knows them and it's a lie. I think this crosses a line that would make me stay away from her art but I would still be able to see whether visually it was good or not.
I could go on forever with different thoughts about this but I'll stop now!
Good topic :)

LIZARDMAN! said...

she cheated to get more views, but the painting is still good imo

Frederica Hall said...

I studied with Yeffe and she was a native american
I would like to know where you heard that she wasn't

Cathy said...

Frederica, my initial findings were excerpts from books found online. In 2011, a relative of Yeffe Kimball wrote me and said that the family has not been able to prove a Native American connection based on family records and accounts.

Anonymous said...

Aunt Yeffe kept a lot of things about herself private. For instance, we didn't learn until after she died (after several years of battling cancer) that she had lied about her age. I read a book about 3 years ago--sorry, I can't remember the title--that said she was not half Osage as she had claimed. However, I know that she knew a lot about the culture and was a strong force for Native American rights throughout her adult life. She was interviewed on TV once and asked what she thought about the plan to give the Native Americans part of the land in Palm Springs. Her reply was that they once owned ALL of the land, making it clear that she thought the offer was not enough.

She was a very complicated woman and a very talented artist. Your blog brings up some very good questions which can also be directed at any type of art, including literature.

My uncle, to whom Yeffe was married, and who just died this year, certainly didn't know the truth. He once said he would like to write an autobiography of their life together and the title would be "I married a wild Indian" (obviously, this was said many years ago before PC speak came to be!).

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