My father is a construction contractor, but not the kind you probably think of when you hear the term. He actually built houses and small apartment buildings all alone, except for subcontractors for plumbing and electrical as well as the occasional helper (including me). And during a remodel of a very expensive house 15 years ago, the owner gave him a painting that had been sitting out in her carport. I don’t know why she gave it to my father other than that she didn’t want it. Maybe she thought he would like it because it does have to do with war and my father did fight in the Korean War. But my father took it and kept it in much better shape than the original owner had.
About five years ago, I discovered the painting and it fascinated me. It was so different from anything I had ever seen. I have even coined a term for it: idiosyncratic art. Artists can do a lot of things for us art lovers, but by far, the greatest thing they can do is provide us with an image of who they are. I would say that this is true of some of my favorite writers like William Burroughs and Cervantes. And that seems to be the case with the creator of this painting, Bernard Frouchtben.
There is not a lot of information around about Frouchtben, but all of it is quite positive for reasons that you will see. He was an amateur, listed as a cabinet maker, which is interesting given my father’s background. But he was part of what became something of a movement in the middle of the 20th century: self-taught art. Now it is usually referred to as American Primitive, mostly because of the huge success of Anna “Grandma” Moses, whose work is rightly celebrated for its charm. But I think there is something missing from her work: depth. It’s pleasant, but that’s all. It reminds me very much of amateur painting that was done around the time of the Revolutionary War. I think see deserves her reputation, but it bothers me that almost no one remembers Frouchtben whose work is so much more edifying.
Last month, I wrote an article about him, A Brief Intro to Bernard Frouchtben. In it, I presented a black and white copy of what is probably his most famous painting, Lonely Man on a Lonely Road. Here it is again:
According to Sidney Janis in They Taught Themselves, “The mottled, light-filled, grey blue clouds descend to the horizon where the color deepens to blue, and, merging with the greens of the distant landscape, filters through the maze of trees in peacock colors.” I would love to see the painting in color! But I don’t think it would take away from the lonely feel of the painting.
Florence and Julius Laffal in American Self-Taught Art, described Frouchtben as, “Personal loss may have led him to painting. His style was representational, expressionistic. The artist’s subjects were daily life, history, nature, sadness, people.” John Fabian Kienitz noted in a review of Janis’ book, “In the case of Bernard Frouchtben, the ego appears worth knowing. Here is a man whose later background is one of tragic circumstance. He has rare ability. He is able to transfer his deep personal sorrow to words and oil with graphic and pictorial directness. Frouchtben is the sort of man for whom van Gogh painted his philosophy of beauty as healing force. He is a man worth saving. And it is in his calling our attention to such lost souls that Mr Janis makes his contribution to the literature of contemporary art.”
I am very interested in that sentence, “He is a man worth saving.” Because the painting my father has was so mistreated that it was very nearly lost. And it is in terrible condition now. Part of the canvas is torn and parts of the paint have cracked badly. Apparently, it can be restored properly to its original glory. Even a proper cleaning would show it to be a far more striking piece than it is now. But here it is, which I think provides perhaps a quarter of what you can get out of seeing the painting in person. And that in turn is at most a quarter of what it was originally. It is sad, but it is also a wonderful work of art, even in its current condition:
Tomorrow we go to the Antiques Roadshow. I’m not all that hopeful that anyone there will be able to tell me anything new about the painting or the artist. I give it a 20% chance. But you never know. Regardless, I will report on the experience here. We are taking three other interesting pieces: two paintings and a great pen and ink drawing by a somewhat famous artist. But it is Frouchtben that I most care about.