Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Blazing Away...

Blazing Away…

It was my late friend Donald Wilson who introduced me to the thrift stores, back in what I refer to as their “glory days”.  Unfortunately I never asked him how he started thrifting, but by the time I met him at 17, he was a seasoned veteran.  The difference between the two of us was that he kept things for a while then turned them over for a profit--indeed, this is how he made his living--whereas I tended to keep the best things for, well, for keeps.

As if it were yesterday, I vividly remember going into a Goodwill with him, and finding an amazing painting sitting on a high shelf.  In retrospect, think it had become separated from its near-by frame, but I was so excited I annexed the picture without even thinking about it. 

The remarkable thing about the painting (aside from its price) was the subject--a forest on fire!  I surmised that it was probably a piece of early California art, painted in the field and stretched later, this because the painting wrapped around the sides of the canvas.

An older friend with a healthy appreciation for kitsch had a forest fire lamp that always made me laugh.  A cylinder printed with a design of a forest sat on an elaborate cast iron base while an inner sleeve painted with yellow and red streaks revolved, driven by the heat of the bulb, and gave the illusion of flickering flames. 

Kenneth would make Lucullan little martinis (he had discovered that the vintage blue glass pitcher with a decal of little Shirley Temple made the perfect dry martini if one filled it with “Gin to the chin, Vermouth to the tooth”).  Then with Mabel Mercer on the record player singing Cole Porter (“What’s the use of swank, or cash in the bank galore…”), the forest fire lamp would whirl merrily, and the atmosphere would blossom in a provincial version of Talullah Bankhead's mad Walpurgis Nacht parties of the 1920s.

But martini or no martini, my painting was no piece of kitsch, despite the similarity in fiery subject, and I was--indeed still am--very proud of my acquisition.

My first job out of college when I started trying to make my living by my artistic wits, was as a preview assistant in a local auction house.  One of my most fortuitous buys there was a huge, very simple gilt-wood Victorian frame (gilt over a black clay ground) which, with the addition of a liner, was an exact fit for my forest fire.

The frame cost twice the $10.95 I had paid for the painting, having the liner fabricated cost again as much, and having the painting cleaned by an art conservator took quite a bit of additional coin.

The painting figured in an early ad for my business, and later I built a setting around it for a benefit staged in the grand ballroom of] the Crocker Art Museum

The curator of western paintings smilingly dismissed it as not being of particular importance, which I couldn’t help but think was because it didn’t have a signature by a known California artist, or indeed a signature at all. People tend to get fixated on names, often judging the desirability of an object by the name alone, but somehow I wished for more original thinking from a museum curator.  C'est ça.

"Mid-night Supper--After the Ball" 

But, to my mind the piece was incredibly well painted whoever executed it, and I always held out for someday making a ‘discovery’ about it.

One time in a thrift store I saw a print depicting a forest on fire that looked incredibly similar to my painting; and one year at the great San Francisco Fall Antiques Show a dealer from New Mexico was offering a ‘folk art’ canvas of a forest on fire:  both with the same stand of trees, the smoke and fire billowing in the same direction.  In both cases, an uncanny resemblance.

However, it was the invention of the internet that finally solved the puzzle for me.  In one of those late night coup de foudres I casually searched for “forest fire” and low and behold, found a long impecibly researched article about the history of my painting.

The first surprise was that the original was not American, but had been painted by an artist from the Urals and exhibited at the 1893 Columbia Exposition.  The artist was Alexsi Kuz’Mich and the painting, titled Lesnoi Pozhar (“Forest Fire”) caused quite a stir and was endlessly copied.  Then, in spite of its gargantuan size, the original was somehow lost and the artist was never compensated for it.


Yet another copy dated 1907

It is curious how there is always something especially attractive about Russian art, whether Fabergé cigarette cases or Constructivist pencil drawings or early 19th century crystal chandeliers.  And because of the turmoil the Russian states have been through since before the Revolution, much has ben lost and what remains is very desirable.

A. Sofronova, 1922 (my Mica Ertegun moment)

Of course my painting is not actually “by” Kuz’Mich, but “after”.  Or is it?  Supposedly he painted a number of smaller copies of his piece, and while far-fetched, it’s not impossible that one could have ended up in a thrift store in the provincial capital of California in the early 1970s.

Regardless, the painting is extremely well executed, and tho I was fully prepared to love it strictly on its appeal to me, finding that it has a specific history was extremely satisfying!  And while I might never be able to afford one of those much coveted early 19th century Grand Tour paintings of Mount Vesuvius erupting, by God, I have a painting of a forest on fire.

Now I wonder what ever became of Kenneth’s forest fire lamp..?  Not to speak of his Shirley Temple pitcher, and those marvelous Art Deco cast bronze naked lady candlesticks…

The post card version
in a miniature Victorian gilt wood frame

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