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September 3, 2007 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Personal Profile: Augustus Firestone and Finalism

It is not often that you come across the beginnings of an art movement right under your nose.

One cold early Friday evening, as I was killing time before that Bob Dylan concert, I popped along to Thistle Hall of all places, where there was a group exhibition by Vincents Art Workshop showcasing some of their latest works. On the far wall there were some paintings that stood out; this was because they were in 3D.

The 3D effect was created using Finalism which represents a modern resurgence of painted sculpture that started at Vincents Art Workshop and its growing. Augustus Firestone’s intriguing works were created on boards using papier-mâché and plaster, which was later painted on top of. The effect created is a meeting between traditional painted sculpture and painting on a 2D surface. Later I sat down with Firestone so he could give me the run down on Finalism.

Firstly, what is Finalism and when did it start? According to Firestone, “Finalism started in late 2005 and is based on traditional painted sculpture, which is an idea that was used back in ancient Greece and Rome and cultures before that. It was an instinctive natural part of their culture, which was to paint sculpture. It was only during the renaissance that by the time they’d picked up sculpture again, that all the paint had gone off all the ancient pieces of work from Greece and Rome and so they just started not putting paint on their sculptures. That’s why you never see a Michelangelo or Leonardo sculpture with painting.”

What?! I thought to myself, painted classical sculptures? But weren’t they all white marble and stone? But as the Finalism website, www. sculpturepainted.com, points out: “In ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman times sculptures and relief were painted. Today most of this paint has weathered away and with it the idea of painting on sculpture or relief has become lost.” This seems incredible – most of those Greek and Roman statues we see in museums and in the movies were actually supposed to have been painted!

Indeed, the producers of the excellent miniseries Rome may have laboured to provide historical realism, but I don’t remember seeing painted statues while watching it last year. To verify all this, I looked around to see what else was coming to light about the use of paint in the ancient world. I managed to discover that it is truly a revolution, as Harvard University of all places has an exhibition from September 22 through to January 20 next year, titled Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity.

As their blurb states: “Imagine a stroll through ancient Athens among colorful statues and brightly decorated temples—in contrast with the white marble of the ruins that survive today. This exhibition presents full-size copies of Greek and Roman sculpture whose painted decoration, faded over the millennia, has been painstakingly reconstructed.”

At the forefront of this art revolution is the Finalism movement, started right here in Wellington. I asked Firestone what the main catalyst was for modern painted sculpture.

“Well it basically started pretty much here at Vincents Art Workshop. I had dabbled in it like many other artists throughout art history with painted sculpture, but never realised that no main group had ever done painted sculpture as a main focus. So I had a chat to Aaron Frater who works here, and asked him if he had seen much sculptures with paint on it, and he said no. So we sort of said, well, let’s do it together, and so I started the website and now we have 20 members from around the world who are part of it now.”

These members are from places as far apart as America, Egypt, England, Australia and Lebanon. It is an intimate community of painters, sharing a common passion for sculpting and painting. This is evidenced by the membership of Gamal Abd El Nasser of Egypt, who, after being found on the Internet, was so passionate about painted sculpture that he now runs a school in Alexandria that focuses on painted sculpture. Community is important for the Finalists, as Firestone explained, “Gamal introduced us to a woman called Maha in Lebanon and she also does painted sculptural relief. Maha was in Lebanon when Israel was bombing it last year, she disappeared and we completely freaked out thinking that this was our first member who had been killed, but luckily Gamal sent her some money and got her out of the country.”

Looking at modern painted sculpture, it seems basic so far; it is not as detailed or intricate like a lot of other art forms. But Firestone was at pains to point out that “all art movements started out in an infant style stage; early impressionism wasn’t what was later on down the track when it first started. Picasso did Cubism, but created it in a far more highly developed way later on. What is going to happen with our group is exactly the same thing, we’re at that early stage now and people know that. If you look at art history enough you know that this is something that is going to be very big.”

This is a bold statement – the belief of a group of people who think they can create an art movement in this day and age. What does the arts intelligentsia make of this? Arrogant upstarts or artistic revolutionaries?

Firestone was all too aware of what the establishment might think. As this part-time househusband bounced his 17-month-old son, he explained that, “at first it was a little hostile, it was sort of like scoff ‘you can’t start an art movement’, but I sort of said back, well, yes I can, and many artists previous to me have produced art movements…

I do feel like I am shaking the foundations of the intelligentsia art elite because they’d never noticed it before. I’d noticed it because I’d done my fair share of study as well, I’ve read as many books as they have, I’ve been to the best art schools. Basically I saw that there was something missing and that was a focused group of artists who focus on painted sculpture…”

You may think that this is just an isolated group of people who will get nowhere with their art as it has all been done before. You also may think that this is just a cynical form of art hype sparked by creativity and ideas that just aren’t worthy of becoming gigantic. But Firestone pointed out that “most art movements were small little enclave of artists who had a revolutionary idea, such as Cubists, Dadaists, impressionists.”

If this modern art revolution actually does have the potential to grow into something a lot bigger than it is now, then how is it going to achieve this? Just like every other art movement before it, it has to find some sort of impetus. In the past this has come from things as diverse as conquerors, religion, trade and the explosion of philosophy. This was best evidenced by the renaissance, and of course, by wealthy patrons and modern philosophies that drove modernist groups such as the Cubists, the Dadaists and Surrealists.

If Finalism is to grow, it would be best for it to use another revolutionary form of information – the Internet.

“Well the Internet is proving to be incredibly successful, far more successful than I envisaged it to be. We’re getting interest from overseas galleries, unfortunately not as many galleries over here. I think there’s a Tall Poppy syndrome that is here in New Zealand.

“But what has happened is that the web has created the whole world to be in one place and be able to develop their art and push this new media to levels that may not have been truly explored yet. This is the fascinating thing, this is the problem with the Tall Poppies, the people are so stuck in the old way of thinking that the web and the new media have revolutionised things so much for artists, and in Finalism being a ground breaking group on the Internet, it is going to be fascinating to then see what happens in 10 years’ time. A good example would be Second Life: Second Life has multitudes of galleries on there, and as a second person you can actually walk through galleries, it’s really awesome. I think we are at the tip of the iceberg… People are now watching the Internet more than they’re watching TV now… I hope that Finalism will be part of that Internet revolution, we haven’t even entered some places. We are an international art movement but we aren’t even in China yet. We are not even in Africa yet.”

My meeting with Augustus Firestone, despite being brief, was definitely enlightening. I asked him if he had any final words about Finalism for me to take away and ponder. Putting his infant son back into his pushchair, he said, “Watch this space. We are at the beginning of something big and if you do have a Tall Poppies attitude, get rid of it, [or otherwise] we’re going to get rid of it for you.”

For more information about Harvard University’s Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity check out:

http://www.artmuseums.harvard.edu/exhibitions/sackler/godsInColor.html

And the Finalism website: www.sculpturepainted.com

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