The New Avant-Garde

Michael John Angel is an Englishman who’s been living in Florence for decades. He is also the founder of Angel Art Academy, one of a few Florentine academies once again teaching the fine art of representation painting.

Today, Angel Academy and its fellows are the new avant-garde in the art world – a well-kept secret in the big money world of art collectors and dealers specializing in ‘modern’ or ‘conceptual’ art.  The truth is, however, that after a hiatus of almost a century, painters are once again being trained in the classical art tradition that most of us associate with the ‘Old Masters.’

MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL: I studied representational painting in Florence, apprenticed to the great Pietro Annigoni for nearly four years in the late 1960s. At this time, Annigoni was painting a fresco, The Deposition and Resurrection of Christ, in the church at Ponte Buggianese, about 50 kilometres west of Florence. Also at this time, Annigoni was painting the portraits of the Shah and Fara Diba of Iran and his second portrait of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain (commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, London).

REGINA: What prompted you to start the Angel Academy?

MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL: As an art student, desperate to learn how to paint representational paintings, I was very much aware of the paucity of such training in the universities and art colleges. Realising that such training can be taught today, step by step, just as it was in the 19th century, Lynne Barton and I founded the Angel Academy of Art, Florence, in 1997. Before this, I was briefly co-director with Daniel Graves at the Florence Academy of Art.

REGINA: It seems as if the suppression of the age-old artistic instinct of man to create representation art has been nearly complete in the intellectual West for over a hundred years. As an artist and a teacher, can you speculate on why this might be?

MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL:  There are many reasons. Initially, economically, the art dealers needed a more affordable painting to offer to larger markets than those who could afford established Academy paintings (Millais, for example, was receiving £35,000 a year, Sargent between 30,000 and 40,000; Meissonier was paid 50,000 francs per painting—this at a time when a police inspector or a shop clerk made £100 a year).

The middle-middle and the lower-middle classes were a growing market. These less expensive paintings did not require such intensive training to produce, and over a few generations, the academic discipline fell away. The Art Establishment, no longer al corrente with the aspects of good representational painting, could only disparage it.

REGINA: It seems that interest in representational art and in learning its techniques has been slowly gathering steam for the last two decades and is now in fact very much on the rise.

MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL:  This is definitely my experience. Since the beginning of time, people have drawn representational images on the cave walls—there is something basic in us that drives this. Naturally, as time progresses, one wants to get better and better at it, as one does with everything else. As more and more people see that this fine old art is being taught again, and taught effectively, they want to learn it.

REGINA: Are there galleries or online sources where buyers can find this work?

MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL:  There are many galleries that specialise in representational art, but the artist must research his/her markets: what sells well in the southwestern states of the U.S. (The Working Cowboy, The Noble Indian) will not sell in New York; what sells in Germany (a little kinky) will not sell in Chicago.

To find these galleries, one must look to magazines that specialise in representational painting—Fine Art Connoisseur, and American Art Collector, for example. The galleries advertise in these. There is also Google, of course.

REGINA: Are churches buying sacred representational art?

MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL:  Several of our alumni have produced work for various churches: Losana Boyd and Llewellyn Matthews have just finished a joint commission and Martinho Correia painted an Anastasis a couple of years ago. Also, Jason Arkles, an American sculptor resident in Florence, has sculpted many figures for various churches.

“FLORENCE WAS THE CRADLE OF THE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE, the rebirth of realism, back in the 1400s, and it seemed fitting that we should have this new rebirth here too. Besides, I’ve lived here since 1989.” – Michael John Angel

“Nowadays, an unsuccessful painting by Rembrandt (and he painted many bad paintings, along with his great ones) sells for millions on the strength of his name alone, whereas a great Rembrandt that has been removed from the oeuvre (such as the dynamite Man with the Golden Helmet) plummets in price. It is absurd. It’s the same painting.” – MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL  (Artist’s Assistant by Anthony Velazquez)

 “NOW THE ART WORLD HAS GONE FULL CIRCLE, and it is the once affordable work that is touted as the best and is the most expensive.” MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL (Steve Bond by MJ Angel)

“ANOTHER FACTOR IS THE LACK OF PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE REPRESENTATIONAL ARTS; in the old days, it was an part of everybody’s normal schooling. Without an education in representational painting, one cannot know where the difficulties lie, nor talk about it intelligently.” – MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL (Capriccio ceiling by Michael John Angel)

REPRESENTATIONAL ART ENCOURAGES DISCUSSION:  “How effective is the form-modelling, the proportions, the illusion of space? How are the counterpoints, the fugues, the field-colour harmonies, and how do these serve the narrative? Abstract art is meaningless, and therefore anybody can discuss it.” – MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL (Mantodea by Cesar Santos)

“THE LARGER ART WORLD IS STILL ENTRENCHED IN THE ABSTRACT AND THE FASHIONABLE. We are the avant-garde. Fortunately, the dinosaurs are dying out. Representational painting has come a long way in the last 30 years.” – MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL (PHOTO: Matthew Grabelsky with his painting of the Laocoon)

“SINCE THE 19TH-CENTURY ROMANTIC MOVEMENT, the emphasis has been more and more on the importance of the artist, and less and less on the importance of the work of art itself until, in the 21st century, there is often no work of art at all, as with Conceptual Art.” — MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL

“By and large, the churches are not buying sacred art, although there are exceptions. I think a large part of the problem is that the churches and their parishioners do not know that such work is being done again.” MICHAEL JOHN ANGEL (Altarpiece depicting St Francis by Michael John Angel)

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