Friday, December 18, 2020

The Art of the Christmas Tree

Gold abstract drawings of Christmas trees on a black background.

To most people, Christmas decorations are a wonder to behold – the lights, color, and sparkle are simply enchanting. But, is it Art? I believe most people consider theirs to be a work of Art, but Christmas tree images are almost non-existent in the fine art world. Nevertheless, artistically-minded Christmas tree lovers have found ways to be creative and, at times controversial, in their tree creations. And their visions have made their way into the public sphere for all to enjoy or abhor. 

An illustration of an 1848 engraving showing the British royal family around their tree.
There is a very good reason why there aren’t depictions of Christmas trees that date many centuries in the past– the trees as we know them simply haven’t been around that long. The rise of the modern Christmas tree has been credited to Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. He was German, and there they had been decorating evergreen trees since the 16th century. He introduced the tradition to England and, in 1848, an engraving of the royal family around their tree was widely published. Spurred on by the popularity of the Queen and the vastness of her empire at the time, the use of Christmas trees quickly spread worldwide. So, it was a piece of engraved art that was the catalyst for our current beloved trees.

An Art Deco style drawing of a woman in a coat with a large white fur collar standing by a Christmas tree.
Art Deco tree
Even though Christmas trees became increasingly fashionable, artwork depicting them remained mostly limited to kitschy greeting cards and advertisements for many decades. And then came the design explosion that was Art Deco in the 1920s. This was a radical shift from conventional ways of looking at fashion, housewares, architecture, and more. Sleekly modern stylized images were all the rage during this prosperous era. Glamorous people standing by abstract trees became a popular Christmas look. The glitz of Art Deco, however, soon wore off under the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II. Glam gave way to homespun images and all-out Americana as people longed for better times and optimism in the future waned. No one could portray these “All-American” values better than Norman Rockwell. In his lifetime (which spanned much of the 20th century), he painted thousands of images full of homespun humor and affection for the average citizen. They appeared on magazine covers, advertisements, and calendars – they were ubiquitous in pop culture. The world he portrayed might not have been familiar to many Americans, but it was at least aspirational. His Christmas-themed works are full of conventional trees and families, but he includes witty twists that can bring a smile.
Painting by Norman Rockwell showing a man sitting on a step ladder by a tree. He is entangled in Christmas lights.

Traditional tree images seemed to rule the day throughout the 1950s. Until 1959, is. That year, Hallmark cards (in a fit of high-brow optimism) commissioned the famous surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, to make some Christmas cards. When they came out in 1960, there was an audible outcry. It seems the public was not quite ready for his vision of a butterfly Christmas tree. Or comic camels. Or headless lute players. I, personally, like the butterfly tree. 

At the same time that Hallmark was managing its Dali situation, the aluminum tree came into the mainstream. I wrote about this tree’s brief heyday in my blog last week. I haven’t been able to find any artwork depicting this tree, aside from basic advertising renditions. It’s my belief that the best illustrations of these trees are in family photo albums.

A painting by Salvador Dali that shows a Christmas tree made of butterflies.
Dali butterfly tree
I'm going to fast-forward to the 1980s because this is when begin to take an interesting turn. For decades leading up to this time, Christmas decorations were all over private and public spaces. Whole neighborhoods lit up. Stores had elaborate displays inside and in their store windows on city promenades. Hotels were ablaze with lights and shiny decorations. Towns and cities, both urban and rural, had their community Christmas tree, and families came to ooh and ah as they were lit. But these were all usually very conventional decorations – heavy on the Christmas ornaments, snow (real or fake), maybe some reindeer or Santa (or even a Grinch or two), and lights, lights, lights. But, by the 80s, people began to take some risks in pursuit of something new for their Christmas installations. Instead of a standard tree, many places welcomed more conceptual Christmas decorations. 

A Christmas tree hanging in a green room. It has a beam of blue light projecting from its base.
In 1988, the world-renowned Tate Britain museum in arts-rich London decided to turn over their annual  Christmas tree display to a series of contemporary artists. In recent years, the artwork seems to have migrated outdoors, but for 23 uninterrupted years, Londoners were regaled with some mighty interesting trees. Or, more correctly, most of  those years there was some sort of tree – a couple of years the artists’ visions were of no tree at all. Here are pictures of every year. My choice for worst-dressed is 2006; Fairy genitals just don’t say “Christmas” to me. 

Whether the Tate Britain was an innovator or acting in response to a growing movement in the art community, I don’t know. But, since then alternative Christmas tree displays have spread around the world with spectacular results. Interestingly, hotels seem to have taken on the job of showcasing certain artists (like this one in London), while municipalities have embraced Christmas trees made of alternative materials and/or carrying specific messages. This, then, is where modern Christmas tree Art can be found. And, just like Hallmark’s Dali debacle, not all the efforts are appreciated. Back in 2014, artist Paul McCarthy unveiled his bright green, inflatable abstract Christmas tree in posh Plaza Vendome, Paris. Unfortunately (and, purposefully), it bore a striking resemblance to a very particular type of sex toy. The display only lasted two days. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure some Parisians are still upset about it. See it for yourself here.

An inflatable iridescent Christmas tree standing by some windows. There are lots of silver baubles hanging from the ceiling.Jack Irving tree 2019.
Jack Irving Christmas tree at the W London hotel

There are so many amazing examples of these Christmas tree installations that I cannot choose just a couple to direct you to, so I’m just going to provide a series of links for you to browse through at your leisure:

Now that we are firmly in the 21st century, it should come as no surprise that many of the modern tree designs are high tech art. Check out some here and here (this one includes a flying Christmas tree).

This article talks about a show in Boston last year by the modern artist Hyman Bloom. It combined Christmas tree paintings with those of corpses (not sure I follow that line of connectivity).

Here are some 2014 Christmas tree installations from around the world.

Santa dancing across a picture of a Christmas tree.
Here are some of the best from 2016.

And this is what they look like for 2020.

No matter where your artistic preferences lie, you can find something to like during the holiday season. And, at this time, when we are all ready to get this horrible year behind us, we need all the beauty (or whimsy) we can get. 

Happy Holidays and here’s to a better New Year.

Submitted by Pam


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