A masterpiece as easy as 1, 2, 3

Don't be ashamed: Even President Eisenhower loved to paint by number

In the 1950s, "paint by number" was a veritable craze, and not just for children. Based on an idea by Leonardo da Vinci to teach painting, kits allowing non-artists to create respectable renditions of everything from housewares to landscapes captured the fancy of consumers all across the country and became a mass marketing phenomenon.

William Bird's new "Paint by Number: The How-To Craze that Swept the Nation" is an engaging, thought-provoking, and visually appealing chronicle of the paint-by-numbers phenomenon. The accompanying book for a new exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, it examines the medium in the context of postwar America's lifestyle, economy, and social values.

As dated and absurdly simplistic as the process seems now, there was a time mid-century in which more Americans had paint-by-number creations than original art decorating their homes. The Eisenhower White House even devoted the corridor outside the Cabinet Room to a gallery of creations in the medium, including several by the president himself.

The craze was orchestrated by Palmer Paint Company owner Max Klein and a San Francisco hobbyist named Dan Robbins, who won third prize in a local art contest with an abstract paint-by-number still life.

The judges were mortified to learn that Robbins's work was created from a kit. However, the scandal brought into focus the possibility for artistic stimulation and accomplishment by the lay person. Originality aside, anyone could be a Rembrandt. Paint by number not only helped affirm the cultural value of art, it democratized it.

However, the medium created a collision between high culture and kitsch that many critics believe began to erode the foundation of what we consider art, referring not only to the abysmal quality of the finished product but to the mechanization of the process and the total absence of originality.

Bird, who curated the Smithsonian exhibition, asserts early on that "paint by number is not art."

But he acknowledges that the medium sets up a situation in which nonartists could learn the process - and, by deviating from it, approach the creation of something original.

Bird's book includes more than 200 paintings - portraits, still lifes, landscapes, advertisements - that illustrate the taste that was marketed to the American public through paint-by-number kits. It also provides two blank paint-by-number pictures on the inside cover flaps for inspired readers to try their own hand. The skylines are appallingly pedestrian, but perhaps that's the point. You provide the paints.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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