Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bouguereau and the Real 19th Century

I just found the most fascinating article. Bouguereau and the Real 19th Century

There's just so much I could say about this.

This article is really long and many people will probably not go to the trouble of reading the entire thing (if any of it). The basic premise:

  1. Academic painter William Bouguereau was among the greatest 19th century artists that the art world had never heard of (until at least after 1990).

  2. Bouguereau's work was lost to history due to a massive conspiracy of art dealers out to make a great deal of money. By defiling Bouguereau's reputation and aggressively marketing modern art, said art dealers caused Bouguereau's work to all but disappear from museums for 50 years. (Note the point of the conspiracy was not really about Bouguereau/defiling Bouguereau, but it was about marketing a product, namely modern art.)
The author is, by the way, a HUGE fan of Bouguereau. A quote from his article, describing his first encounter with a Bouguereau painting:
I walked into the Clark Museum to see their thirty Renoirs, and after leaving the Renoir galleries walked out into a major hall, at the end of which was a painting that grabbed me body and soul. It was a life-size painting of four water nymphs playfully dragging a mythological satyr into a lake against his will. Frozen in place, gawking with my mouth agape, cold chills careening up and down my spine, I was virtually gripped as if by a spell that had been cast. It was so alive, so beautiful and so compelling. Finally, after about fifteen or twenty minutes of soaking up wave after wave of artistic and spiritual ecstasy, I started to take back control of my consciousnessÖ mind started racing with unanswered questions. My first thought was "I haven't felt this way about a work of art since I stood before Michelangelo's David."

I know what he means, that feeling he's talking about, the sensation of being floored by a piece of art on the wall. I wouldn't put it that way, for fear of sounding...well...kinda nutty (admit it, "spiritual ecstasy" is just kind of goofy sounding). But I know that feeling.

[It's that holy shit feeling. Song of the Lark, by Jules Breton gives me that feeling, that sensation. You can't tell by the graphic on the website if you click on the link I've provided, because you'd have to SEE this painting to understand, but it's the sun--Jules Breton captured, really captured--the sun at dusk, when it's big and indescribably red/pink/orange. With oil paint, I'd have though it was impossible. I could stare at this painting for hours and wonder and think and explore ideas and imagine myself in the place of the woman in the painting. This piece is hanging in the Art Institute at Chicago, and I recommend you go there at least once in your lifetime. I'm digressing.]

I'm not going to comment much on the conspiracy theory in this article except to say that I think it sounds a bit outrageous. Artists, like writers and musicians, come and go in popularity. This seems natural to me. I'm not an expert in art history--the most I know about modern art history I learned in Peter's Contemp Trends class, and David's Modern Art History. And that was something like 10 years ago. However, this is another quote from the article:

Do we really want the works of Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning to be representatives of the best of what mankind can produce? They are a crude hoax.
Nevermind that the author of this article misspelled Pollock's last name. He also called him a hoax. Earlier in the article the author really laid it all out with these couple paragraphs:

Bouguereau was incredibly productive, painting an average of sixteen to eighteen paintings per year during his prime. But his dealer Goupil had a list a hundred deep, of wealthy collectors waiting for his work. Everything was sold long before it was finished. Dealers for these great academics sat biting their nails waiting helplessly for the products they needed to sell. Well, what kind of business is that? Any good business man knows that if you have ten of something and can sell two hundred, that you'd better get out there and find the other one hundred and ninety so that you can meet the demand and maximize your profits. But with the demand of the works by a specific artist, you can't go anywhere else except to that artist.

What a great solution Modernism had for this problem. Dealers welcomed it with open arms, and as the Academy and Salon fell into disrepute, they were the ones who took over the direction of art, and their advertising dollars made sure that the press played ball. So they celebrated artists and art forms where supply could keep pace with the demand that they were creating. Bouguereau painted eight hundred and twenty-six paintings, and fully seventy-five percent of them are master works of the highest level and half of those are full blown masterpieces. But it was still only eight hundred and twenty-six paintings. Alma-Tadema only produce four hundred and thirty-five during his life.

Do you know how many works were produced by Picasso? -- more than eighty thousand.
This seems to be the heart of the article. According to this author, you've been duped. Your artistic tastes have been shaped by art dealers who wanted you to prefer modern art--which could be realistically produced much faster and in greater quantities than traditional paintings. Furthermore, you've narrowly escaped being cheated out of a rich artistic history that was buried for half a century but that is slowly making its way back into museums around the world.

My 3 favorite paintings--I have them listed on my blog as "This is what I'd take if I had to live the rest of my life on a desert island and I could only take 3 paintings"

  • The Song Of The Lark, Jules Breton

  • Mariana In The Moated Grange, Sir John Everett Millais

  • An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, Joseph Wright of Derby
All of these pieces are very realistically rendered, traditional paintings. In fact, John Everett Millais was even mentioned in this article as one of the unfortunate 19th century artists whose career was covered up by the modern art scandal. If I had to choose favorite contemporary artists, I'd probably pick some of the backwards, retroactive American artists like Edward Hopper. And if I had to choose favorites among painters who don't work representationally or who don't place an emphasis on representational art, I wouldn't be picking anyone from the New York School or any of the other famous art crowds. I'd be picking some of the people whose blogs I follow now--artists who have benefited from the invention of modern art. And while I was never on the Modern art bandwagon in terms of my favorite artists, I would never believe for a second that contemporary, non-representational art is not really art, or that it is somehow less than other conservative, traditional art. This reminds me of the man at my office, a very good friend, who says that all real music was written before 1900. We talk about modern bands and he says, "that's not real music". And like that, he writes off about a century of music because he thinks it's noise.

But, back to this issue about the validity of realistically rendered art vs. unrealistically rendered or non-representational art.

I can paint and draw very realistically.

Here is a charcoal drawing of Walt Whitman I drew in high school. Note, uber realistic. I'd show some examples of my paintings from high school too but I don't want to bother my mom to dig them out of storage.

I don’t draw--or paint--this way anymore. I love the artists who do, but I don’t. Why is this?

I don’t like the painstaking process of looking back and forth between the model and the canvas. I don’t like to worry that something likes "just a little wrong". That one eye might be slightly higher than the other eye, that the color of the skin is just a little too pink or the mouth looks unnatural.

I love paint. I love the dribbles and textures. I want not to worry about the "rightness" or "wrongness" of an image. Furthermore, I resent the idea that a drawing can be right or wrong/good or bad, just based on the accurate placement of an eye or an ear. I don't want the art I make to exist on such a quantifiable scale. It feels childish--the notion that accurately rendered art is good just by virtue of looking like its subject.

To his credit, the author does not imply that Bouguereau is good simply because he has the technical facility to paint accurate looking people. The author's point is that Bouguereau is a master because he paints great artistic themes with great accuracy. The themes are an important part of the painting. I'll come back to that.

There is a certain attitude, something that bothers me, a kind of bias against realistic representation in art, as if those artists who still wish to work representationally are missing the point. I believe--and I do think I'm right--that I would have struggled more with the art curriculum at my college had I continued to paint and draw as realistically as I did before I entered college. That my art professors would have perceived this as a kind of failure to thrive. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'd have been just as successful in school had I continued to draw meticulously, painstakingly, painfully accurately as I did when I was younger. (there was at least one student in my program--a non-trad, and I no longer remember his name--who drew phenomenally accurately and who I recall was somewhat revered among faculty and students). Or, maybe one does need to let go of accurate representation in order to explore, even if one does eventually come back to accurate representation, after a period of experimentation.

I'd like to point out a few things about the organization that published this article. Art Renewal Center,, has a mission statement, including the following:
  • To promote a return of training, standards and excellence in the visual arts.

  • To provide responsible views opposing those of the current art establishment when warranted, especially as expressed in critiques of current art exhibitions, and in aesthetic philosophy.

  • To disseminate the rich artistic heritage of 2500 years of accumulated knowledge in creating traditional, realistic images touching upon universal and timeless themes.

  • To advance the understanding that Great Art begins with great themes and expresses them poetically through mastery of all aspects of technique.

  • To repudiate the idea that development in art requires destruction of boundaries and standards, pointless emphasis on 'newness,' or pursuit of the bizarre and ugly as ends in themselves, and to expose as artistic fraud those works conceived only to elicit outrage.
Did you notice that? The use of the word "themes"? Let me talk for a minute about Bouguerau's themes. The author of this article wrote:

It was the artist's goal to show humanity as beautifully real and ideal as possible, encouraging all to strive for such ideals. The message is: Mankind is good and life is good.
This reminds me of Keats' line about truth and beauty.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I love all the Romantic poets, especially Keats. I've been to the Keats house in Rome and I've looked at his death mask and studied that lock of his hair and I wrote papers about him back when I used to write papers for classes and I've read his poetry and I love Keats. But I cannot escape the nagging worry that this particular statement is just fluffy b.s.

Truth and beauty are not one and the same. There's not even a lot of overlap.

Still, if you study the paintings by Bouguereau, you'll note several consistent characteristics from one piece to the next:
  1. most/all the subjects are beautiful
  2. most of the clothed women are outdoors and barefoot (and most of them are women), but there is no dirt on their feet
  3. the female portraits feature accessories for the women (water jugs, sewing projects), but they're never doing work
This is kind of nitpicking, but its indicative of something greater going on in these paintings. These pieces have nothing to do with reality. The lofty themes expressed in these paintings are far removed from brutal, visceral, beautiful life. And, frankly, with some exceptions I find most of these paintings to be two-dimensional (as in, lacking in depth of content). There's no conflict here. No grit, no dirt, no strife. This romantic portrayal of ultimate beauty is just one limited vision of a multi-faceted universe.

As are all paintings. I suppose there's no way that any one painting could encompass all the good and bad, right and wrong, all the greatness and terror in the universe. So coming back to the mission statement of this organization...

On the one hand, Art Renewal Center seems to be making a very rigid claim that traditional art is superior to modern art (and what else could they mean by saying things like "promote a return of training, standards and excellence in the visual arts" and "creating traditional, realistic images touching upon universal and timeless themes"?).

It probably goes without saying, but I disagree. You can't measure the artistic superiority of one movement or period of time over another. Art is not moving in the wrong direction or a bad direction, and while I appreciate historical art, the current state of art is not regrettable or inferior.

Still. The Art Renewal Center's mission statement does touch on one thing about modern art that bothers me, which I will just very briefly bring up and maybe talk more about later because I've already spent waaayy too much time writing this. The modern art/contemporary movement has spawned the modern idea that art can be made anywhere at any time and it can be made thoughtlessly, casually, unintentionally, and this idea kind of haunts me. That art has no limits, is not defined. But I guess that's a different post.