Friday, 4 September 2009

It's all Academic.

I've just read the article 'Bouguereau and his American Students', on Mark Vallen's blog 'Art for a Change'.

I don't want to pick a fight over the things he said, figurative painters need to stick together in this world. I was sorry he'd disabled his comments. Maybe he'd provoked a lot responses along the following lines.
Several charges were made against the great painter Bouguereau that I thought unjustified. Firstly it seems unjust to say that tight, finely rendered painting is more 'conservative' than looser, more 'painterly' style. There were plenty of broad-stroke loving painters in earlier times, Titian, El Greco and Constable springing to mind. It's spurious to say one style is more traditional; rather there were always painters who preferred to paint one way or the other.
Secondly, it seems unjust to accuse Bouguereau and his ilk from wanting to retreat from 'modernity'. If this were a fault in 19th century academic painters, it would also be a fault found in Renaissance painters, who set their pictures in the antique world. Bouguereau's 'headlong flight from the pressing issues of his time' is no reason why he should not be appreciated today. People still read Jane Austen, even though little of the turbulence of her era comes through in her novels). Nymphs and satyrs were no more part of Titians or Poussin's worlds than they were of Bouguereau's, moreover. No curator sees fit to banish the works of these old masters from the galleries on account of this. What a travesty it would be if they did.
The charge that Bouguereau's paintings were somehow about hiding the poverty of the toiling masses borders on ridiculous- they weren't set up as screens in front of slums, for heaven's sake. Bonnard painted nothing but his wife in the bath throughout the Second World War. Should he be accused of masking the horrors of the German occupation of France? Is it every artist's duty to be a George Orwell? (Anyway, how does it improve the world producing images of suffering? May not visions of an ideal world promote aspirations - and inspire efforts - towards making a better society just as well as works reflecting the grit and grime of reality?) Bouguereau was right to ask 'why reproduce what is ugly?' I, for one, at any rate, would certainly rather live with the Haymaker than the Potato Eaters.

If Bouguereau hindered the success of the Impressionists (and I don't see how this can be- this allegation seems to stem more from jealousy on their part than anything else) then the 'modernists' have more than had their revenge. They have subjecting his legacy to undeserved scorn, denying his rightful place in art history. The final irony is that their 'rebellion' has become the new orthodoxy dominating schools and galleries- just as commercially driven, snobbish and elitist as anything that came before. The old academicians were no more or less supportive of the status-quo than supposedly avant-garde artists that exploit the system to this day. And they were probably more tolerant of alternative manifestations of art than these self-styled 'modernists'. At least they did not deride skill and knowledge, emotion and humanism.

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