I’ve become obsessed lately with the development of art, more the evolution of art in 19th century France within and without the Salon, the era that gave us the idea of the avant-garde with artists and personalities such as Courbet, Manet and leading to the Impressionists and finally the master of Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne.
The obsession is born out of a feeling or thought that the current situation we live in now in the still nascent 21st century is somewhat similar, only now the official Salon is the Museum and gallery system. More on that later.
A friend loaned me his copy of Michael Fried’s “Courbet’s Realism” which led me quickly although I am still wading through Courbet to his book “Manet’s Modernism”, then T.J. Clarks “The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers” and finally to what I would consider more a summer beach read of Ross King’s “The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism”, the problem with the King book is that the color plates are cropped and only artists familiar with the works would recognize such, nothing worse or more taboo than to talk about a particular artwork and then show it in cropped form, bad enough it’s nothing more than a reproduction in a book, why add to the issue?
The interesting thing about art history is that things are left out and then brought back in, sometimes for better or worse. Vermeer was forgotten shortly after his death to be rehabilitated in the 19th Century by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger. The interesting thing about the King book is that it talks about Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, an artist I know from some of his paintings but know little about. According to King, Meissonier was the most successful artist of his time and now basically sidelined. Frankly, he deserves to be in my opinion. Meissonier is the archetypical artist of the academy and the Salon, a historical painter of sorts with a focus as all good academicians of the French school on Napoleonic themes.
Meissonier is not up for revitalization like Jean-Léon Gérôme has been of late by the traveling exhibition by Getty, the Musée d`Orsay , etc. I recently saw the catalogue for the show at the Strand and was tempted to purchase it out of some obscene need to fling it across my room. It, Meissonier and Gérôme’s art is the kind of art you like when you are 10 years old, all theatrics and exoticism. I will posit in another upcoming essay that Matthew Barney is the contemporary equivalent of Gérôme.
Why this current need to revitalize Gérôme? A search on Amazon shows the catalogue I am referring to along with another book titled “Reconsidering Gérôme”, in these two Product Descriptions we find in the later “…was an undisputed professional success during his lifetime” and the former “analyzes his bountiful expression of a visual grammar that takes illusionist obsession to the limits of the bizarre.” The catalogue for the show I would like to point out has Gérôme’s 1872 painting “Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) on the cover.
Success is what matters now, theatricality and modern day gladiatorial battles to mask the impotence of the individual, give the masses entertainment, it is only fitting that in the revisitation of Gérôme that the catalogue display that particular painting. It is where we are as a culture but is that where we should go?