Monday, March 21, 2011


I don’t really want to write a treatise and feel that is where I am heading but in some respect some of the information although easily available if you want to crack open a few books is there, the information that has led to some of these thoughts.

When I went to art school back in the 80’s as an older student there was little discussion about the content in paintings in our art history classes, suffice to say there was the usual mention of the subject matter but no real delving into the meat and potatoes as it were. Take David for example, I think we are all familiar with a variety of his paintings like The Oath of the Horatii 1785, Socrates at the Moment of Grasping the Hemlock 1787, Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons 1789, Marat at his Last Bath 1793 and The Intervention of the Sabine Women 1799. The painting of Marat is his most overt propagandistic painting of this grouping but when you put the other paintings above within the historical context of their time other meanings become evident.

The Oath as a call to Nationalist fervor, Socrates commissioned by a French jurist whose life ended at the guillotine, Lictors about the sacrifice that must be made to maintain the nascent Roman republic and the Sabine Women interceding in a battle to prevent further bloodshed between two royal houses; each of the paintings corresponding to current events and address those issues metaphorically.

Historical events in French history play a large part in the development of the Academy and also in our conception of the role and placement of art. We all know of Napoleon as a historical figure but very little about his rise to power, the reasons for the wars that led him to conquer most of Western Europe and his subsequent downfall at Waterloo. After his successful coup d`état and subsequent crowning as Emperor there is a lot of hagiography, see David Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass 1800, Ingres Napoleon on the Imperial Throne 1806, Gros Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa 1804 and finally although it may not be a painting of Napoleon it plays into the mythos of the Napoleonic thema, Géricault The Charging Light Cavalryman 1812.

During this time Neo-Classicism as practiced by David and his heirs is also dominant but like all movements it loses momentum, meaning and purpose over time. Often art or philosophical movements are treated as if they are completely independent of their antecedents, take Romanticism for instance, I was taught that it was opposed to Classicism but it actually is an outgrowth out of it, an evolutionary response to deadened practice. What are the images of Napoleon if not romanticized? Napoleon did not ride over the Saint-Bernard Pass on a rearing charger but on the back of a donkey.

With the Bourbon Restoration of 1815 the tricolour flag is replaced by the royal white flag and subject matter is now Royalist in flavor and as Thomas Crow states “the ease with which such opportunistic transformations could be effected did as much as anything to drain the moral authority from the Davidian figural canon”*, with former students of David now using the Neo-Classical style to validate the Bourbon’s such as François Gérard’s Entry of Henri IV into Paris 1817. David incidentally went into a self-imposed exile in Brussels where he died in 1825. There are a few renegades, notably Géricault with The Raft of the Medusa 1819 and its indictment of corruption and Delacroix who in the 1820’s paints The Massacre at Chios.

*Nineteenth Century Art- A Critical History, Thames and Hudson, page 67 Classicism in Crisis; Gros to Delacroix, Thomas Crow

Monday, March 7, 2011

Part One- the past

I’ve been itching to write but it has taken time to do the research to back the hypothesis or thoughts about various items regarding academization and how an art work actually works. Not that I had any doubts about my thoughts but it led to a very good jag of good reads and some not so good but worth it nonetheless.

First I must recommend the following books-

Clement Greenberg- Between the Lines by Thierry de Duve published 2010

Realism by Linda Nochlin published 1971

What led to this was a series of conversations about art practice and imagery with a group of artist friends.

It is my opinion, that we are in a severe period of academization within the commercial art world. Not that this is news, this is a cyclic occurrence and it is a result of post modernism, post-modernism though as an actual historical condition rather than a conceptual conceit although the end result is that we are belabored with far too many works that are based on the conceptual conceit or more succinctly thinking within the box. That boxed thinking art is or was based on rather grotesque misreadings of Baudrillard and Lyotard and only ended up showing the strong hand of the Modernist Master Narrative.

I am talking specifically of Western culture, there are many examples of alternative narratives in Eastern cultures.

I take as my personal starting point the end of the master narrative as posited by Lyotard. I think that it is the human condition to create narratives, it is built into our DNA as it were to try and construct meaning and this construction of meaning is an outgrowth of language.

For centuries of human existence the master narrative was mediated by religion until the Reformation. The Reformation questioned the hegemony of the Catholic Church and sets the seeds for the Age of Enlightenment. No longer is the Pope the infallible voice of God but man can have a direct experience of the Christian God unmediated by the Priest, the Pope and the Church. This “idea” is a powerful one and that along with the fortunate invention of the printing press allows the dissemination of ideas and theological questioning on a social scale heretofore unheard of. The Reformation also is the first questioning of religious imageries purpose and function with many Catholic Churches stripped of their paintings and sculptures, as images of God or Christ are considered sacrilegious. In the Dutch Republic the first signs of what Arts role and purpose is witnessed with the development of landscape, still life, genre and portraiture motifs along with the first marketing of art along with the attendant poor starving artists as there no longer exists the stable patronage of the Church or Royalty. (see late Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer)

Comes the Age of Enlightenment and within this period there was a desire to contain ideas and posit them within the Protestant religious views of the time. The universe in Newton’s time was seen as God’s creation and through understanding the mechanics of the universe we would become closer to fulfilling God’s master plan, God as the watchmaker. This Enlightenment thinking led to the concepts of freedom, democracy and reason hence the final questioning of God’s existence and if God doesn’t exist then the divine right of Kings also falls to the wayside. Up until the time of Louis XVI artists such as David painted images of the King or Classical Themes that justified and reinforced the political and social situation at hand.

The French Revolution marks the end of the Classical Enlightenment Period and the beginning of class struggle as we know it, this historical moment and the ones that followed set the stage for what we now call Modernism. The revolution and the seizure of Catholic properties along with the Terror doesn’t last long before the other Royal Houses in Europe feeling the Imperial necessity to stop this social experiment lest it get out of hand, attempt an intervention to reinstate the monarch, King Louis. With the Declaration of Pillnitz, the following War of the First Coalition, the Battle of Valmy, the execution of Louis and the following military campaigns which lasted for ten years one man rises to power, Napoleon. When Napoleon takes control by a coup d`état in 1799 and formally becomes Emperor in 1804 art practice once again comes back to the aggrandizement of the new king. The Restoration of the House of Bourbon after the Hundred Days and final defeat at Waterloo of Napoleon leads to the striking of the French Tricolor and the arts now change once again.

This is the beginning of salon era as we know it and the establishment of the academy.