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A Ramble on 19th Century Artists and Critics

Ottawa in the summer –even if the weather is less than summery- is a delight: markets, galleries, the joy of walking by Parliament Hill. For me, an unexpected pleasure last spring was the show at the National Gallery that focused on Gustave Dore.

Doré aspired to be the Michelangelo of the nineteenth century, and was respected as illustrator and engraver of Rabelais, Shakespeare, Perrault, Cervantes and the Bible. Yet he was frustrated by his status, desiring to be taken seriously as an artist, feeling rejected and devalued by French society, especially in the salons that found his oil paintings wanting.

Remember as well, the Impressionists were also on the rise during the mid-19th century and much of their work was scorned by the Academy. Dore was embittered by the lukewarm critical reception that his paintings and sculpture received. Considered prodigious even as a child, he did possess talent. Established in 1725 the official art exhibition, the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France was the mark of approval all artists sought. Everyone in Paris, from the silk top hats to the laundresses attended: to view the works deemed acceptable for the show.

While the work of Monet, Cassatt, Seurat was breaking new ground in technique by illuminating canvases with dazzling light and fresh colour, and demonstrating new techniques ( the neo-impressionists believed in using dots –much like digitalizing colours; and the Impressionists painted brightly, local scenes out of doors), theirs was likewise dismissed by the salon although the odd Manet, Renoir, and Degas were included with the traditional classist pieces .

For me, Dore’s work forms an extension of the celebrated painters of his time such as Bouguereau, his cupids, and the mythological figure Venus, Dante and Virgil, these topics and images evident in Dore’s exhibition in Ottawa, themes well accepted and that echo back to the German Caspar David Friedrich, his allegories and notion of the Sublime. Friedrich’s work goes beyond to idealize the British landscape artists such as Constable and Gainsborough and even the inscrutable J.M. Turner.

However the Academies did in fact nod to the Pre-Raphaelites in England, and in France, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, although the latter’s was tinged with nostalgia, along with the brilliance of Édouard Manet: displaying their works for exhibition. Mary Cassatt like many others despaired of the rejection of her pieces, but was warmed by Edward Degas’s suggestion to paint for herself.

However, more often than not, it was the landscapes, allegories, notions of the sublime and sentimental religious paintings that won approval by the Academie as opposed to social realism. Interestingly with social and economic upheavals in society, and culture becoming accessible for all classes, everyone flocked to the salon. Viewers themselves, a new motif to establish their presence in a painting, was a new trend. Previously painting had been theorized as a window through which one gazed. Tissot’s opera attendees, the laundresses captured by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s, Renoir’s boating parties were all brash new subjects for painting. Degas’ pastels of the “petits rats” of ballet and the almost pinhole perceptions of women at their bath shocked the sensibilities of the art world, but confirmed the presence of a viewer both inside and out of these pieces.

In art, there are trends, often shifted by the critic’s diatribe: as suggested in Robin Oliveira’s novel, I Always Loved you. In a tense but powerful discussion between Emile Zola and Mary Cassatt, they clash on the power of whether words or paint exerts the stronger impact on mass audiences. I recall an art history class discussion in the 60’s that scorned Griselda Pollock’s psychological insights into Van Gogh’s painting of worn workboots, yet the same critic was the official voice of the AGO many years later.

Where the paintings of Matisse were once decried as being done by wild beasts or labeled “ fauves” by influential French art critic Louis Vauxcelles in the 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibit, we, the public now embrace and delight in his exotic design. Similarly Norman Rockwell, his work first presented in Saturday Evening Post first seen as capturing the homey quality of America and celebrating America with the 1943 Four Freedoms, later to be considered a kind of kitsch reproduced on teacups and acceptable for family display, is presently being reconsidered as a caustic commentary of the times. Examples cited showcase the integration of Ruby Bridges, a fourteen year old girl at William Franz School In New Orleans in 1960, her staunch attitude, her freshly starched clothes juxtaposing her deriders. So it seems, beauty or criticism resides in the reactions of the official perceiver, able with his or her words to provide interpretation, to sway, to make sense or cast aspersions.

Although Dore saw himself as an outsider of the elite and a misfit, he exists perhaps midway between the pack of accepted and those openly denigrated by the salons. Reading Richard Harris’s An Officer and A Spy casts light on the shallowness of French society. The wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus exemplifies the frivolous , corrupt world where coverup, anti-Semitism and pretense stand in strong opposition to honesty and the truth. Likely it is in this way that some artists are the canaries in the mine shaft, willing to provoke or alternatively ignore the forces that hold and maintain society. The Kathe Kollwitzes, the Max Ernsts, the Daumiers, Ai Weiweis and certainly Pablo Picasso’s Guernica moved art far beyond technique to outright challenge and condemnation of the evils of their world.

Changing thinking occurs through words and images, educating and opening the doors to re-conceiving previous patterns. So said Emile Zola, “J’accuse.”

I’m not sure about Dore. I can admire his work, understand his angst as being overlooked, but I think again of Oliveria’s book and Degas’ advice to Marry Cassatt to paint for herself. He says,

“…Everyone will have an opinion of your work… they will claim that your style parts too much from standard taste… these are people who cannot even mix a color…But they ( the critics) will believe themselves right and influence the public for the worse. They will be wrong, of course. What I want you to understand is that they should not allow their ignorance to destroy you…”( Oliveira, I Always Loved You,2014,187)

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