PRINT December 1989


. . . I WENT TO WASHINGTON to see the Bonnard and Watteau exhibitions but came away utterly absorbed by a Gérôme—Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert, 1857. It was being shown at the National Gallery in an exhibition called “The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse.” The principal orientalist painters were, of course, the so-called academics, and these would include not only the French and English painters, but Americans like Frederic Church and Sanford R. Gifford. The former’s academic side, which I suspect American chauvinism has obscured, is very evident in his Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, 1870, a melodramatically illuminated panoramic view in which the echoes of Thomas Cole are assimilated into Church’s illustrative style to make a painting at odds with the near sublimity of effect that Church usually aimed for. Yet Gérôme’s picture, and those of the academic orientalists generally, suggest that true orientalist art rejected the sublime for the exotic—a perfect foil for academic art’s “academic” addiction to illustration. Academic paintings appealed as much as they did because they were so illustrative and as such implied a story, even if they did not actually tell one. The result was often a kind of kitsch; the more outrageous kind anticipated camp, or, rather, was seized upon in modern times to demonstrate fashionable bad taste. Gérôme’s Recruits is, however, not outrageous. It belongs to the early history of modern popular culture—art with mass appeal. Modernism spurned such vulgarization, but in time it too had to make overtures to popular culture. Orientalism, in fact, paved the way for Modernist “primitivism.” As for kitsch, it turns out to have been the vanguard of a generalized “revolution” in taste that forced high art to seek out and even create a new audience.

I see academic art—at least at the moment—as radical in its way as Modernism, radical, that is, in implication. Academic art, in its literal-mindedness, accepted the photograph, and the photographic, without hesitation. This reflects a misunderstanding that it shared with photographers about art at the time, as each sought to emulate and yet transcend each other. But while there’s something obviously photographic about the Gérôme, it is not an example of photographic realism in which the subject is cooled down by the simulated mediation of the mechanical. Gérôme’s picture of recruits pressed into the service of the Pasha, manacled and being hurtled across the desert—literally the middle of nowhere—is less a pictorial event than the equivalent of a documentary depiction of the ineffability of human cruelty. It is a forerunner, then, of all the unspeakable things we now witness as a matter of course on television every day. Presumably we are desensitized by such exposure, but I don’t think so. I am often quite shaken and moved and angered by what I see on TV, and I was quite shaken by this Gérôme. The faithful depiction of detail was not simply a display of skill but a necessary means to the end of an extra-pictorial effect. The artistry of it seduces us into the contemplation of strange experience—which changes us a little. This is probably what it means—and costs—to live in the modern world.

Presumably the camera was ultimately more successful in provoking extrapictorial experience, through the inevitability and the incontrovertibility of its depiction (the idea that photography is just another form of representation is just the latest attempt to make it an auratic art). As such, however, it “killed” not Art, but academic art. Modernism took extreme evasive action so that Art could survive. But because it was pointless to survive without the world, painting was forced into a great irony; its materiality became a metaphor of “creation” and “nature,” making every surface a replacement, as it were, of the ontological content of representation. The tactile surface(s) of Modernism are a reaction to alienation, to an estrangement from representation but not from signification. Since the bulk of the world’s art is abstract or abstractively stylized, perhaps someone ought to have a talk with God.

Academic art was academic, on the other hand, to the extent that it gave up, or, rather, suppressed, the literal surface in order to accommodate the cognitive demand for specific information. Some recent developments in art suggest that there is once more a craving for illustration, but this craving has been assimilated to an ideological assault on Modernism, interpreted prescriptively rather than historically. This not only distorts artistic issues but conceals illustration’s alliance with corporate capitalism and its growing authority in academic(!) circles, both of which advanced art once opposed. This while becoming part of a larger history that grants equity to any realized form—Rubens and Poussin, Ingres and Delacroix. Revisionism insists on redress rather than access, either rejecting the inevitable differentiation of types of art or insisting on a parity that it cannot prove in artistic terms. I saw a Pollock at the National Gallery that was simply marvelous. Also a Gérôme. Why should that be so strange?

Monday, January 14, 1985
WEDNESDAY I WAS IN HARTFORD to see the Bouguereau exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum. I cannot account for the impact it had on me; my reaction was just too complex. But I was impressed, stirred or fascinated, and I was also moved. Most of us do not really “know” academic art. We have been taught very little and seen even less. So the exhibition had the force of a revelation—exposing the propaganda of Modernism on the one hand, but not, on the other, actually discrediting it in an ultimate sense. Bouguereau was simply too closed off from the modern world for his desire to have become a fully formed vision. Yet the values he sought to express (or preserve) are not without value . . . still. His execution alone embodies something like an act of faith, an act that can be envied without having to totally accept what was accomplished with it. By the same token, his “art” cannot be terminally diminished. With only a slight adjustment of his innate, as opposed to his acquired and indoctrinated, knowledge he might have been an equal to at least a Puvis. For he was an extraordinary designer of nearly seamless compositions of figure groups, though admittedly he borrowed not only motifs, but general compositional plans, from John Flaxman, Poussin, del Sarto, Titian, and Giorgione. But unlike Ingres, from whom he descends, he could not sufficiently suppress modeling in order to grant his compositions the decorative unity they actually require. The Education of Bacchus, 1884, is spread out over about 20 feet like a bas-relief, but neither movement nor contrast is sufficiently controlled. There is really no tension between surface, depth, and volume—and nothing that intensifies the subject. So many of Bouguereau’s compositions are like this: so bloodless on the one hand, so rigorously executed on the other.

Bouguereau absorbed historical composition for the idealized genre paintings that made his fortune, but his histories seem more convincing, because they are supported by the historical tradition—and the historical moment—they embody. Ironically, this tradition is marked by excesses of theatricality that were not fully overcome until Impressionism. Delacroix curbed theatricality, to a certain extent, by reducing modeling through color. Therefore, his arabesques are contained as decoration. But Courbet’s sensualist versions of women are partly attributable to this “grand” tradition. Significantly, a rare Bouguereau landscape (Study of a Tree near Sorrento, 1851) is as close to Corot as it is to Poussin or to the Claudian tradition that was favored by the Academy.

In Bouguereau the theatrical turned sentimental. On the other hand, he was capable of considerable pathos, though much disguised by his eclectic vision—e.g. First Mourning, 1888. The death of Abel is depicted as a domestic tragedy—but composed as a classic Lamentation.

Bouguereau was not vilified for an occasional picture as Manet was, but this archetypal academic had his detractors too, and long before the Impressionists calumniated him and others like him. In any event, the avant-garde version of 19th-century art history is certainly oversimplified. This is not to say the revisionists are justified, because revisionism is ideological too. A lot must be forgiven in order to get the record straight.

Saturday, January 18, 1986
. . . I SPENT NEARLY TWO HOURS studying the Ingres exhibition—“Ingres and Madame d’Haussonville”—at the Frick. It’s less an exhibition than an exhumation. Aside from a handful of working drawings for the 1845 painting, the walls and cases of two exhibition galleries are filled with memorabilia (letters, calling cards, photographs) and artifacts (furniture, books, costumes, accessories of various kinds) that related to the execution of the painting, its subject and her family, plus a few pictures (one by Degas) that attest to the painting’s—and Ingres’—influence. It was as if a tomb had been reopened. Very strange. A kind of scholarly fetishism. But in this case, it is appropriate because Ingres himself fetishized the practice of art. His putative search for perfection (the subject of what appears to have been an exemplary exhibition, and catalogue, at Louisville’s J.B. Speed Art Museum in 1983), his veneration of great art, and his tyrannical didacticism make it difficult to distinguish between a humility that appears to have been entirely sincere and a snobbishness that it was beyond his morbidly sensitive nature to control. A 19th-century writer, Henry Naegely, called him “an obstinate, snarling little man.” If Ingres’ genius was somewhat perverse, it is because he totally conceptualized esthetic experience. His paintings are rituals of purgation; everything is eliminated that does not contribute, or conform, to his ideal conception of the Ideal itself. His faith in art was almost pathological in its obstinacy, but at least he avoided the complacency of the many academicians who followed and lacked his powers of invention.

All the ingredients of academic art are present or prefigured in Ingres, particularly the subjugation of infallible technique by vulgarizing sentiment, which accounts for the curious evenness of academic art generally. But Ingres was too uneven an artist to be wholly academic. Obsessed as he was inspired, he constantly subverted himself in practice and pursued perfection relentlessly in order to atone for transgressions he could not avoid. How else account for the authority of such conceptually different paintings as Jupiter and Thetis, 1811, and the portrait of Louis-François Bertin, 1832, the one inscribing movements on the surface that are a visual metaphor of Thetis’ hopeless attempt at seduction, the other a monument of information that fuses character with form.

The countess as conceived by Ingres, however, is rather a bizarre creature. She is an adult cherub with arms that do not belong to her body; her head contains two different systems of proportion, one for the eyes, another for the lips. The total effect is incipiently maudlin, though the eyes and mouth reveal both sensibility and character, which can be confirmed by covering one or the other and studying each in isolation. The countess seems a mannikin assembled from disparate parts. This can be read as an allegory of both post–Revolutionary France and Ingres’ own need to control what he also desired to serve. Ingres broke two engagements for fear his art would be disturbed. Ultimately, a marriage was arranged for him when he was 34, and years later, he was devastated by the death of a wife who had instinctively understood both his helplessness and his demands for deference. There is something about the countess, as excerpts from her unpublished letters attest, that suggests she too was wise beyond her years. But Ingres, oblivious to his own susceptibility, painted her as if she were preserved under a bell jar.

Ingres preferred his “literary” paintings, which were often a kind of historical genre painting (such as Leonardo dying in the arms of Francis I), because they were more complex, at least compositionally, and represented his essentially ardent but clearly repressed nature. He simply could not take possession of a live object the way he would identify with stricken lovers. Inevitably, Ingres dissembled a chaste view of beauty that forced him into distortions of proportion in order to control his sensual nature, much as Cézanne redistributed his once lusty bravura as planar facets. Ingres could draw all right, but it is a ductile rather than a tactile feeling that creeps over his idealized forms. He lacked the heroic vision of David—his were not heroic times—but the sentimentality of the “official” artist was curbed by his classicizing Romanticism. Thus he escaped the often saccharine tendencies of a Bouguereau, who is nonetheless stronger than any other academic painter of his generation—except for Gérôme, who distanced himself from the classical model completely. Orientalism is seen as racist today but it relieved the imagination of a painter like Gérôme of the proprieties emblematized by his licked surfaces.

The d’Haussonville picture was painted in the earliest years of the daguerreotype, but Ingres was “photographic” avant la lettre. He was always a superrealist in certain details—the intricate patterns of fabrics, their no less intricate folds—and a master at depicting glass and florally decorated porcelain. But the countess’ bare arms seem to have no bones, the head suggests no skull. This is not a great loss because the picture is less a representation than a sign, whose mysterious presence is the result of ideological disjunctions or polarizations that were not really resolved until Impressionism was to commence a more useable modernity.

July 1989
RECENTLY I SPENT MOST of a Saturday watching two movies on TV—and part of a third, too. It was not, I knew when I woke up late, a good day to go into the studio, but I am fascinated by “colorized” movies, Ted Turner’s contribution to popular culture, and the first film I saw, They Died With Their Boots On, 1941, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland, was one of Turner’s recently tinted picture shows. On top of that it was followed by Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 1959, with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, in Technicolor. Technicolor was a big thing when it first came out, but today its hues are as dated and even faded as the often fairy-tale plots of the films they embellished. That is why I like them, at least visually, and colorization too. A great hue and cry went up when “colorization” was first announced, not very long ago, I think. Woody Allen put down his clarinet long enough to denounce the wanton mutilation of the “integrity” of original prints of movies in black and white that were the products of a culture industry the intelligentsia routinely denounces; and people who have never gotten over the treatment by the United States of Lady Chatterley’s Lover once more enjoyed a principled shudder of revulsion.

A colorized movie is, of course, a film that has been tinted, I believe electronically. I’ve seen no masterpiece in a reprocessed version, and I imagine I would be fairly offended by The Rules of the Game in terra-cotta, pale blue, pink, and one diluted universal green for all the shades and tints of the natural world. But George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan in They Drive by Night, 1940, in a keyboard palette is right up there with Jeff Koons. It is mass culture catching up with Pop art, not to mention with the recent vogue for hand-colored art photography. And once upon a time, black-and-white purists—and I was one of them—saw color photography as a desecration. Indeed, Andy Warhol was probably the first artist to practice a kind of colorization.

But it now seems that color—or a certain kind of color—added to a certain kind of representation, serves some generally recognized function, that is, it constitutes a meaning as it layers the representation with a “decorative” element while leaving the essentially regressive—one might say, academic—version of representation intact. The color flattens it somewhat, but makes it more iconic. I find this to be true in the best kind of academic art (that is, good “bad” art), though not as graphically, just as I find it true of commonplace photographs that are transformed when photomechanically reproduced in three or four colors. Fully photomechanical color reproduction was perfected in 1893 and perhaps it is my passion for early specimens (though as late as the late 1950s and before the almost total conversion to offset printing, colorplate work was still frequently very striking) that has led me to respect, at least within limits, the phenomenon of colorization.

As for They Died With Their Boots On, it purports to be an account of the military life of George Armstrong Custer, the cavalry general who led his troops into a massacre by Indians at the Little Bighorn. As portrayed by Flynn, Custer is a dashing, headstrong gallant who entered West Point wearing an elaborate uniform of his own design, patterned after a print of his hero, Murat. It is hard to recollect if, in the undoctored version, the ridiculous aspect of the man came across the way it does when colorized, the yards of braid on Custer’s jacket gleaming bleakly in a kind of yellow electroplate, a cheap tacky imitation of gold that confirms the comic book narrative of what is to follow—routine disobedience that presages his bravery in the Civil War, a love at first sight so profound that Flynn and De Havilland seem to turn Hallmark blue and pink (she stays pink, even in mourning), a sense of honor that assures his betrayal (he promises Crazy Horse, played by Anthony Quinn as if he were reading phonetically from a TelePrompTer, that the Indian territories will be preserved), and a reckless rush to battle that is portrayed as his martyrdom. Throughout, the washed-out colors produce an ultimately uniform tonality that mutes if it does not eliminate strong contrasts, turning the film into a crude folk broadside, a kitsch poster of heroism.

To the extent that kitsch is a function of desire, one understanding of it is that it embodies in presumably degraded form a sentimentalized version of the cultural and other rewards that industrialism and “progress” were supposed but failed to deliver. The recovery of “failed” art, the post-Modernist cult of the movies, and the proliferation of a new photography (along with the revival of the older kind) in recent years are partly acts of revenge against a mandarin-dominated culture that paralleled industrialism while criticizing it, but that is nonetheless seen as a betrayal of true democratic values. Artistically, it comes down to a problem of representation and a problem of the nature of culture in a democracy generally. In fact, the problem with a lot of art today, and this has been true of much art since the early ’60s, is that it is not as good as the “bad” art it professes to admire and appropriate. If I want to see a good movie today, I turn on television.

Sidney Tillim is an artist and writer who lives in New York.

These excerpts from the author’s journals have been revised in varying degrees for publication, but the entry on Bouguereau is substantially as written. The final section, from July 1989, was written for publication.