Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bouguereau, Meissonier, Gerome--Art and Shifting Paradigms

Yeah--great title for this post, huh?

My lovely wife is a talented artist, as you may well know. Her work is beautiful, and impressionistic, and I love it. Of course, I'm not an artist, but I like to think that I know art when I see it, to paraphrase Potter Stewart. Maybe it's just me, but I like to see something when I look at a painting, something represented--flowers, a pond of lilies, the London skyline or the front of Chartres cathedral. Sometimes great washes of abstract color can be attractive, but I get lost with a canvas consisting of a big red square, or something that looks like it was constructed with a spirograph. I'm not even getting into the idea of painting, for example, the same skinny sax player beneath a wrought iron balcony and a crescent moon OVER AND OVER AGAIN, and selling it (for big $$$$) as art; that's another post for another day.

So I ran across this article about Tom Wolfe and an apparent revolution in the art world:

The three names in the title of this post were the "It" artists of late 19th/early 20th century France, and a French newspaper conducted a survey

in which they asked leading French art dealers, critics, curators: Who would be the French artists of the 19th century who would still be the giants of art in the year 1997? By the standards of that day, it was a huge survey. And the results were, number one, Adolphe William Bouguereau; second, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier; and, third, Léon Gérôme. They were looked upon as the giants."

Who? Wait, there's more. "Even after the era of Andy Warhol, who left an estate of $510 million, we cannot begin to comprehend the scale on which these artists--Bouguereau, Meissonier, Gérôme--lived." Wolfe sketches in some detail. "Two- and three-story-high studios. Belgian hangings on all the walls. There were always Persian rugs strewn wherever you could strew one: on top of the piano, on top of the balcony railing, on the bed, everywhere, even on the floor.

Yeah, I said the same thing--who? As Wolfe notes, by 1920 these guys were gone, replaced by the Cubists and Picasso and the then avant-garde. The article is good reading, covering the intersection of politics and the modern art world, among other things--even poetry and verse are getting swept in the change. ". . . Picasso is a fraud?" You just gotta read this.

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