RAYMOND J. STEINER
WERE IT TO consist of only the small oil entitled “Aurora and Cephalus”, this exhibition* featuring the work of Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson would surely convince us that we were in the presence of a master painter. Diminutive — at least in comparison to his major canvases — Girodet’s little study (as he himself would have undoubtedly characterized it) bodies forth all those qualities that art lovers once considered ought to be present in the work of an accomplished painter: masterful composition, superb draftsmanship, fluid brushstroke, color harmony and, what has become a neglected element in our time, something to convey to not only the senses, but to the mind as well. In brief, it is, above all else, a “painting” — and for that, it brings delight to the viewer. On the downside, however, for all its modest size, “Aurora and Cephalus” dramatically brings home how much we have lost since artists elected to turn their backs on the rigors of academic training.
We are fortunate, however, that “Girodet: Romantic Rebel” offers us much more to go on. A joint effort by the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Musée du Louvre, the Réunion des nationaux, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Musée Girodet, Montargis (Girodet’s birthplace), The Metropolitan Museum of Art and supported by The Isaacson-Draper Foundation and the Federal Council of the Arts and
Humanities, this major retrospective (the first of Girodet’s oeuvre in the United States) is comprised of some 110 paintings and works on paper, all of which afford us more than ample material on which we might base our findings and form our judgments. It is heartening to see such support for this exhibition and The Metropolitan Museum of Art deserves special praise for bringing it to viewers in the Northeast. For those cognizant of the history of western art, it is an exhibition that might serve as not only an admonition for the current-day art viewer /promoter /patron /historian /critic, but an indictment on the shameful cultural level of what we indulgently call our current “artworld”. I am less confident of the effect — if any — that the exhibition might exert on contemporary artists.
Well-nigh overwhelming in his range of painterly virtuosity, Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson is a supreme example of what it meant to carry the title of “artist” back in the days when to call oneself a “painter” meant a considerable amount more than it means today. In the heydays of France’s prestigious Prix de Rome and its official Salon — and especially of its premier painter of the era, Jacques-Louis David — a would-be painter was expected not only to give evidence of mastering his trade, but also of having a thorough first-hand familiarity with the classics through a direct reading of them in their original Latin or Greek. étienne Jean Delécluze, David’s biographer, noted that the painting master, in spite of his observation that Girodet was trop savant pour nous (too learned for us), “understood teaching to involve the development of artistic intelligence rather than the transmission of a style of painting”.1 It was an age when Michelangelo’s dictum that, “…si dipigne col ciervello et non con le mani” (one paints with the brain and not with the hands), still had a certain currency, an age when the artist was not exempt from accomplishing more — much more — than the expert wielding of a brush or a chisel. At the very least it was expected that the artist could — and would — read. Indeed, even if one were not destined to become a painter, it was still assumed that to consider oneself a true “citizen” in this pre-Revolutionary, “neo-classical” age, a knowledge of the classics — and at least a smattering of Latin and Greek — was a given. To more than a few, it was what being an adult implied.
To see how Girodet lived up to what was expected of him as a painter — more, how he outdistanced his colleagues and rose fully to the top of his profession — is amply evident in this exhibition. For those of us used to the overnight, newly-discovered super-star hastily throwing together his/her latest “innovative shocker”, it can be a humbling experience. Standing before his “The Sleep of Endymion” — just one highlight amongst many in this remarkable exhibition — is more than a little daunting. Who today would undertake such an awesome expanse of canvas, intent — nay, compelled — on filling every square centimeter with the very best work that his or her skill might produce? As best as we can tell, the painting of this one Salon entry alone took him years to complete — surely a chastening thought to our generation of “git ‘er done” hotshots. By the same token, perhaps we ought to ask who today in our fast-food, fast-living, and fast success-story-world would even appreciate/understand such a painting? Without a little bit of effort on our parts — and it is not just our “artists” who no longer want to take the trouble — how many would “get”, for example, the iconography of the beautifully rendered turkey — or the satyr with the gold coin in his eye — or the tethered dove — or the cascading gold coins into lady’s eager grasp in his send-up of Mademoiselle Lange (one of Paris’s more notorious “grand horizontals” of the time) in his “Mademoiselle Lange as Danaë” (also known as “Danaë, Daughter of Acrisius”)? Without a doubt, we get what we create — and our non-judgmental, anything-goes, politically-correct, embrace-it-all society, reaps exactly what it sows — an artworld with about as much taste as the ready-made hamburgers that expand our waistlines and shrink our thinking capacities.
That Girodet seriously worked at (and thought about) his craft, is fully evidenced in the exhibit, a wealth of preliminary drawings and/or oil and watercolor sketches showing just what pains he took to produce a “showable” piece worthy of having his signature appear somewhere on its face. The “Academy” — a meticulous drawing of a male or female nude — is well represented in this show as might be expected, but there are also such things as a drapery study (Catalogue #50) in black crayon and white chalk as well as numerous detailed compositional studies for larger works (such as the intricately-wrought black crayon sketch for “The Tempest” (Catalogue #121)) that prove just how diligent Girodet was in mastering the tools of his trade. Who could not admire the mind and hand that created the jewel-like preliminary sketch for “The Revolt of Cairo” (Catalogue #57)? Or the four paneled “Sketches for the Four Seasons” (Catalogue #38)? Little wonder that his death was bemoaned by his colleagues and that, in spite of this retrospective heralding him as a “Romantic Rebel” who ushered in a new crop of painters, Jean-Antoine Gros was heard crying out at his funeral, “Soon they will want us to believe that fifteen days of scribbling color on a scrap of canvas can produce masterpiece …”2 (Fifteen days! It would be interesting to see how many artists today spend that much time on a single painting). Even then, in 1824, the year of Girodet’s death, Gros was decrying the young, upcoming Eugène Delacroix’s “Massacre at Scio” as “the massacre of painting”. It did not matter that Delacroix admired — even emulated — David and his prize-winning pupils; discerning painters were already convinced that they were witnessing a downhill trend in the craft (something that Delacroix himself recognized in his own work and tried to emend by applying himself even more diligently to the task of learning how to become a painter) and foresaw the corruption of art and its making. What might such artists as David, Drouet, Girodet, or Gros say of what passes for the painter’s art today? How might they react to what is called “art instruction” in today’s schools. or to what is now included in “art” museums? Would anything that passes for “art” and “art criticism” today make sense to them?
More, how might they have reacted to a conference I attended some years ago at the National Sculpture Society when, at their Centennial Anniversary, they were lamenting the fact that membership was dwindling because today’s young sculptors were coming out of art schools unable to sculpt a head? Of course, an art instructor’s task is made considerably easier when such standards — any standards — are not part of the curriculum. Which brings to mind Michelangelo again and how he had managed to carve, say, the Pieta or David with the crude chisels and wooden mallets available to him. And how do they compare — considering the pneumatic tools, compressors, and power polishers now at their disposal — with the “assemblages” of found objects, displays of bent or crushed metal, dissected livestock, or knocked-together knickknacks concocted by present-day “sculptors”? Surely there are a few “reactionaries” around today who are not taken in by the glib wall texts, artists’ statements, and “critical” hogwash that purports to “explain” what the so-called “art” so loudly proclaims on its own terms. It either is or it ain’t — ‘nuff said. In Girodet’s world, art had the onus of making sense on its own — in spite of the classical gloss imposed by the times — and viewers didn’t have to be persuaded that there was actually a work of art in front of them.
Oh, sure — our “focus” is different today. Art has been “freed” from the constraints of such old-fashioned notions as standards. Yet who can deny — contemplating even the “rough” sketches of Girodet — that something has been lost since we so cavalierly jettisoned standards? Even assuming that the present-day viewer does not grasp the gist of the classical allusions Girodet is making — he may not know the “story” — he is surely not so dull-witted that he cannot see that there are recognizable figures and forms before his eyes — and that these figures and forms are rendered with consummate skill. One need only turn to the handful of landscapes in the exhibition — “Landscape, View of the Alps”, “View of Vesuvius and the Mas d’Anjou”, “Italian Landscape, View of Capri” (Catalogue #s 15, 16, 17, respectively) — to know that this is the work of a skilled painter.
And still it wasn’t enough that Girodet learned his craft and applied himself to studying the classics (in the original, remember!) — he was also a passable poet. In the end, however, it didn’t really matter how much he read or how many prizes he won. Nor did it ultimately matter that his subjects were drawn from classical sources, or were erudite in their content. It didn’t matter whether or not he contended with his teacher or his fellows, or as one essay in the catalogue explores, if he might have been gay. In her essay, “Is Endymion Gay”, Abigail Solomon-Godeau poses the question of whether or not Girodet’s Endymion — a mythological character — was gay and, of course, by extension, whether the same could be said of Girodet. After weighing hypothetical pros and cons, Solomon-Godeau intelligently arrives at the conclusion that the question is irrelevant and that, “… Girodet, like any artist, is the subject through which passes, is mediated and is filtered all that constitutes his temporal, cultural, and historical circumstances and determinations”.3 In short, it didn’t matter if he was “trop savant”, a rebel, a sulker, rash, petty, syphilitic, aloof, or whatever — the fact is he was a painter and it is as painter that we ought to judge his work. And, on that count alone, there were few who were his equal.
All the arguments against art being “shackled” by convention notwithstanding, I wonder how many — artists included — would trade his little “Aurora and Cephalus” for anything being produced and hawked on the artmarket today? On the other hand, perhaps I ask too much. We’ve come a long, long way from Bernard Berenson and his idea of art being required to enhance our lives. To be “life enhancing”, Berenson believed that art “must appeal to the whole of one’s being, to one’s senses, nerves, muscles, viscera, and to one’s feeling for direction, for support and weight, for balance and counter-stresses…”; that life-enhancing art plunges us “into a state of being, or state of mind, that makes one feel more hopefully, more zestfully alive; living more intense, more radiant a life not only physically but morally and spiritually as well; reaching out to the topmost peak of our capacities, contented with no satisfaction lower than the highest…”; that “…art as art, not art for art[my italics], must be life-enhancing…”; and, finally, that art history itself “must be life-enhancing, life-expanding, life-intensifying.” Speaking for myself, I was experiencing some form of “life-enhancement” as I stood before such massive paintings as “The Dead Christ Supported by the Virgin”, “Danaë”, “The Burial of Atala”, “The Ghosts of French Heroes Welcomed by Ossian into Odin’s Paradise”, and “Pygmalion and Galatea” although the equally large-scale “Napoleon in Imperial Dress” left me somewhat cold. In fact, most of Girodet’s portraits struck me as little more than formal exercises, with the exception of “Portrait of Young Romainville Trioson” (to whom he had familial connections and thus, more insight and empathy) and his “Portrait of Cathelineau Generalissimo of the Great Catholic and Royal Army”, a particularly handsome piece of painterly virtuosity.
However, we no longer live in Bernard Berenson’s world. Whatever our threshold of excellence or significance might once have been, it doesn’t take much today to impress us or to gain headlines. One man’s life-enhancing treasure may be another’s life-depleting trash, and with standards now out the window there is no way to determine — other than by resorting to one’s opinion — which is which. Aesthetics, as we have sadly come to learn, is not as certain as mathematics, and quickly gets bogged down in problems of unremitting abstraction. Most aestheticians today are in any event too busy firing off learned salvos at their colleague’s last theories to pay much attention to what is being called art nowadays — better to stay out of it and keep one’s hands clean. Consequently, so-called “in-the-know, cutting edge” cocktail party pundits are fond of smugly posing the question of who’s to say what’s art and what’s not — knowing that only the brave will attempt to bring up the subject of standards. (I’ve been called an elitist — even compared to Nazi/Communist totalitarians — more than once by letter-writers to this publication whenever the “s” word appeared in my writing). By and large, the story of the contemporary “art” scene is a sad affair with gullible “curators” fresh out of college eager to show their liberal range of taste (and yes, The Met has its share of them), a steady stream of nitwits with more money than common sense only too eager to trumpet to the world their abysmal ignorance and lack of refinement by hanging junk on the walls of their homes and offices, and “art” dealers who are, first and foremost, merchants who find their lives enhanced by larger bank accounts, all too ready and willing to market whatever sells.
On that note, “Girodet: Romantic Rebel” is a show that few living artists who lay claim to that title might care to visit — but the rest of us surely free to enjoy it at our heart’s content. Who knows? After an hour or so of viewing the work of this consummate painter, you might even find that your life has been a bit enhanced! At the very least, an exhibit such as this can show what art could be if pushed past the shameful limits of mediocrity to which we have allowed it to descend — and whatever you might have to read about Girodet’s work, it will be on what’s in it as opposed to the empty rhetoric that tries to persuade you to see what is so obviously not in a lot of the stuff out there today trying to pass itself off as real art.
*“Girodet: Romantic Rebel” (thru Aug 27): The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., NYC (212) 535-7710 www.metmuseum.org. A sumptuous, fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition: Girodet: 1767-1824 by Sylvain Bellenger (Curator at the Direction des Musées de France, Paris) et al. 496 pp.; 9 ¼ x 11 ½; B/W & Color Illus.; Appendices; Chronology on CD ROM (in French); $85.00 Hardcover. (Gallimard: 2006).
1 Sylvain Bellenger, page 25, exhibition catalogue.
2 Emulation: David, Drouet, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary France (Revised Edition) by Thomas Crow (Yale University Press, 2006): pg. 220 ff.
3 Abigail Solomon-Godeau, page 93, exhibition catalogue.