Monday, April 2, 2012

A Little Art History: Or, I Kinda Get It...

As a lover of history, I have learned not to judge the citizens of the past by today's standards and morals;  I think it's best to try and see things through the eyes of those who were there without the benefit of hindsight.  Take the habit of burning a witch at the stake, for instance.  Now, we cringe at the extreme stupidity and barbarous aspect of taking an innocent victim and burning them alive to expel a "witch".  "My goodness, what were they thinking?" we can ask ourselves.  But to the folks in what we call the Dark Ages, what they thought they were doing was kinda like an intervention.  They thought it a joyous occasion when they could steal a soul from the clutches of the devil and deliver it into the waiting and protective hands of the Almighty through the purifying power of fire.  Not quite so bad now, is it?  Still, it's a practice we frown upon today.

Another thing that's good to keep in mind when studying history:  The winners get to write it.

When I was young and just starting to learn about it, art was still in the middle of the Ice Age known as Contemporary Modern Art.  According to what I read, (in books, and not on Wikipedia...) we had the enlightenment that was the Renaissance, then the art equivalent of the Dark Ages until "true art" was finally born again at the beginning of the 20th Century with the coming of the Expressionism and Abstract movements.  Realism, when mentioned at all, was relegated to the French Impressionists of the 19th Century, with maybe a sideways glance at Thomas Eakins or Winslow Homer.  Other than that, it was a subject best not spoken of in polite society.

The impressionist were always cast as a group of Frenchmen who rebelled against the stuffy and stilted art Powers-That-Be, by painting their pictures outside En Plein Aire, and who figured out if you put a dab of yellow next to a dot of blue and stood back, it looked green.  Now, let's get back to talking about Jasper Johns, shall we?...

But, as with all things, there is more to the story.  The Powers-That-Be that were never mentioned in any book I read were Classical Academic painters like William Bouguereau, Jean-Lois Meissonier, and Jean-Leon Gerome, to name a few.  These were artists whose technical polish and skill were above reproach.  They painted stunning pieces depicting Greek mythology, with dancing Satyrs and beautiful Nymphs: or ancient Roman times, showing slave auctions and gladiator fights in loving detail; or massive canvases highlighting the wars and people of the Napoleonic era.  Not to mention the occasional street urchin, or comely peasant girl.  We look at these pieces today and rightfully see the immense talent and consummate skill that was needed to do them.  But all the Impressionists like Monet, Renoir, Cezanne et. al., saw were paintings that had absolutely no bearing on the world they lived in.

You know what?  I'm kinda going with the Impressionists on this one.

Don't get me wrong; I love the Academic painters.  I think Gerome, Bouguereau and all are absolutely fantastic artists.  But like the young-buck painters of the 1870's, I just don't buy into paintings of Greek Mythology, Ancient Roman life etc., either.  And when they tried to paint to the average guy with pleasing pictures of children and pretty peasant women, all I see is saccharine Victorian sentimentality at its worst.  Honestly, while I can understand and appreciate the talent involved, if I was told that only subject matter like that is considered Art, I'd rebel too.

Monet and company wanted to show what was recognizable to most Frenchmen:  A train station, canals, small villages that were populated with real, identifiable people.  They wanted honesty in their portrayals, so they went to the location and painted it from life, not from imagination in a studio.  You won't find any fierce Satyrs hiding in Monet's haystacks.  There are no rhapsodic Angels floating through Cezanne's skies.  And when Renoir wanted to paint a naked woman, he did-- and he didn't call her a "Nymph" or "Roman Slave".  Oh, and that yellow/blue dab thing?  It was an ingenious way of solving the problem of trying to convey the vibration of color and light that we see when out doors.

But most importantly:  The Impressionists won, so their descendants get to write the history.

Art books still lavish more praise on them than they do the 19th Century Academic painters.  The reason is that in the art tree of life, (as written by the current Powers-That-Be) the Impressionists are considered a vital root, while the poor Academics are relegated to Australo-Pithecus status; An evolutionary dead-end.  But the Ice Age is thawing from the art landscape, and as it recedes, the likes of Bouguereau and Gerome are coming into view again.  And the more they are seen, the more they become appreciated.  The more they become appreciated and held up as the ideal in painting, the more one other thing about history becomes evident:  The past always repeats itself.

That doesn't really bode well for witches, now- does it?



Daniel said...

I don't really have anything to add, but I really enjoyed this post, so I thought I oughta tell you.

Kevin Mizner said...

Thank you, Daniel!

Susan Roux said...

I really wasn't sure where you were going with this one, but you surprised me for siding with the Impressionist!

The French were and still are quite innovative...