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    academic grooves
by Peter Schjeldahl
 
     
 
The Death of Moses
Alexandre Cabanel
1851
(detail)
 
The Death of Moses
 
The Death of Moses
(detail)
 
Jesus in the Praetorium
Alexandre Cabanel
1845
 
Jesus in the Praetorium
Francois-Leon Benouville
1845
 
Joseph's Coat Brought Back to Jacob
Jules Ambroise Francois Naudin
1841
"Training an Artist: Alexandre Cabanel and the Academic Process in 19th-century France," Mar. 16-June 13, 1998, at the Dahesh Museum, 601 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.

New York has everything.

The Dahesh Museum is a peculiar little place, in jewel-box second-floor quarters near Rockefeller Center, with a peculiar little mission: to promote 19th-century European academic art. You know, the Salon stuff that is the biggest single item of roadkill ever -- a woolly mammoth peaceably rotting -- along the highway of art history. Opened in 1995, the Dahesh realizes the dream of a late Lebanese collector whose initial plan to establish it in Beirut in the 1970s proved poorly timed.

The museum's present exhibition is fascinating and weirdly, even pretty wonderfully, of this moment. I'm not sure that I fully grasp all of the zeitgeisty reasons for the convergence, but I know what caught my eye in the Dahesh's press release for this show:

"Viewers are invited to question assumptions that surround masters in the visual arts: notably, the notion that artists are born rather than made and that great works of art are unique strokes of genius rather than elaborate paraphrasings of an accepted artistic vocabulary."

Now, what does that sound like? It sounds like -- or, rather, it is -- boilerplate of post-modernistic, deconstructionist critical theory. And it fits the ancient Beaux-Arts dogma like spandex. A century and a half before today's academic poststructuralists, French academic ideologues were scorning Romantic "originality" and upholding fluency in semiotic repertoires.

Should the echo surprise? Academies are academies, right? Plus ça change and all that. Still, I enjoy envisioning recent, lean and mean, supposedly radical critiques of bourgeois culture in bed with decrepit, flabby, lumpen-aristocratic pieties that Baudelaire and Manet pushed off against. It tickles my personal antiacademic bias. But it also may argue for new forensic interest in the old woolly beast.

Two possibilities arise: that much new-fangled critical theory has been crypto-reactionary all along and that the old-fashioned Beaux-Arts legacy has been unjustly neglected. Both propositions may be true. This show suggests that some interesting, entertaining and perhaps valuable ideas got junked by the modern-art revolution.

Lost, for one thing, was a system of artist training as grueling as boot camp or med school. This Dahesh exhibition highlights competitions for the loftiest Beaux-Arts laurel, the Prix de Rome. Limited to single French males under 30, the contest was an elimination tournament of drills -- half-figure compositions, so-called "heads of expression," studies for a history painting on a given theme, then the completed painting -- for which a dwindling number of aspirants were locked in their studios for hours, days and weeks at a stretch. The annual event was splendid, sporting fun for the public.

The show stars Alexandre Cabanel, whose vast, blowzy, once celebrated history painting The Death of Moses (1851) was lately acquired by the museum. (Bought at a then amazing price for Washington's Corcoran Gallery in 1874, the work later passed into deaccessioned private purdah.) Cabanel came in second to François-Léon Benouville for the Prix of 1845, when the subject du jour was Jesus mocked. Also included are Benouville -- his quite gross winning picture hangs next to Cabanel's much finer one -- and a whiz kid who would mature into the sugary semipornographer relished by American robber barons, Adolphe-William Bouguereau.

The trouble with academic art, as with academic anything, is that is starts with the answers to the major questions of what its field is and is good for. Every possible conclusion is known in advance. All student effort goes into learning codes that can only replicate themselves with trivial variations. Except for terminal control freaks, this is depressing -- unless one finds an unanticipated, perhaps perverse way of looking at it.

I believe that such a way, freshly appreciating the likes of Cabanel, is increasingly available, and that backstage approaches like the Dahesh's serve it. (Directly viewing epic academic machines in the Metropolitan or the Louvre doesn't work. Their roadkill reek is too overpowering.) The trick is to enter imaginatively into a process by which gifted individuals made burnt offerings of their individuality.

Don't most people, in our present age of Dilbert-ish corporations as well as academic squirrel cages, undergo such spiritual immolation as a matter of course? The fate of a Cabanel is accordingly poignant. He gave up his being for the identity of a master painter. Does culture today offer livelier bargains? Maybe, but to negotiate one you had better be hip to the standard options.

Cabanel was a terrific, plainly Delacroix-influenced colorist, though to the merely ornamental extent that academic practice countenanced. His tyro picture of Jesus in distress features lovely, rippling delicacies of shadowed hue, and The Death of Moses is startlingly scrumptious here and there. A credible hand is visible in works of incredible foolishness. At the Dahesh, I found myself seizing on shreds of beauty in Cabanel as on sentimental treasures from a tornado-wrecked trailer court.

How interesting that the Beaux-Arts jury bypassed Cabanel for the staggeringly vulgar Benouville, whose gloomy Christ does a slow burn amid a raucous mob of central-casting ethnic types. I am reminded that academic taste, then as now, tends to be esthetically crude while doctrinally ever so refined. It is not inconsistent with cynical mob appeal -- in this case, a coarse vaudeville groove such as that era's academy-baiting wild man Gustave Courbet would never have stooped to.

An 1850 "head of expression" by the 25-year-old Bouguereau, Disdain, is ideal cover art for the important new book that somebody ought to write on the academic spirit down through the ages. Exquisitely obnoxious, the face of a naked-shouldered woman prunes with heavy-lidded unamusement. The picture's codification of a human emotion -- or not even that, but the concept of an emotion -- epitomizes academicism, which seeks general meaning uncontaminated by particular experience.

In the air today, notably in the works of certain younger painters, is an impulse to particularize, manipulate and strangely relish systems of general meaning themselves, as objects of experience. The impulse is most obvious in such things as John Currin's subtle bending of trashy illustrational genres and Elizabeth Peyton's spiritualizing of callow fanzine imagery. But I expect the approach to spread -- eventually producing a grand burlesque of all related mindsets, including the academic.

Take Alexandre Cabanel. Add comic intent and a dash of tragedy. You now have a jump on the 21st century.


PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.