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GIRODETíS SENSATIONALISM
by Donald Kuspit
 
Charismatic "appeal" has two meanings: a powerful esthetic attraction to the public, and a cry for help artfully disguised or transcended. . . . Charisma also involves a state of amnesia toward the past, or suppression of the past. It is the charismaticís gift to make large numbers of people forget the past, forget themselves temporarily, and†† live vividly in the spell of the present.
David Aberbach, Charisma in Politics, Religion and the Media: Private Trauma, Public Ideals

. . . an experience of infinity can arise when a negative feedback or control function does not occur. This must happen when a limit-setting function, a "super-ego" control element perhaps, is loosened or lost for whatever reason. Likewise, an infinity can arise in circumstances of a positive feedback "running away with itself". Perhaps in this region lie two of humankindís most powerful emotions: the joy of freedom and the dread of chaos. Specifically, emotional infinitization gives rise to mania. . . . By its nature mania obliterates control and containment, it inevitably seeks limitlessness. It is this escape from control and limits that is the joy of elation -- and the triumph, terror and social destructiveness of mania.

Eric Rayner, Unconscious Logic

. . . the pleasure of being devoured into erotic sleep.

Bertram Lewin, The Psychoanalysis of Elation

There is no question that Anne-Louis Girodet is one of the great figures in the history of modern art, indeed, as crucial to its early development as Goya and Gericault. Like them, Girodet is one of the founding fathers of modern romanticism, but he was much more influential than they were. He was influential into the 20th century, which is when his reputation revived: a literary painter of romantic fantasies, most notoriously The Sleep of Endymion (1791) (also called Endymion, Moonlight Effect), Girodet was a predecessor of Symbolism and Surrealism, as Sylvain Bellenger notes in his brilliant catalogue essay in Girodet, 1767-1824 (Musée du Louvre / Gallimard). Symbolist and Surrealist imagery also tended to the poetic and perverse (often confused with one another). The Symbolists and Surrealists were also sexually suggestive if not overtly sexual. They were certainly beyond the pale of the good sexual manners established by the classicism in which Girodet was trained. One was allowed to view but not touch the classical nude -- but Endymion seems to invite one to touch his fleshy body. It is far from classically fit, and has been thought to be homosexually suggestive. (Is that so unclassical?)

The exhibitionistic painting made Girodetís reputation, as seemingly obscene (sexually inviting, or at least erotically titillating) pictures will, all the more so when they are masterfully executed. The public enjoys erotic imagery -- Endymionís body is unblemished, in the bloom of youth and overripe for picking, just as a slick pornographic body should be -- in whatever esthetic disguise. It no doubt bridges the gap between aroused and frustrated desire, becoming, as Freud said art is, a substitute gratification. Girodetís Endymion may also help the viewer -- male or female -- forget the guilt and shame he or she may feel in the presence of the sexualized naked body. After all, a body whose nakedness and sexiness is sanctioned by art has to be blameless.

The public is also ready to applaud a serious artist who stoops to conquer it -- pander to its forbidden desires with all the craft at his command -- indicating that heís not as fundamentally different from them as he may believe he is. His creativity does not make him superior to the human condition: In painting Endymion -- using high art to convey "low life," myth to convey emotional reality -- Girodet showed that he was as vulnerable to his feelings and sexuality as anyone else.

As Bellenger writes, Girodet had an "irresistible love of provocation," and Endymionís glossy body, vulnerably asleep, is sexually provocative. Girodet pictures it in exquisite detail, but bathes it an aura of inarticulateness -- the torso is a startling burst of light, making it all the more hypnotic, while the genitals are veiled in darkness, suggesting a secretive sexual act (the painting is generally dark, with light edging Cupidís body and the forest of leaves) -- that makes it seem seductive and supernatural at once. Asleep in an erotic haze, as though bewitched by the moonlight that falls on him (a symbol of the goddess who was taken with his beauty), the viewer is also bewitched. If a dream is a wish fulfillment, as Freud said, then The Sleep of Endymion is a bewitching dream picture, fulfilling universal unconscious wishes.

The Symbolists and Surrealists also made dream pictures -- pictures that were modeled on the dream and were meant to have a dream-like effect. Girodet made what many scholars regard as the archetypal dream picture, The Ghosts of French Heroes Welcomed by Ossian into Odinís Paradise (1801). (When the painting was exhibited in the Salon of 1802, it was titled The Apotheosis of French Heroes Who Died for Their Country during the War for Liberty, and was accompanied, as Bellenger notes, by a six-page catalogue "description of the picture" written by Girodet, minutely detailing and decoding the complex scene, which "baffled. . . the members of the press.") What Goya signaled in The Sleep of Reason Produces Nightmares (1795) blossomed into a florid daydream in Girodetís theatrical painting.

Girodetís two paintings are not simply romantic, but, as I want to argue, they are sensational: They are the beginning of modern sensationalism -- kitsch romanticism, as it were. Kitsch means popular and mass culture, and Girodetís two paintings were very popular, indeed, notorious crowd-pleasers, all the more so because they were "bizarre," to use Girodetís word, or, as Bellenger said, had a "sense of mystery." They imply the same thing: The paintings were absurd. They had charismatic appeal, like Girodet himself, rather than classical appeal, like the sober academic paintings of David, his teacher. The cognoscenti may have been perplexed by their symbolism and upset by their departure from classical tradition, but the public couldnít care less: They were thrilling. Girodet may have been an advanced artist before there was "advanced art" -- Bellenger lists his avant-garde credentials, among them the fact that he is "the archetype of the artist tormented by originality and creative innovation," that is, "the accursed artist," and "herald[s]. . . artistic bohemianism" and flamboyance, even "organiz[ing] what might be called Ďhappeningsí" in his studio -- but he was also kitschy before there was kitsch.

And he is also "postmodernist," which may explain the renewed interest in him. If postmodernism answers the call for "the re-enchantment of art," to use Suzi Gablikís phrase -- after its total disenchantment by Minimalism and Conceptualism (and its lukewarm enchantment in Pop Art), and with that wide-spread disillusionment with contemporary art beyond the cognoscenti of the artworld (arenít movies more enchanting, at least to the adolescent in all of us?) -- then thereís no better master to give us lessons in enchantment than Girodet. And if postmodernism involves a return to allegorical narrative and full-fledged -- rather than modernist fragmented and distorted -- figures, then Girodet is a master storyteller and figure painter.

His teacher David thought so; he was apparently Davidís favorite student -- until he broke with David by painting the romantic figure of Endymion. Girodet was a true believer in artís power to enchant us -- transport us to a dream world in which each every detail seemed dusted with fairy powder, making it irresistible to the unconscious.

Girodet also seems to have been ahead of his times in his political activism -- he enthusiastically joined the French Revolution -- suggesting that he was a harbinger of the short-lived mid-century period when the political and artistic avant-gardes were inseparable (Renato Pogioli describes this in detail in The Theory of the Avant-Garde). But Bellenger notes that Girodetís activism was more superficial than it appears to be. It had more to do with "patriotic bravado" -- it was as though the French Revolution, with its emotional excitement, enacted Girodetís rebelliousness and excitement -- than with serious concern for social change, that is, basic change in the structure of authority and power. Bellenger makes it clear that Girodet was more concerned to survive the change of regimes than with the character of the regime in which he survived. Bellenger calls him an opportunist, but I think he was brilliantly adaptive. All that seriously mattered to Girodet was his art -- he was completely devoted to it, often working day and night, with manic intensity, to the detriment of his health (he seems to have died from exhaustion, as Bellenger remarks, and perhaps also syphilis). Girodet did what he could to further his career, petitioning both the Republic and Empire for commissions. He was often rejected, but persisted, and finally achieved the success to which he felt entitled. The staying power of his art mattered to him, not that of the politicians he had to deal with. He may have had to support them -- carry them in triumph on the shoulders of his art, as he did in his painting of Napoleon in Imperial Dress (1813) -- to get them to support him, but for him the triumph of his art was greater than theirs, especially because it would last longer. (Bellenger notes that Girodet was privately wealthy, and afraid of losing his property when the revolution turned radical during the Terror. He was a great collector and esthete, spending prodigally on beautiful objets díart and all kinds of "poetic" things.)

The lighting in the Endymion and Ossian paintings leads directly to Hollywood (the former to the sultry glamour film, the latter to Disney fantasy world), and the cynical eagerness with which Girodet marketed himself, especially to Napoleon -- another flamboyant character with a cynical talent for show business (tyrants know itís a great way to dazzle and manipulate crowds) -- suggests that he was a predecessor of what Erich Fromm calls the "marketing personality," for Fromm the personality type of our time. In Girodet, the avant-garde "cult of [artistic] personality," as Bellenger calls it, and the kitsch cult of marketing personality -- the marketing of the atypical artistic personality and the marketing of the stereotypical mass society personality (epitomized by Hollywood celebrity "artistes") -- effortlessly converge. Girodet was an original -- one of those individuals who are not predicted by history, but radically change it, Bellenger says -- but he quickly became a stereotype, that is, the very model of the model modern artist, as an avant-garde personage and as a kitsch culture caricature.

But I am not being entirely fair to Girodet. His romanticism can be understood as a kind of corrupted classicism -- just as kitsch art can be understood as corrupted romanticism (horror tale included) -- but he also introduced something into art that was not as forcefully there before: the infinite. He introduced the sublimity of infinity into modern art, not in the passive form of Caspar David Friedrichís space, but rather in the dynamic form of atmospheric light. It suffused and agitated space, sometimes with the sudden power of a spotlight penetrating depressing darkness, as in the Endymion painting, sometimes like a tidal wave overtaking and dissolving the darkness, as in the Ossian painting. The welcoming nymphs are in effect that tidal wave, ready to turn the French warriors into light by embracing them.

No such manic/depressive melodramatic light had been seen before, not even in Caravaggioís and Rembrandtís tenebristic religious imagery, nor for that matter in the flickering gold of medieval altarpieces illuminated by candlelight. It is an insinuating, self-dramatizing light, at once poignant and forceful. In the Endymion painting, it caresses the hedonistic figures it discloses. It is as though a finger of light was running along the skin of Cupidís body, arousing it in foreplay. In the Ossian painting, the bodies of the dead soldiers are slowly but surely losing their density to the light. They are losing materiality, even as the light is materialized in the person of Ossian. The background is a sea of light. It swarms with ambiguous figures, simultaneously immaterial and material. The light in the Endymion painting adds presence to the unconscious figure, making us conscious of its sensuality, while the light in the Ossian painting is a graverobber: It robs the dead heroes of substance, and becomes the only living substance in the picture. Transfigured into mirages, the heroes only exist transubstantially: They are present only by the grace of the miracle that is light.††

Girodet infinitizes Endymionís finite flesh by introducing light into it, giving it an uncanny radiance -- a "cold luminiscence," as Bellenger says. Endymion becomes an apparition -- a kind of hallucination. The light is less cold in Danae (1798), but her body is just as hallucinatory. She too is surrounded by depressing darkness. The body in Mademoiselle Lange as Danae (1799) also has a touch of the apparitional about it. Sheís just as vain as the earlier Danae, but unlike her, Mademoiselle Lange doesnít bestow her sexual favors unless sheís paid to do so -- a message that got Girodet in trouble with the sitter. The body of Atala in The Burial of Atala (1808) also has a hallucinatory quality, and the figures in Scene from a Deluge (1806) are clearly histrionic hallucinations. But the figures in the Ossian painting are consummate hallucinations compared to the others. They complete the process of hallucinogenesis -- otherwise known as transcendentalization -- begun in the Endymion painting.

Whatever else it is about, the Ossian painting is about light. Even when it is implicated in darkness, light remains the fundamental subject matter. Light has more presence than any figure, however mysteriously present they are -- because they are imbued with light. The ghostly figures -- some more obviously ghostly than others, especially those on the verge of becoming transparent or disappearing into the light -- are expressive emblems and instruments of light. They disturbed David. On seeing them, David famously exclaimed: "He is mad, Girodet. . . Or I no longer understand anything of the art of painting! These are crystal figures he has made. . . What a shame! With his fine talent, he will never create anything but follies. . . he has no common sense." If classicism is common sense, then David was right.

Girodet won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1789, the same year the French Revolution began. He "arrived at the French Academy in the Palazzo Mancini in Rome on May 30, 1790." It was where he painted The Sleep of Endymion, which is clearly a revolutionary painting, however ostensibly academic. Bellenger notes that after "the monarchy was abolished and the Republic proclaimed in Paris on September 21, 1792" -- which was when "the allegory of Liberty became the official emblem of the French nation" -- Girodet "wore his hair Ďshort in the ancient styleí and looked like the bust of the tyrannicide Brutus," which is the way he was represented by his friend Joseph Chinard on a 1792 medallion. The king was on trial -- he was executed on January 21, 1793 -- and "the population of Rome," dominated by the Vatican, "became increasingly hostile." "Matters came to a head when the fleurs-de-lys were removed from the pediment of the Palazzo Mancini and replaced with the insignia representing the new allegory of the Republic; in response, the French Academy was wrecked and ransacked, a public official was murdered, the students were driven out, and the Palazzo Mancini ceased to be the premises of the French Academy in Rome." On January 13, 1793, Girodet was one of a group of students who were attacked by a crowd of Romans while painting "the new emblem of Liberty. . . on the pediment of the Academy," but managed to escape harm (one student was murdered) and flee on foot to Naples the next day. Rome was "the European Capital of the ĎReturn to the Antiqueí," as Marc Fumaroli says in his catalogue essay, and David was "the French Master of the ĎReturn to the Antiqueí." The classical antique was clearly not compatible with modern revolution, and the revolutionary Sleep of Endymion was clearly not compatible with Davidís version of the classical antique. Girodet rejected all that David stood for -- especially the academicization of classicism -- however much he continued to use classical ideas in his paintings, and maintained the high standards of classical craft.

Bellenger calls The Sleep of Endymion Girodetís "manifesto of independence, doing everything he could think of in order to move away from the style of David." "I want to avoid plagiarism," Girodet stated. He was happy with the response to the painting when it was exhibited: "What did please me was that with one voice they all said that I was nothing like Mr. David." If David was Girodetís "spiritual father," as Bellenger writes, and David was the father of academic classicism, what did Girodet spiritually achieve when he rebelled against him and academic classicism? It seems no accident that Girodetís rebellion occurred during the French Revolution, which gave a license to rebel, indeed, made rebellion popular -- rebel against the old order, including the old order of art, the authority of old art, and of the art establishment, which is exactly what David was. What does it mean to say that The Sleep of Endymion is a romantic painting rather than a classical painting, whatever its classical aspect?

As David suggests, classicism is common sense. Common sense means the use of reason common to all human beings, if not always in evidence in their behavior. It is reason that makes people human, however animal they remain. Reason means controlling the animal in human nature -- bringing the obvious animal under the control of less obvious reason, what it means to become a civilized person. Classicism is the epitome of civilized control, and the academic is absolute control -- control become doctrinaire, control dogmatically enforced, that is, overcontrol, or, if one wants, overcivilization. When Bellenger writes that "[a]fter he had Ďbeen crowned,í [with the Prix de Rome] Girodet became increasingly impatient with his educational straitjacket," and expressed "harsh criticism of David, in relation to whom he adopted a distance tinged with open hostility and distrust," he reminds us that David exercised total control over Girodetís art and destiny. Girodetís rebellion against David was his attempt to take control of his art and destiny -- to wrest control of them from the famous artist who had been his master and achieve his own fame and mastery. It is perhaps this above all that makes him avant-garde: Girodet is the first in a long line of avant-garde artists who rebelled against academic training, or at least they did until the avant-garde opened its own academies (with a few exceptions, now the only ones). He was the first modern artist to show that anti-establishment art could be accepted by the establishment, however outrageous they first thought it was, and thus become establishment art, which is what avant-garde art is today.

Girodet wanted freedom from academic control -- the personal and social freedom from authoritarian rule the revolutionary emblem of Liberty embodied. But for Girodet academic classicism was not just controlled and controlling but overcontrolled and overcontrolling, and as such, creativity-stifling. To continue to be a classical artist was to commit creative suicide. For Girodet, David was a soul murderer, and Girodet rebelled against David to protect the soul of his art, and made art that murdered the soul of Davidís art in revenge. Revenge had replaced envy.

Bellenger makes a good case for Girodetís obsession with success and his envy of those more successful than himself -- especially David. Davidís disciples lived off his reputation and the classical education he gave them, but Girodet made his own reputation and transcended his classical education, by becoming a so-called romantic. Always curious and constantly learning -- which is what his fanatical collecting was about (apart from the emotional needs it satisfied) -- his art became more intellectually and emotionally complex -- "paradoxical," to use Bellengerís word -- than Davidís art, suggesting that Girodet had greater creative capacity than his teacher.

The alternative to conscious, rational control may be creative freedom, but liberty -- taking creative liberty with classicism -- carried too far becomes romantic lunacy. Girodet wanted artistic freedom, but in overthrowing the super-ego control of Davidís classicism, he exposed the infinite madness of the unconscious. The silvery moonlight in The Sleep of Endymion is a sign of lunacy -- divine madness, if you want to call it that. Luna is the ancient Roman goddess personifying the moon, and to be a lunatic -- a devotee of Luna -- is to be moonstruck, as Endymion is. Luna is the alchemical sign of silver, and Endymionís torso is embalmed in silvery moonlight. The lunatic light feeds on his body, as though replenishing itself, however much it remains self-generating. Girodetís light gathers momentum, becoming more and more manic, threatening to obliterate all sense of control. All forms will completely dissolve in its delirious formlessness, which is what seems about to happen in the Ossian painting. Girodet seems to flesh out his elated phantom figures only in nominal conformity to classical demands.

I am suggesting that Endymion is a soul-portrait of Girodet under the spell of the moon. Endymion is totally self-absorbed, a narcissist waiting to be reflected in the eyes of the admiring public, like Girodet. I am suggesting that the peculiar unintelligibility of Girodetís painting -- thus the incomprehension of the press, which was accustomed to the classical intelligibility of Davidís paintings -- has as much to do with the moonlight that informs the scene as with its novel rendering of Cupid. (As Bellenger notes, he carries an empty quiver on his back, and has been "transform[ed]. . . into Zephyr, the springtime wind of aerial lightness," by reason of the "blue and green wings" he "sports," which are "narrow and velvety like those of a moth.") The aura cast by the moonlight evokes the aura that announces the onset of an attack of madness, hopefully creative madness. (The psychologist Louis Sass finds it in De Chiricoís proto-Surrealist paintings.)

To be romantic is to be mad, to liberate oneself from social and self-control, and to be classical means to be sane, that is, to accept inner and outer control, or at least have them as ideals. Classicism, which asserted the power and rights of the ego, became super-egoistic in neo-classicism -- academicized classicism. As many scholars point out, however romantically mad they are, Girodetís most famous paintings never entirely lose their grip on classical sanity, however much they lose their academic character. Thus, the romantic element of infinitizing light is the crucial aspect of The Sleep of Endymion, but the classical iconography is also important. The bodies of Endymion and Cupid are also classical in import -- classically proportioned and clearly ideal. The work is a romantic vision but it has a classical underpinning, formally as well as iconographically. This is true of virtually all of Girodetís "romantic" pictures, including such empirically descriptive works as Young Child Studying His Lessons (1800), one of the earliest attempts to articulate the mental state of a child -- another indication of Girodetís curiosity and modernity. And genius -- he was a much more authentic, insightful genius than David, who was overly dependent on classicism and thus less trusting of emotional life, which he conveyed inadequately, certainly in comparison to Girodet.†

The child, Benoit Agnes Trioson, was the son of Girodetís mentor and stepfather. The boy died young, making him all the more "romantic." (Keats, Shelley and Byron also died young.) Putting his book aside, he gazes off into the distance, thinking his own thoughts, his face radiant with consciousness. He is shown in the traditional pose of melancholy, his head resting on one hand. It is an astonishing psychological portrait, pre-dating Gericaultís portraits of the insane, which attempt to convey their mental state, but are much less convincing than Girodetís singular portrait. All the more so because Girodet shows the boy as an individual, not as a type. It is rare enough to treat children as serious persons -- Goya and Velazquez do so -- and even rarer to realize they have a serious mental life. Girodet was able to convey it, perhaps because he projected his own melancholy into the child, as Bellenger suggests, but also because he had genuine respect and love for his stepbrother. His art has the quality of intimacy that Davidís art lacks.

Gericaultís most modern works, then, combine overcontrol and lunacy, brilliantly integrating them into romantic hyberbole. Lunacy is more charismatic than classical control, because the lunatic has clearly been traumatized, that is, has lost his reason and self-control, and thus lives in the impulsive present, which is where, unconsciously, we would all like to live, just like children. (Is Benoit Agnes Trioson haunted by time, depressed by the long time it takes to become an adult, and all the things it takes time to learn in order to be one, to take oneís independent place in society? The more grown up one is, the more aware of time, and with it death -- a recurrent theme in Girodetís pictures [Endymion is in effect dead to the world] -- one is.) The impulsive light in The Sleep of Endymion gives Endymionís classical body its charismatic presence and immediacy. Classical form has no charisma -- reason has no charisma. (Which is perhaps why it has little appeal.) Without the supplement of irrational moonlight -- lunatic light, as it were -- Endymionís classical form lacks immediacy and poignancy, expressive power and passion, that is, emotional impact, and thus instant appeal.

We canít all be aristocrats, but we all have emotions, which is why Girodet pitched his art to the emotions, and with that, to the people. Whatever else it was about, the French Revolution was an emotional revolution. The aristocrats who ran France until the Revolution imagined they were super-egos, different in kind from ordinary egos. After all, they thought they had different blood in their veins, and the divine right of kings gave them certain rights and privileges. The king was the super-ego of France, and the aristocrats carried out his commands and enforced his rules. They were many little kings rather than one big king, satellites of the all-powerful Sun King from whom they gained their power and authority. The French Revolution was not only a revolution against an oppressive government, but also against a way of thinking -- thinking that regarded some human beings as inferior by nature to other innately superior human beings. It was a revolution for humanity as a whole.

It was initially a bourgeois revolution against aristocratic authority -- Bellenger regards Girodet as a "bourgeois revolutionary" -- that briefly became a populist revolution during the Terror. However short-lived and anarchical, this historical moment of populist rebellion became the model for future humanistic revolutions. Supposedly, the social destructiveness and terror they let lose are for the good of humanity as a whole -- clearly a very abstract humanity. Nonetheless, humanistic revolutions insist that all human beings have the same rights. This is the point of Girodetís Portrait of Citizen Belley, Ex-Representative of the Colonies (1797), "the first example of a black man represented in the official position of a Western political legislator," as Bellenger says. It is clearly a statement of liberty, equality and fraternity. Humanistic revolutions also imply that high socioeconomic class and influence does not necessarily mean "natural" superiority to those of lesser socioeconomic class. And that all human beings can rise into positions of sociopolitical importance, assuming they have the merit to do so and the ability to function in them.

This is why the French Revolution in its most populist phase inevitably led to the ideal of a classless society. Little did Girodet realize that when he attacked David, his artistic super-ego, he would be opening the floodgates of modern lunatic creativity -- modern artistic chaos (more politely, "democratic diversity," which means diversity without an "aristocratic" hierarchy of value, and thus with no "classical" standards of excellence) -- while at the same time carrying the banner of liberty, equality and fraternity into an imaginary socialist future. And also into sensationalist mass culture, where everyone has the same right to be entertained. Girodetís romantic paintings are, after all, still good entertainment, much more so than most movies.

"Girodet: Romantic Rebel," May 24ĖAug. 27, 2006, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue. New York, N.Y. 10028. The exhibition has previously appeared at the Louvre and the Art Institute of Chicago, and subsequently goes on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Oct. 12, 2006-Jan. 21, 2007.


DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.