Famous Art Reproduced 1904
A few years ago, I found a very old book printed in 1904 titled Famous Art Reproduced. I think of the book as an important historical document of what the actually state culture was a hundred years ago. Often I feel like the protagonist of 1984, Winston Smith, digging to discover the actual past. The first thing I noticed was that there were no Impressionists paintings in the book; there was few landscapes. Most of the paintings covered are
either portraits or figurative paintings of some kind. This means that the account in art history of a century ago in books is to a great extent a construct of modernist ideology,
not an accurate account of the state of culture of the past.
Alfred-Pierre Agache – Vanity
Many of the paintings covered in the book can’t be found with a web search from the title. It may be that some of the pieces are now lost and the images in this book are all that remains of their existence. For example, the first image in the book, Alfred-Pierre Agache’s Vanity, I found an other version of the painting which did not include the man which seems to be a study for the more elaborate painting reproduced in the book. I was struck by how modern the woman is in appearance, but the title Vanity is obviously critical of such modernity.
Eugen von Blass – The Good Brother
It seems that the second image in the book, Eugen von Blaas’ The Good Brother, was intended as contrast to the first. The prevalence of intimate paintings of children in the book reflects that the old values still had a great influence. Art was not limited to impersonal experience of form texture and color, it was still about people. Several of Bouguereau’s paintings are included with commentaries expressing great regard for his art.
Carl Marr – The Flagellants
The first time I heard the word bourgeois was in an art history book that claimed that modern art was a negation of bourgeois values. Since the bourgeois were conservatives who supported artists like Bouguereau, I assumed they were the good guys. But H.R. Rookmaakers’ Modern Art and the Death of Culture made me realize that things are not so simple. Many of the paintings in the book are huge historical paintings of religious subjects. Carl Marr’s The Flagellants is a good example. Rookmaaker brought attention to the fact that the context of many religious works painted by academy artists of the 19th century was significantly different from the sacred paintings of the past. New methods of historiography were developed in the 19th century; a preoccupation with measurements, dates and geography. Rather than depict meaningful biblical subjects, many of the academic artists set out for precise reconstructions of history. Rookmaaker wrote, “if we paint events’ as they would have been seen’, they may well be interesting as history, but lose their true content, for there is no sense of being things of importance for all history and for all mankind.”
Franciszek Zmurko – Evening Song
The disposition of Franciszek Zmurko’s Evening Song is very different from the “historiography” of Marr’s painting. Zmurko presents a mythological scene with a poetic sense of representation. The difference between the two paintings is the difference between Lord of the Rings and a book report on Thomas Jefferson. The open sky and the balance of the composition gives the sense that each of the figures have significant part to play. Tranquil imagery of this kind evokes (at least for me) the longing for the far-off land C.S. Lewis described.
Auguste Trupheme – The Singing Lesson
The collective of boys in Auguste Trupheme’s The Singing Lesson are grounded in the cluttered material reality of a class room. Music is not given the open space to resonate as in Zmurko’s Evening Song. The painting is not a historical subject but Trupheme illustrated the scene with same disenchanting preoccupation with detail. The painting brings to mind an observation of Lewis, “He lives in the crowd; caucus has replaced friendship.” Rookmaaker pointed out that there was not much difference between many of the Salon artists and the Impressionists, both shared a basic outlook on reality that was positivist, painting what the eye could see. So both the “historiography” realists and the Impressionists actually reflected the same utilitarian view. In contrast, art from the earliest times was more than what the eye could see, it held a position with religion to give humanity a place universe, a view of what ought to be. Of course there was strong counter movement amongst artists in the 19th century to symbolize something beyond banal positivism but this longing was scrutinized by rational society. Today, the scrutiny manifests itself in the transgressions of postmodernism.