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The loss…

ART TIMES December, 2003

I DROPPED INTO The Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the El Greco show a week or so ago and, though I was understandably impressed, it was when I strolled over to the concurrent exhibit, "Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism," (thru Jan 4) that I found myself compelled to respond on a much deeper level. As stirring as El Greco’s huge color-filled canvases were, I eventually found his unremitting religiosity somewhat palling and it was in the quietly under-touted other show that I was moved by, not what one, but what a great many artists were capable of creating. As I moved from room to room – the exhibit is mounted on the second floor, in the Tisch Galleries – as I passed the Géricaults, the Constables, the Huets, the Vernets, the Delacroix’s, the Turner’s, the Daguerre’s, the Corot’s, the Boilly’s, the Bonington’s (I might go on but merely listing names can be somewhat boring) – as I passed canvases and motifs so large that I could only marvel at the amount of time and paint (not to mention skill and/or genius) it took to produce these masterworks, I experienced what it must have felt like to the young up-coming artists when they visited the official annual salons of 19th century Paris. Once I got past the almost overwhelming amount of pigment that assailed my eyes, I took a second walk-through, a more leisurely-paced one, to take note of the details I had missed at first blush. But it was on my third tour that I began to viscerally and consciously feel – as a painter – the impact of the work to which I was being exposed. I am, as some of my readers know, a dabbler in landscape painting, and on this last viewing I tried to imagine myself as a young apprentice of the 19th century studying the techniques of my elder (or, at least, more officially ‘recognized’) colleagues. What a sense of despair such a show must have had on these newcomers — each eager to keep pace with a quickening world, to find a ready fortune through the advent of the "short cut." What must they have felt when confronted with the immensities of the task which yet awaited them! Who can blame them, then, for focussing on a brushstroke of Velázquez, the quick slash of a Hals, and declaring that, after all, this was what art was all about? Who needed the laborious task of learning draftsmanship when it was merely color and shape that really mattered in the craft of painting? Who can fault those up-and-coming artists for the utter sense of defeat they must have felt in attempting to compete with these accomplished painters? As a young man in Cologne said to me many years ago when I was giving a lecture on tradition at Amerika Haus, "We changed the rules!" And so they have, so they have. Sure, one can point to large-scale canvases today – a Pollock, a Rothko, a Rosenquist – but which one can even come close to the detailed brushwork found in a Constable? Who today attempts to equal the virtuosity needed to duplicate a sea swell à la Vernet? A Huet tree? A Géricault torso? Hence the ready and eager rationale of those young 19th century artists to call such efforts as these academic masters "passé." But surely such specious argument did not sway the famed logic of French intellectuals. Oh sure, they eventually convinced the critics. But who could blame them either, since, as with the painters they wrote about, it simply made their jobs easier as well. Though it might take more inventive language to assess, for example, Franz Kline’s "Andrus" (1961), it takes considerably more acumen and technical knowledge of the craft to critically assess, say, Paul Delaroche’s "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey" (1833). We all know who won the field. Success to many artists (and critics) today is measured by who makes the biggest sale instead of who makes the largest contribution to humanity. Yes, after viewing this exhibit, I can understand what dampening effects such yearly salon shows must have wrought on the spirits of those young artists who dragged themselves through such displays – but oh, the loss! The loss…

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