Walters Show Explores Why and How French Artists Repeated Themselves
All of art's progressions begin with an iconic image and an author's desire to possess it. With a charred stick and a cave wall upon which to render the world's first known pictograph, someone outlined the original stags, bison, and their predators. Long afterward, many generations of similarly disposed appropriations followed, demonstrating the efforts to recapture the sui generic rendering--if not the actual myth, meat, or menace--such a work once represented.
The Walters Art Museum's Déjà Vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces is a treatise exhibition on the hierarchy of seminal images made in a much later 18th- and 19th-century academic milieu, and the comparative products of subsequent copyists. Several prototypical works from the hallowed halls of French art history have been selected to illustrate both the mastery and the master/student tradition of learning from redoing. Among them are Jean-Léon Gérôme's "The Duel After the Masquerade," Paul Delaroche's "L'Hemicycle des Beaux-Arts," Jean François Millet's "The Sower," Claude Monet's series of "Wheatstacks," Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' compulsive efforts to best himself with his "Oedipus and the Sphinx," and the show's compellingly romantic poster image, Jacques Louis David's "The Death of Marat."
The idea for a show of master copyists germinated several years ago, precipitating museum curator Eik Kahng's 2005 fellowship research on the phenomena of image repetition. Once common in the French academic practice of reproducing important works, 19th-century paintings of this ilk provide the exhibition concept the necessary aesthetic freight. Further secured by several significant examples within the Walters' own collection that had doppelgängers in other institutions, Kahng's interest in reproduction and repetition secured the go-ahead to organize this sincerely beautiful, instructive, and sensitizing exhibition.
In the accompanying catalog a curatorial dialogue among several theorists on the function and importance of serial repetition can be pored over. Kahng places it in a modern context within those pages, prodded particularly by the midcentury theories of George Kubler on "prime objects" and their fallout, and supported by a 1960s prime object engendered exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum titled Serial Imagery. The extrapolating content of the curatorial essay tends to make you wonder where we might find ourselves down the road.
In the current galleries, however, it is 100 percent French heroic and paysage narrative, and it begins quite appropriately with the many portrayals of "The Death of Marat." In the scene, Marat--the martyred thinker, activist, and spokesman for the French Revolution--has just been stabbed by Charlotte Corday, who has vanished into the black backdrop of the painting. Marat lies dying, collapsed in his tub, his influential quill pen still clutched upright in his fingers--a symbol for the ongoing force of his revolutionary ideals.
Reading the painting as the exhibition's thesis, it may occur to visitors that such inspirational, pivotal, dramatic subjects as these, more than the technical painting itself, are what teach copyists how to paint like the first painter, to imagine the instance and execute their paintings as if the passion issued from their own souls.
Each of the subsequent Marats conveys most of the fact of the original object, but also some of each apprentice's individuality, along with evidence of their varying skills (although all are entirely captivating) and some editorial text that the second-line artists insert here and there throughout their paintings. Kahng explains further into her essay that David actually encouraged his students to participate in his nearly religious reverence for the subject.
Another condition that motivated reproduction of art was to facilitate its transformation into an engraving. This was done to circulate the image in books and for consumption by a larger market. "Gérôme's "The Duel After the Masquerade" exemplifies this process, as does Delaroche's appropriated "L'Hemicycle" piece.
Ingres' set of"Oedipus and the Sphinx" paintings demonstrates a different repetition dynamic. In an effort to achieve a sublime result or gain some manner of revelation, the artist himself revisited his original composition on three occasions over perhaps half a century. Meanwhile, Monet searches for perfection or truth within a work by seeking out the myriad nuances in a given subject as he both follows and fuels a similar trajectory in the creation of his haystack multiples. Monet's approach to image-making is what established more self-conscious modernists' resolve for repetition and appropriation. And that is where Déjà Vu? winds down, as it runs out of its own season, but where the curatorial essay begins. Stay tuned for a sequel.
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