In 2 weeks, I begin teaching another adult course (probably my last for awhile) about another group of very unfashionable artists from an unfashionable past; The NeoClassicists and the Romantics from around the turn of the 19th century. My last class was about German Modernism from 1892 to 1937. Except for the nice things from the Vienna Secession, and that clean precisionist design from the Bauhaus, German 20th century stuff is way too ernst for fashionable taste. I can remember when I first visited MoMA in 1982, Max Beckmann's Departure was hanging on a landing in a stairwell. In the 90s he rose in esteem and got a gallery of his own. I'm not sure what his current status is now in that new bank-lobby-as-museum MoMA building.
I sometimes think that sincerity is the worst sin for art critics. Cool detachment, formalism, and irony (definitely NOT the tragic kind) have dominated American official taste in art for almost 50 years now. You'd think they'd finally get tired of art world in-jokes, but 45 years after the first few, that well still has yet to run dry. I think that's why David Wojnarowicz's work dropped so completely off the radar so soon after his death. His work is so sincere, and worse, urgent in tone. Wojnarowicz now enjoys something of a midnight movie cult following from marginal types like me. And now, here I am about to teach a whole survey class in Romantic art when the recent Turner show at the Met got a thorough drubbing from the critics.
So, what do the critics like? Most of them will answer that they like something like Chardin, like the splendid painting illustrated above. They all praise how he re-enchants the ordinary, how he reconstitutes reality in grainy luminous paint and presents it afresh and full of poetic suggestion. All of that is very true. And yet, pardon my cranky inner socialist, but that kind of taste is so high end consumerist in the worst way. Chardin himself would bristle at the idea that all reality is there for our aesthetic gratification, and that the artist's job is but that of a retail sales clerk, to help us sort through all the choices. I wonder how much these folks really "get" Chardin.
Yes, there are paintings like the one above that are formal delights. A pile of fresh strawberries becomes a cone of fiery red glowing like hot coals. Next to it is the inverted cone of a cool glass of water playing off against the heat. The same dialogue is repeated in the contrast between the cool white carnations and the red cherries and peach.
But those formal pleasures are firmly embedded in moral rectitude.
Chardin, Saying Grace, 1741
Chardin's work is formed by solid bourgeois values of honesty, industry, thrift, duty, and piety. Most of his small paintings are set downstairs in the kitchens and sculleries of prosperous well run middle-class households. They are about the work that goes into keeping house. The still lives are almost always things from the kitchen. Very rarely does a piece of fine Sevres porcelain find its way into a Chardin painting. That grainy laborious brushwork so praised by modern critics is not Cezannesque self consciousness about painting, it is about honesty and industry. It was meant to be seen as the diametric opposite of the flashy virtuosity of most Rococo brushwork. Chardin's rewards are hard won through honest labor, not dashed off like a mere bagatelle.
The painting of the Brandied Apricots at the top is a perfect example. At first, it looks like an idle glance at randomly gathered things on a kitchen shelf. In fact, it has that very formal sense of rightness that won Chardin the respect and admiration of his colleagues in the French National Academy. It is a superbly balanced composition in the very difficult format of an oval. The oval is echoed in the cheese box to the right. The canvas stretched over a frame that constitutes the painting is very cleverly echoed in the tightly wrapped packages, and especially in the piece of cloth tied across the mouth of the apricot jar. There is a beautiful play of diagonals between the packages on the right, the spoon in the cup, the knife handle coming toward us, and the shape of the wine glass on the left. There is a wide range of beautifully harmonized colors from deep rich reds in the wine glass to the cool blue of the wrapping paper on the right. This painting has all that sense of rightness, of soundness of mind and body that is the heart of the whole classical aesthetic. To their credit, Chardin's colleagues, all painters of huge history paintings, recognized and admired these qualities in his work. They elected him twice to the presidency of the Academy, a very high honor for a "mere" still life painter. He was apparently very well liked, which is unusual in a profession always dominated by bitter rivalries between huge glass egos.
Ours is an opulent imperial culture... that may be coming to an end in national bankruptcy. The only people who are still expected to be honest and industrious are the folks who get Food Stamps. I remember some years ago going through a big show of John Currin's work at the Whitney Museum. He was the flavor of the month almost 10 years ago. In many respects, they were beautiful paintings, superbly painted. And yet, as one of my colleagues remarked, there was more feeling in one painting by Arshile Gorky (who had a drawing show upstairs at the same time) than in Currin's whole show. Currin's work is loaded with art historical allusions to everyone from Cranach to Norman Rockwell. So what? What's the point other than making people who had access to an art education feel like congratulating themselves? I could see no driving necessity behind any of this work. My friend David Kaplan described it as "upper class navel gazing." It is work by and for a managerial elite. In that sense it called to my mind the portraitists and genre painters of the 18th century nobility like Liotard and Nattier. Except those painters usually let a flicker of humanity show beneath the carapace of fashion and pretense.