Romantic Kitsch

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The New York Sun

Artists’ reputations, indeed the reputations of whole periods of art, change with contemporary taste. And when a long-forgotten artist becomes fashionable again, his renewed popularity says as much about us as it does about him.

The genius and monumentality of El Greco, for instance, was obscured for centuries after his death in 1614. His rightful standing as a master was re-established by artists during the late 19th century, when his eccentric fusion of mannerist and Byzantine traditions was seen as a direct, back-to-the-future doorway into Modernism, Cubism, and abstraction. Similarly, it has only been since the advent of abstraction that we have come to understand the astounding richness and genius of the abstract art of ancient Sumer and Egypt.Art not only replenishes and renews itself by dipping into its own well; it reinvigorates our present with a renewed thirst for our past.

Occasionally, though, we may find that posterity was right the first time around.This is certainly true of the artist Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, who is being honored with a lavish traveling retrospective that originated at the Musee du Louvre, in Paris, and opened yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Girodet’s artistic reputation, which was once highly regarded and later obscured, might be better left forgotten.

The life of Girodet (1767-1824) makes for good biography. He was born into an aristocratic family,well-educated,and celebrated by such poets as Baudelaire, Balzac, and Chateaubriand. Studying in both Paris and Rome during the late 18th century, he had a rebellious temperament and was often caught in the political crossfire – which at times landed him in both French and Italian jails.

Girodet studied with the great Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. A star pupil and a popular artist, Girodet was extremely talented and facile – as was customary, he worked on David’s paintings alongside the master in his atelier – and some of his contemporaries believed that he eventually surpassed his teacher. He won numerous accolades, including the 1789 Prix de Rome and, upon his death, the rank of officer of the Legion of Honor, which was pinned to his coffin by Chateaubriand. Girodet’s funeral service, according to David’s biographer, Etienne Delecluze, was “celebrated with the greatest pomp; never had the farewell tributes paid,as etiquette requires, to earthly dignities, to rank and birth, attracted such a large gathering around a coffin.”

The Met’s exhibition attempts to re-establish Girodet’s reputation as equal to, if not greater than,David’s.In the belief, seemingly, that art advances because art history marches on, the show celebrates Girodet for helping to move the tradition of painting from Neoclassicism to Romanticism (and on to Modernism) – for shifting the artistic impulse from the rational to the emotional and for pushing the artistic temperament toward rebellion, individualism, and “the cult of personality.”

But this show proves that Girodet remains more important as a bridge than as a destination. His mature work has more to do with the syrupy and overstated canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites, the rosy-cheeked cherubs of Boucher, and the academicism of Bouguereau than with the masterful achievements of David, Ingres, Delacroix, Gericault, or Courbet.The further Girodet moves away from the Neoclassicism of David, the more he delves into slick schlock and kitsch.

The show begins with a display of Girodet’s early easel paintings surrounding David’s “The Oath of the Horatii (reduction)” (1786), a smaller version of the original that is believed to have been painted primarily by Girodet. The early canvases, though accomplished and clear, lack the precision, complexity, ease, and emotional density of David.

In these early paintings, including Girodet’s version of “The Oath of the Horatii,” it is already apparent that the artist is concerned more with the staging and accumulation of details – the emotional flourishes of drapery, the extended finger on a hand, a sitter’s curling locks of hair, and the glint on a sword – than with building a composition in which emotion is suffused in the picture’s crystalline relations. In David, as in Poussin and Mondrian (or Delacroix and Courbet), every form is essential: Move a line, and the composition, along with its metaphors, crumbles. In Girodet, forms seemingly could be moved willy-nilly without substantially altering the theatrical, sentimental message.

It is not that Girodet did not have the ability to become a great painter. Many of the early paintings, oil sketches, and drawings, including the studies for “Hippocrates Refusing the Gifts of Artaxerxes” (1792), “The Burial of Atala” (1808), and “The Revolt of Cairo” (1810), are loose, alive, and substantial. Also, some of his portraits, including the small “Portrait of the Artist” (1795), “Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley” (1797), and “Portrait of Madame Bertin de Vaux” (1809) show fortitude, sincerity, and promise. In each of these portraits, the distortions actually work toward displaying the personality of the sitter.

Elsewhere, though, his distortions feel like flourished exaggerations or idiosyncratic tics rather than essential elements serving the poetry of painting. It is as if he were chasing his own facility. Girodet seems to be seduced by his own hand, which gets fussier, slicker, and more constipated as time goes on.

By the time Girodet has completed his melodramatic “The Sleep of Endymion” (1791) – a large canvas in which the sleeping, nude Endymion is bathed in, and caressed by, Diana, who is personified by the light of the moon – it is clear that we are in the presence not of a masterpiece but of erotically charged illustrative pyrotechnics. This stage-lit painting of Endymion, stretched diagonally across the forest, as the nude Cupid frolics above him, is understood to be the artist’s first clear break with the Neoclassicism of David. Yet the canvas, all finessed surface and no form, is more than a break with David: It feels less like painting and more like soft-core porn.

From here on, Girodet’s glossy surfaces begin to move toward the hyperrealist concoctions of Dali. Often his figures do not interact with or relate to each other in any meaningful ways. Instead, as if each were wearing a mask, they adopt the canned self-conscious expressions – surprise, grief, joy, sadness, pain, lust, or dismay – of bad actors in a high school play. In the large, over-the-top canvas “Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes” (1801), an orgy of figures rush toward one another, including, at the center, two dogs who kiss each other on the mouth.This ambiguous, heavenly fluff of a heroes’ welcome – overflowing with operatic sentimentality and effusiveness, with harps playing, eagles flying, angels soaring, and ghosts embracing – is too much to take.

Delacroix (the quintessential Romanticist) once wrote in his “Journal” that he admired Girodet’s work for its “grandeur, fire, and pathos” – all of which, for better or worse, can be experienced in the Met’s exhibition. He also noted, while looking at the painting “Scene From a Deluge” (1806), that Girodet “knows literally nothing about drawing.”

The show’s curator, Sylvain Bellenger, writes in the catalog, “This observation may tell us more about Delacroix than Girodet, and the ‘Deluge’ remains a breathtaking – too breathtaking – demonstration of drawing.” But upon seeing the “Deluge” at the Met, I had to agree with Delacroix. In these clunky figures, Girodet has abandoned drawing, the backbone of painting, and replaced it with fanfare and empty feeling; this is the essential problem in his paintings.

Maybe we should not be surprised. We have recently been treated to museum shows of Max Ernst, Norman Rockwell, and John Currin – none of whom “know how to draw in the proper sense of the word,” and all of whom, we have been informed, are masters. Mr. Bellenger’s observation about the “Deluge” may tell us more about contemporary taste than it does about the comments of Delacroix, the art of painting, or the art, rebellion, and Romanticism of Girodet himself.

Until August 27 (1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, 212-535-7710).

The New York Sun

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