Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Jean- Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) L’Histoire en spectacle Musée d’Orsay, Paris. By craniv boyd.

Jean- Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) L'Histoire en spectacle Musée d'Orsay, Paris. By craniv boyd.

"Are you not entertained?" one can almost hear Russell Crowe's character from Gladiator screaming in the arena, when one is observing the French academic paintings of Gladiators in the arena by Jean- Léon Gérôme, at the Musée d'Orsay. I should correct myself, one thinks of the Ridley Scott movie of the early aught's Gladiator when viewing the over life size broadside promotion out side the museum entrance, observing the same painting that was reproduced is startling for it is much smaller in size than one would expect and far more total and succinct in cinematic scale than one would assume from looking at the detail that was blown up for promotional purposes.

American viewers will be struck by the familiarity of many of these paintings that they would see in this special retrospective at the Orsay, the familiarity is in part because several of the paintings are there on loan agreement between Orsay and public museums in Arizona, Ohio, New York, and the Washington D.C. Area.

Sometimes French academic painting gets a bad rap in the progress myth associated with the birth of modernism, I mean what kind of painting is more relevant and congruent with the achievements of the American masters of the 20th century Jackson Pollock and De Kooning, is it French impressionism and fauvism that reacted towards the salons of fin de seicle Paris or is the stodgy and stifling academic representational establishment that the impressionists were reacting against? Painting in a way that anticipates later movements in art could be seen as progressive, and painting in a way that is representation could be misconstrued as reactionary, lets not dwell on being reductive.

The literature at the beginning and end of the retrospective posits that Jean- Léon Gérôme is an important painter because of his novel approach to imaging history, with the moment after the big biblical or historical event, and in his unanticipated influence on that enfant terrible art form of the cinema. We are shown a film still from an Italian historical silent film made in 1913 about the heyday of the Roman Empire. The blocking of the actors, set design and camera angle matches a modest size painting of Jean- Léon Gérôme about the same subject. 

Gérôme paints a myth of Pygmalion. As a child I was familiar with this painting, it is in the public collection of the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan. It shows the mythical sculptor embracing his creation Galatea in the studio in the kiss that transformed her from marble to flesh. In Gérôme's painting of this mythical event we the viewers are taken to the studio as this metamorphosis occurs. Galatea's posterior is a ruddy hue she is turning her upper torso to kiss her maker, her calves and ankles still remain fused and pale hewn out of marble. It is like she is thawing right before our eyes. Seeing this painting now at the Orsay in context of the artist's timeline, one realizes more clearly that the Pygmalion myth is about the fruits of creative labor. Jean- Léon Gérôme was not really painting Pygmalion's mythical attic workshop, but his own Parisian Atelier. You know this by seeing other paintings of the sculptor's studio in the other rooms of the exhibition, the pose that Galatea in the painting is coming to life from is in fact a modified version of a sculpture from life that Jean- Léon Gérôme made himself. It was revelatory to see the Pygmalion and Galatea painting as preface to Jean- Léon Gérôme's sculptural creations.

Gérôme paints a seated bard. It is amazing to look at a French academic painting that parleys in the color theory of modernists like De Stijl. Jean- Léon Gérôme painting of a seated bard hits all the high notes of both high contrast, the super dark skin of the minstrel, and primary color contrast, with the light acid pink robe that shrouds the ageless man, the seductive teal and blue ornate Islamic tile work on the wall he leans against, and the battered banana yellow slippers that are next to the man. Jean- Léon Gérôme is able to capture a kind of realism in this mans vacant yet other worldly stare it is a representation of a skilled ordinary person who was certainly not to be found then resting on the Parisian Boulevards. 

Gérôme paints an image of the slave market. Orientalism was big when the French academic painters had their height. Jean- Léon Gérôme was traveling often and extensively to the middle east, and with the use of photo graphs taken by his traveling companions he was able to recreate an invent scenes of quotidian life in the orient. The slave market seems to be a popular subject for Gérôme, with its naked and half naked women lined up and on display, the images are almost a kind of soft titillation for the male market who purchased art in Paris. The only male slaves displayed in these snapshot like paintings are cowering eyes averted in some corner posing no threat to the viewer of the painting, a man most likely who may or may not like to fantasize himself with enough werewithall to purchase a "slave" himself. 

Gérôme paints the moment after Christ is executed. This is the moment that we have seen in western religious painting over and over with varying degrees of gore for centuries. One could almost believe that this moment could only be expressed in one way only, a frontal shot with Jesus center and the two other victims and transgressors flanking him. Jean- Léon Gérôme is startling original in his portrayal of this important religious cultural moment, but choosing to show the moment afterwards, when the deed has been done, and every one is tired and on their way how, Jesus on the cross is made known to the viewer as a shadow in the dirt on the lower right hand corner of the framing. This painting is so new and fresh because of its composition, it takes something so known erring on the cliché and then disrupts it, by refusing to show us Jesus and the climactic moment of his Crucifixion we are left with both an anticlimax and a wry suggestion we could represent known events in other ways than commonly accepted. By craniv boyd.

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