Friday, April 26, 2013

Doctoral Dissertation Deposited

Last Friday, I had final meetings, got about a zillion signatures, went up and down floors over and over carrying more papers for signatures, and paid a few required bills, but after a few hours of all this work my dissertation was officially deposited with the CUNY Graduate Center. In other words, it's all done! And I couldn't be happier. I don't expect too many people to actually read my 301-page dissertation. However, I thought I would at least put on my blog the abstract for it, which is a 2-page summary of what I've completed. I now present this to you for your reading pleasure. The picture you see here is Gibson's Hunter and His Dog, made for the Earl of Yarborough in 1847, now in the collection of the Usher Gallery in Lincoln, England. (For more of my posts on Gibson, click here.)

Beyond Polychromy: John Gibson, the Roman School of Sculpture, and the Modern Classical Body
Roberto C. Ferrari, Ph.D.

This dissertation is a study of the life and career of the British sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866), whose Roman studio near the Piazza del Popolo was a frequently visited site for Grand Tourists during the nineteenth century.  I argue that, for Gibson, classicism was modern, and thus he developed new methods for creating and disseminating the modern classical body in nineteenth-century sculpture.  Gibson is considered by scholars to be the first nineteenth-century British artist to reintroduce polychromy in marble sculpture, as exemplified by his best-known work, the so-called Tinted Venus, 1851-53, which was displayed in London at the International Exhibition of 1862.  Because this tinted statue challenged sculpture’s purity of form, the subsequently negative historiography of this work has obfuscated Gibson’s numerous other accomplishments in the history of nineteenth-century art.  In this dissertation I discuss many of his other free-standing marble statues of modern classical subjects, such as Cupid Disguised as a Shepherd Boy, ca. 1830, a popular work commissioned in marble nine times for different patrons, and The Hunter and His Dog, 1840-41, a statue considered by his contemporaries to be his masterpiece for its balance of idealism with a close study of nature.  I also examine a selection of his portrait busts and monumental statues, bas-reliefs, drawings, and work in other media, such as porcelain statuettes and engravings, for a broader perspective of his exploration of the modern classical body.  Rather than ignore his polychrome sculptures, however, I offer new readings of them to show how they intersected with these other important aspects of his career.

Although I focus on one artist and use published and unpublished archival sources to discuss Gibson and his work, my methodology is pluralistic.  I engage biography with nineteenth-century exhibition history and critical art reviews, and I link patronage and art production to gender studies and queer theory.  I also engage with sculpture in its international context, as Gibson himself would have been exposed to it in the cosmopolitan art center that was Rome.  Thus, the work of Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen, the two leading sculptors in the Roman school, are components of this dissertation, as are the works of native British sculptors such as John Flaxman and Joseph Nollekens to demonstrate what Gibson learned from his early teachers and how he evolved to craft his own version of the modern classic in Rome.  I contextualize his work with that of his contemporaries in Rome, such as the British sculptor Richard James Wyatt, the Dutch sculptor Mathieu Kessels, and the Italian sculptor Adamo Tadolini, for a better assessment of Gibson’s sculptural practices.  I also discuss his patronage by aristocrats like Queen Victoria and Czar Alexander II, politicians such as Sir Robert Peel, and bourgeois industrialists such as the Liverpool manufacturer Richard Vaughan Yates, as well as the global dissemination of his work during his lifetime, which was exhibited internationally throughout Europe, Russia, Australia, North America, and India.

In the introductory chapter, I establish my argument, that through a reexamination of Gibson’s life and career beyond his experiments with polychrome sculpture, one can better assess his importance to the history of sculpture itself by reconsidering how he redefined the modern classical body.  The second chapter is a biographical overview that demonstrates how Gibson’s roots in the British school of art influenced his ideas about classicism as a form of modernity.  Chapter three considers Gibson’s studio practice, from the close examination of his account books to his influence on his most famous pupil, the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer.  Chapter four focuses on the homoerotic male body in Gibson’s oeuvre.  An advocate of the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann,  Gibson created heroic and ephebic male nudes, such as Mars Restrained by Cupid, 1819-25, a work that suggests issues as diverse as homosocialism and queer subjectivity.  Chapter five discusses Gibson’s interest in reproductive media and how, in shifting his role from a hands-on sculptor to a designer, he explored reproductive technologies in cameo production, ceramics, and printmaking to disseminate images of the modern classical body to the rising bourgeoisie.  The final chapter explores Gibson’s legacy, including his influence on New Sculptors such as Hamo Thornycroft.  Ultimately, this dissertation argues that through a reexamination of the life and work of Gibson, one can begin to move past the pejorative sensibilities of Neoclassicism itself as merely historicist and reconsider classicism as a form of modern art in the nineteenth century.

Friday, April 19, 2013

MWA XIII: Manet's Repose

Impressionism and exhibitions about Impressionist artists or themes are always a hit with audiences. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art right now, there is a sure-fire hit of an exhibition entitled Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, a show which was organized by the Musée d'Orsay and the Art Institute of Chicago. Mannequins wearing gowns and accessories from the 1860s through the 1880s are paired with major paintings by Monet, Renoir, Bazille, Degas, and the like. Academically speaking, there's nothing new in the idea behind this exhibition, that the Impressionists borrowed many of their subjects from fashion magazines and were conscious of modern trends in fashion (the word 'modern' itself comes from 'mode,' meaning fashion-of-the-day). However, this is the first major exhibition that has paired actual clothing with specific paintings, and the three-dimensionality of the gowns and accessories do help bring the paintings to life in a whole new way. It is important to add as well that non-Impressionist painters such as Tissot are present throughout the exhibition, so the show focuses on the Impressionists but certainly isn't just about them, and these painters equally shine as a result. Also, some of the pictures on loan are major hits from Paris and Chicago, and they're simply fantastic to see hanging in the Met's galleries in this new arrangement.

This is a preamble to the picture you see above, our latest Monthly Work of Art. The painting is Edouard Manet's Repose, ca. 1870-71, and I think it is among Manet's best portrait studies. The picture is on display in the exhibition in the section entitled "The White Dress," which captures the resurgence of the informal, white summer dress, popular in the late 1860s. (Indeed, it calls to mind Regency-style high-waisted, classical gowns from the first two decades of the 1800s--think of every Jane Austen-themed movie you've ever seen). The sitter in this work is the painter Berthe Morisot, who married Manet's brother. Morisot herself was a talented Impressionist, and much of her style of painting was influenced by Manet. As for Manet, he is without a doubt one of my favorite painters. His work in the 1860s revolutionized painting as painting, from his sweeping brushstrokes and dark outlines (influenced by Japanese prints), to the flatness of subjects and unusual color palettes that reduced volume and focused on form. In this work, he shows Morisot as a contemplative woman, informally posed, unaware that someone is staring at her. She is subjected to the (male) gaze, but is more interested in her own thoughts, ultimately empowering her more than it might at first seem.

The painting is in the collection of the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design. Their curators write the following about the picture and its history: "Viewers at the 1873 Paris Salon found Morisot's casual pose to be in defiance of good taste and were uneasy with the elements of Manet's radical style: broad, tactile paint-handling, pictorial compression, and the dominant contrast of light and dark tones. Manet called this painting a 'study,' not a portrait, defining his concern for the visual existence of the figure over the revelation of personality. Owned first by prominent French collectors, it was purchased by George W. Vanderbilt in 1898, becoming one of the first paintings by Manet to enter an American collection."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Zurich and Frankfurt

With everything going on regarding my dissertation the past couple of months, I haven't had a chance until now to blog about my recent trip to Zurich, Switzerland and Frankfurt am Main, Germany. These may seem like surprising cities to have gone and visited, and I admit they weren't necessarily on the top of my list, but sometimes Fate has fun things in store for you. Airline miles? Free place to stay? Let's go! In fact, I set up this trip as a goal and reward for finishing the defense draft of the dissertation. I had it delivered to all my readers by Sun 2/24, I taught the next day, then hopped on a flight out of Newark Airport to Zurich. My friend AR lives there now courtesy of a job relocation, and my friend AA was already in Europe on business and planned to see AR in Zurich as well, so our convergence in Switzerland was beautifully timed, and we had a great trip together.

If I were to say anything in particular about Zurich or Switzerland itself, it would be how damned expensive it is. Seriously. A slice of chocolate cake and 2 espressos for $22? A 12" pizza and side salad with 2 cokes for $53? AR had warned us it was pricey, even in Swiss Francs, but we were stunned. Zurich itself was a lovely city, even if it was cold and wintry. I enjoyed walking along the river and lake, and stopping in little cafes for nibbles and treats. I did my obligatory art tour and visited the Kunsthaus, where I was impressed by some of the works on display by Fuseli, Holder, and Giacometti. We took a road trip to the Rhine Falls (Rheinfall); admittedly, not Niagara, but still impressive. We then traveled to St. Gallen and visited the Benedictine Abbey and Library. There was snow on the ground and it made the village very picturesque, indeed. I couldn't help but start singing "The hills are alive, with the Sound of Music!", and twirling in the snow...humiliating AA/AR in the process, of course. Naturally, we also stopped at an Ikea on the way home. AR lives in Seefeld, a delightful suburb in walking distance of downtown Zurich.

On the last day, AA and I took the train north to Frankfurt, where we did more site-seeing. We went to the Städel Museum to see the exhibition "Beauty and Revolution: Neoclassicism 1770-1820," which was right up my alley and related to my dissertation. We walked a lot through Frankfurt as well, including seeing the historic district. Frankfurt isn't much of a tourist city, definitely more a financial capital, but it was worth visiting as well (first visit to Germany!). We hopped on our flights back home the next morning. It was a fast trip, but it was a great few days out of town, and a wonderful time was spent just relaxing with close friends. Here are a couple of pictures from the trip, but you can see more from my Picasa album by clicking here.