Sunday, November 15, 2009

Figurative Art

On Friday evening, I met up with PR and AM for a lecture at the National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts. The NA is the American equivalent of the Royal Academy (founded in London in 1768) or the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts (founded in Paris in 1648), art schools that also held annual exhibitions, all in the guise of establishing national schools of art. According to their website, the NA was founded in 1825 as the National Academy of Design by American artists such as Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, and Samuel F.B. Morse (he was an artist before he invented the telegraph) with the goal to "promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition." I've seen a few exhibitions there in the past, and they're usually interesting (the George Tooker show was fantastic), so I was glad to go see this particular exhibition: Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820-2009. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed. While I am very interested in representation of the human form in art (more so than I'm interested in, say, landscape painting), I felt like the exhibition was just a parade of one picture after another showing portraits or self-portraits. It was more a visual unfolding of people. It would have been more intriguing to pair works together by some thematic component than follow the usual historical trajectory. However, I did go more to hear the lecture, which was by Sally Webster, professor emerita at the CUNY Graduate Center and Lehman College (and, as recently noted on this blog, a former professor of mine). Webster's presentation was entitled "Engaging the Figure/Structuring Space: The Body's Prerogative in 19th-Century American Art." She began with John Trumbull and John Vanderlyn, discussing their European training in the early part of the 19th century. She went on to show how figurative subjects all but disappeared in American art once the Hudson River School came to be seen internationally as the first true "American" form of art, but noted how a return in figurative art was seen as radical starting in the 1870s in works by artists such as Thomas Eakins. I appreciated her final analysis of the painting you see reproduced here, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875 (it was not in the exhibition). This picture, now co-owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows Eakins at his visceral best, as the subject is Dr. Gross instructing a class while performing surgery on a patient. This picture is a portrait, but it's also a genre scene. It's huge in size (8' x 6'), so it elevates it to the level of grand manner portraiture and history painting, but there is nothing glorious about the picture. Rather, it's a stark representation of realism. Webster defined the picture as "Figurative Art," a work that combines all of these different styles, but shifts the subject's focus back on the importance of the human form, both in the doctor, the students, the patient, and the woman who turns away in horror. This new way of painting borrowed on contemporary trends in European art, which in part was why it was disliked by die-hard Americanists at the time. But figurative art would become a new trend which would help redefine American art from after the Civil War to World War I.


Sherman Clarke said...

Ah, the National Academy and its lectures. Some of their shows are very good gatherings of art works and some are rather as you describe it, a "parade" of one picture after another. Still, climbing the staircase from the first to the second floor can always make you pretty happy. I love the description of the Gross Clinic as Eakins' most visceral painting. Literally. When I was at Bard last week, I cataloged Art School (edited by Steven Henry Madoff, MIT Press) which looked like a fine compilation of essays on art education for the 21st century. Your first bit about the NA and its British and French parallels resonated especially because of this new title and thinking about the education of the artist.

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