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charles bargue - drawing course

Post #242 • March 24, 2004, 10:57 AM • 6 Comments

I've heard many times that students of drawing used to draw from master drawings and plaster casts before being allowed to work from life, but I was not aware that courses were in place to direct such study. One course that came into existence under the direction of academic artists Charles Bargue and Jean-Léon Gérôme, at once a definitive statement of ideals and a last hurrah for the academic tradition, was edited by Gerald Ackerman and published last November.

Ackerman writes:

The abandonment of the study of the classical ideal in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was a serious break in an established yet vital artistic tradition. After all, Western art is an artificial activity that became self-conscious in antiquity and again in the Italian Renaissance, each time articulating an intellectual, apologetic theory of art that continued to influence the creation and teaching of painting over the centuries. The twentieth-century break in this developed tradition is problematic for young, contemporary artists who may not be attracted by the many schools and movements of modernism but are instead drawn to the imitation of nature. Without access to the rich lore and methods of humanist figure painting, they find themselves untrained and underequipped for many of the technical problems that confront them as Realists. Without help, today's young Realist artists may end up uncritically copying superficial appearances, randomly selecting from nature, and unwittingly producing clumsy and incoherent figures.

I've pointed out before that our present situation in art is not characterized by pluralism, but by false pluralism. Real pluralism would provide for a situation in which both the realists and the various modernists could flourish together. Instead, realism as it would have been understood by Gérôme is not generally taken seriously by art professionals and not commonly taught at schools. The change has been good for the various modernists - I feel like I came out okay - but bad for the realists. The above is one of the first acknowledgments I've seen that the tradition of painting and sculpture requires a community of like-minded people for sustenance. The realists have it especially hard because their craft is so difficult.

No doubt about it - if you copied every plate in the course, as is recommended, you would become a champion renderer. You might also die of boredom; I doubt that each and every plate is necessary to get the fundamentals across. You might also find yourself at a loss when faced with the female model, as not a single plate in the last series, which pictures the figure in schematic sketches, is an image of a woman. This is unacceptable as both a feminist matter and a practical one.

But it's clear that realists need a particular kind of education, and I think it would do the modernists no harm to revive parts of the traditional curriculum. It didn't interfere with the progress of the Impressionists, the Cubists, or the early abstractionists. Ackerman's book provides an important look into the past, and suggests constructive ideas about how art could be nurtured in the future.



Michael Betancourt

March 24, 2004, 8:27 PM

I have to disagree about your "false pluralism" on very simple, pragmatic grounds: the break with the academic tradition at the end of the 19th century was neither complete, nor necessarily one which resulted in a loss of knowledge. There are still teachers who teach this academic method (including the Greek Canon) such as Myron Barnstone in PA. The failings of teachers such as Barnstone lies with their dogmatism, not with a "false" pluralism. There are very few teachers who know these systems, and fewer artists--even those drawn to realism--who are willing to embrace the entire tradition. The keys to this tradition lie not with realism but with the Greek Canon. Compounding this problem is the general ignorance of art historians trained to think in literary terms about what is not, in fact, literary. It is not a nebulous group of "modernists" who are suppressing it, but simply a general lack of knowledge. Very few artists are willing to spend an amount of time comparable to going to medical school to simply be recognized as competently trained.
There is nobody to "blame" in this situation except the artists themselves. Modernism, for what its worth, has been over a long time. It (and the avant-garde that accompanied it) represents a radical revision of values. If you don't share those values, fine, but it is foolish to attack a corpse for having values you don't share.
Remember that when the Renaissance started, these "traditions" did not exist--it too was a radical revision of what it meant to make art, a revision based on looking carefully at art. The formal information was always (and still is) available in books. Durer's Painter's Manual is very instructive.



March 25, 2004, 12:02 AM

Just to clarify: you can't quite tell from the quote, but when Ackerman says "many schools and movements of modernism" he is talking about Modernism, PoMo, and all of their derivatives. I tried to use it the same way, and it didn't go over. Sorry about that. Consequently, I wasn't trying to fix blame on Modernists for causing a problem - it was self-inflicted. Dogmatism, as you put it. Unfortunately, dogmatism is hardly confined to traditional art practitioners; there is no shortage of dogmatists in all styles. I also agree with you that we're talking about a general change in the direction of knowledge rather than some kind of Modernist cabal.

However, I want to challenge the idea that Modernism has been over for a long time.This is kind of my point: if our situation were truly pluralist, no movement would ever be "over" as long as it had a single practitioner. (As you said, the break with the academic tradition wasn't complete.) Nevertheless people have the idea that art progresses from style to style, one replacing the next. I don't think it's true, and if we decide that pluralism is potentially a good situation, we have to conclude that it's not. People not taking traditional realism seriously is a symptom of false pluralism, not the cause. I'm not sure what the cause is, but it's probably dogmatism, if only a mild kind that can hardly be avoided. True, much traditional realism fails on its own terms, but the same can be said about any style.

Just because there are some master practitioners here and there doesn't mean that the discipline has sufficient access to its requisite knowledge. I haven't seen Durer's manual, but I have seen Max Doerner's and Ralph Mayer's and Bermard Chaet's, and heaven help you if you want to learn to employ a glaze medium from the instructions. Painting has a physical component that doesn't translate well through words, although words are preferable to nothing. It's better to have the community.

My understanding is that when the Renaissance started, the traditions described above didn't exist, but the Greek one certainly did. The radical revision was to revive the ancient knowledge through contemporary methods, hence the rebirth. What came of it was different, but not merely different.


Michael Betancourt

March 25, 2004, 1:25 AM

"over" is used in the sense of "no longer developing in new ways." It is precisely my point that nothing ever "ends" but there are many things that are "over"--Modernism, post-Modernism, Surrealism, Fauvism, the Academy... etc.

It does not necsssarily mean that we have to conclude that "Pluralism" is a bad thing to say that art can progress from one thing to another--"Pluralism" was the underlying "goal" to avant-garde generally, even though this inclusiveness didn't necessarily always play itself out that way in specific instances. To say that we have achieved a kind of pluralism is to say that the limitations which define both academicist and modernist art no longer apply as such; one if free to attempt what one wishes within a defined space called "art." This is a space that can quite effectively accomodate both realism and abstraction, academic and experimental approaches within the term "art"--this is what pluralism is all about. It does not mean that everyone is entitled to museum shows, gallery exhbitions or favorable reviews, only that they are able to call their art "art" without causing a riot.

I have to ask about this: People not taking traditional realism seriously who is this "people" that don't take it seriously? Miami seems obsessed by realist work, rather than its alternatives. This comment makes no sense to me having been around and seen the "art scene" here. There is less tolerance here for work that is abstract or conceptual than for realism.....
Outside of Miami, there are of realists (I'm not sure what you mean by traditional? Lucien Freud? or someone else??) working who get plenty of recognition.

As for community, it is generally better than its absence, but if that's your entire point, then why make all the comments about modernism? The communities are there--as with any kind of art--it's simply a matter of finding them.



March 25, 2004, 7:16 AM

We have different ideas about the viability of past styles. I can agree to disagree with you about that.

Some people not taking realist art seriously are running our local museums, to name one set of instances. A style we might call Coral Gables Realism (yikes!) may get a lot of backing, but I rack my brain to think of the last time I saw a traditional realist image at a museum down here. An upcoming Chuck Close show at MAM is about as close as were going to come. I would love to see a show of, say, Paul Fenniak, but what venue down here would put it on? Sure, the communities are out there, but the idea is that art school and the museums represent a cross-section of active communities. Down here I go to the museum expecting the art world darling du jour served up on a platter of hype. (We've talked before about this - it's hard to do any kind of serious work down here, no matter what the medium.) So you can call your art "art" regardless of what it is and no one will pass a kidney stone, but in terms of getting work up on the museum walls there are some real limitations.

I wonder - are we going to have a balkanization of the art world, in which adherents of different values form their own communities and institutions and stop trying to intersect with each other? That would be a shame, but now that Miami has its first reactionary atelier, maybe that's where we're going.


Michael Betancourt

March 25, 2004, 3:34 PM

the idea is that art school and the museums represent a cross-section of active communities I don't know why you would expect this to be the case--historically, the reason we had modernism and avant-garde was because the museums and art schools didn't do this (except for the Bauhaus I don't think they've ever really tried). So it seems like a strange expectation to me since this hasn't been the case for over a hundred years (and especially isn't the case here in the US remember what happened to Eakins when he introduced nude life models, a standard in European schools and studios, but unknown in the US at the time.
In terms of support, I wasn't necessarily talking about the local museums, or even the galleries, but the horizons of expectation the audience has. You're right, and we have talked about this. The situation in south florida is really poor, mostly due to a general lack of depth to almost everything: Miami is an ahistorical (posthistorical?) city and all the problems that imples.
The art world has always been balkanized, all that's happening is that pluralism has enabled this situation to become increasingly apparent since the ability to deny "art" to artists working has been lost. Our art histories seem to work very hard to make things look otherwise, but it isn't the case. For example, Paris in the 1920s/1930s was a melange of different styles and movements, nearly all of which have been eclipsed in the histories by Surrealism, even thought it was only one among many. Historians make it look like a bell is rung at a certain momement and then everyone is doing the flavor of the week--which isn't really true, but in a place like Miami where there is so little critical culture, I see artists trying to do this, and its really quite sad.



March 25, 2004, 7:13 PM

I have no prejudice at all against realism, but my standards for it are based on what was achieved when it was both pervasive and flourishing, when professional artists had no choice but to be at least "competently trained."

When it comes to contemporary realist work, I usually find it disappointing, because it's often like a watered-down, weak, shaky version of the "real" thing. There's a lack of security and conviction in the work, and inadequate training is bound to be a big reason for that.

Given the lowering of standards and the break with tradition, it's also possible to get away with more (or to think one can). I'm reminded of John Currin, who's praised to the skies for his "masterful" technique, which is no such thing. His work is stiff, mechanical and caricaturish, but yes, he can draw better than Keith Haring. I'm still not impressed, or interested.

The realist tradition is just that, meaning those who wish to pursue such work must do, or learn, what such work requires in order for mastery to be achieved. Anything less is likely to lead to deficient, unsatisfying approximations, as is all too frequently the case.



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