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.
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.