Some Canon Conundrums – by Gordon Fuglie
Édouard Manet – Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe
Tying it all together, that is, formulating a synthesis on art history – recent and the distant past – is a daunting task these days. I have to hand it to Joseph Bravo for his effort in attempting to come to terms with canons in art and art history in The Other Canon. That being said, I’d like to add to the conversation.
First of all, Joseph’s opening definition of the canon concept. He limited it to a religious reference and illustrated it with negative and drastic applications. In general, the overall use of canons in diverse organizations and disciplines will reveal degrees of flexibility and adaptation in various times and places with some good outcomes, too. For example, in the 1980s I dated a Renaissance literature professor who was my “inside view” onto the upheavals in the curricula of English departments. 30 years later, the canon of Western literature has expanded and re-settled itself, mostly for the better. Certainly, the undergraduate introductory anthologies/textbooks have gotten much thicker! As to religious examples, since breaking with the Church of England after the American Revolution my Episcopal Church (ECUSA) is notable among Anglican Churches worldwide for the extent to which the Constitution and Canons of the General Convention (a recurring gathering) are democratically voted on by delegates, while leaving latitude for governance to individual dioceses across the US.
From an authoritarian religious model Joseph shifts into art history with an even grimmer depiction of canons – presuming a rigidly prescriptive religious iconography up to the Protestant Reformation. Well, yes and no. Having taught Medieval Art history, I discovered numerous examples of variations and innovations in representational norms, subject matter, and style from the fourth century to the dawn of the Renaissance. Enlightened ecclesiastical patrons seemed to have served as prompts to the greater exercise of artistic imagination, e.g. the sculptor Giselburtus and his 12th century patrons (called canons, by the way) at the Autun Cathedral. I continue to be surprised by the richness of the art historical record.
Equally dire are Joseph’s characterizations of art and artists in the wake of the Reformation, claiming depictions of the human figure became “heterodox within Protestant Culture.” While he would be right if he were only referring to the Scottish Calvinists – his “hegemonists and totalitarians” – who undertook a fanatical iconoclasm of Catholic art in their churches, elsewhere in Europe the status of art was more complicated. In Germany, many formerly Catholic principalities retained their late Medieval religious art in newly-Protestantized churches. And while commissions for elaborate altarpieces and statues of saints virtually evaporated, Reformation artists found new work in nobility portraiture; medallion designs; secular architectural adornment; the decorative arts; and the illustration of printed books for an increasingly literate public – to give a few examples.
And as a direct outcome of the Reformation, let’s not forget the Golden Age of the Protestant Netherlands? To paraphrase the polymath historian Simon Schama, it was an art realm known for its “embarrassment of riches:” portraiture, still-life, views of church interiors, cityscapes, marine subjects, genre scenes (people carousing in taverns, caught in domestic shenanigans, or just busy at tasks) and . . . . religious paintings of unprecedented emotional and spiritual physicality. If Joseph’s hegemonists or other totalitarians were assigned to police the subject matter of the art of Protestant Delft, Utrecht or Amsterdam, they must have been AWOL, or Rembrandt and his circle were skillful in evading them.
Turning to the Paris of Napoleon III, Joseph cites the 1863 Salon des Refusés. Modernist canonizers have their own hegemony, and this Salon is revered as THE moment when the public seized its “democratic authority to judge fine art.” But let’s look a little deeper into the historical record, as this long unquestioned trope has its share of problems: it is Paris- and Franco-centric; it is presented as the “train of modernist history,” inevitably heading to artistic progress, fostering Impressionist hegemony, and crowding out other tendencies in mid- to late 19th century art; it laid the groundwork for the artist adopting a bohemian – read contrived – persona, alienating him from society; it channeled a self-conscious “modern” art toward shock value – épater la bourgeoisie; and it created a false framework for understanding the history of 19th century French and subsequent art. Imagine my surprise when I learned that many visitors to Napoleon’s highly publicized Salon laughed at or derided the works they saw!
As an example, let’s look at that stalwart of the Salon des Refusés, Edouard Manet’s notorious Le Dejuener sur l’Herbe. Readers will recognize it as an ur-image in the official canon of Modernism™, that moment where Realism bends toward Impressionism. Years later I still recall the mounting glee of the (male) lecturer of my introductory art history class as he cranked up our anticipation before projecting Manet’s ambiguous image to us 18 and 19-year olds. Here was a woodsy picnic with formally attired gentlemen and …a naked girl salaciously looking right at us! And what could that mysterious female figure floating above the picnickers be doing? The instructor – reveling in the shock he administered to us benighted suburban youths – neglected to explain that Manet was cynically “contemporizing” earlier art historical imagery, particularly Raphael’s scene from Greek mythology, “The Judgement of Paris,” and Giorgione/Titian’s musical gathering of “townie dandies” and classical nymphs in the woods. Finally, had our instructor looked at “Le Dejeuner” he would need to come to terms with a painting that was clumsily composed, spatially confused, sketchy in much of its painting, and unsettling in its sexuality. I now believe Manet was “having the viewer on,” making a joke that fell flat for visitors to the 1863 Salon.
Bear with me as I continue to unpack the Salon des Refusés myth. Besides the laughter, what was said by the original audiences of Le Dejuener sur l’Herbe? Visitors were offended by the manner of its painting and its subject matter. Many contrasted it unfavorably to the “exquisite taste” and technique found in paintings in the official salon. Another remarked: “Manet will show talent once he learns drawing and perspective, and taste once he stops choosing his subjects for the sake of scandal.” “I lament the intention that inspires it.” “M. Manet attempts to achieve celebrity by outraging the bourgeois.” “His taste is corrupted by infatuation with the bizarre.” “A common [prostitute], stark naked at that, lounges brazenly between two warders properly draped and cravatted . . . . these two seem like students on holiday, misbehaving to prove themselves men; and I seek in vain for the meaning of this uncouth riddle.” Another viewer admired Manet’s “directness in touch,” but felt compelled to ask, “Is this drawing? Is this painting?” A colleague of the avant-garde critic Charles Baudelaire pronounced the work “in questionable taste. The nude woman lacks beauty of form, unhappily . . . . and the gentleman sprawled beside her is as unprepossessing as could well be imagined . . . . I fail to see what can have induced a distinguished and intelligent artist to adopt so absurd a composition.” And so on. 160 years later, do we really think we possess greater insight into Le Dejeuner than the worldly art-savvy Parisians who were its first viewers? Manet painted for them, not the gatekeepers of 20th century Modernism.
In the mid-1990s I attended a lecture by the late great art critic Robert Hughes. A vigorous promoter of the modernist canon and noted for his sharp tongue, he opened his presentation by displaying examples of so-called conservative art that “heroic pioneers” like Manet supplanted, i.e. the “bad guys” of the anti-canon. Hauled to the Hughes whipping post was the academician Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, coincidentally shown in the official salon the same year Le Dejeuner was exhibited with the Refusés. Unlike the Manet, however, there is no ambiguity about its sources, content or meaning; its overall technical mastery is superb. And, yes, the awakening nude Venus has an erotic charge, but Cabanel’s other mythical and biblical works include nude males. In addition, her depiction faithfully illustrates Hesiod’s account of her birth from the foam of sea. Moreover, Venus is after all the goddess of love, sex, beauty and fertility – hence her comely form in the painting and the goddess’s retinue of cupids. Her many amorous affairs fill classical literature, and across town the Louvre contained numerous works depicting her in similar unclothed exploits. Given the classicism that suffused the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (the academy) and the prominence of classical literature in the French educational curriculum, Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus was normative within its culture even as its subject was depicted with authority and verve. Finally, while Napoleon III permitted the first Salon des Refusés, he purchased The Birth of Venus. (Both Dejeuner and Venus are in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay.)
My purpose in making this comparison from that 1863 ur-moment – the so-called threshold of modern art, is to question the validity of modern art’s contrived system of categories that led to the establishment of its hegemonic canon – in museum shows, art history survey texts, public education, as well as the arrogant and ahistorical notion that we, the inheritors of Modernism’s legacy, know best. Postmodern thought freed us from Modernism’s questionable premises and opens us onto art history’s expanded field, where we can come to terms with a work of art in its own time and place. For it comes down to this: to truly appreciate the art production of the past, you must engage it on its terms, not via the persisting bohemian myth of the heroic modern artist. Remember, Manet’s Dejeuner is only a modernist masterwork because of its reputation as a“succès de scandale” and a long line of ideological promoters from Emile Zola, Algernon Swinburne, Alfred Barr, Jr., John Rewald to conservative museum trustees and administrators in our day who perpetuate the modernist myth with safe and bankable exhibitions of French Impressionism.
There is more to say on art and canons, but I have said enough for now. As you ponder my remarks, I’ll let my former UCLA professor, the late Albert Boime, Jr., have the last word: “The conception of the nineteenth century French Academy of Beaux-Arts as a static, moribund institution, whose programme was stamped with an irremediable aversion to innovation, needs to be be re-examined. The facile manner in which critics have disposed of Academic and official art – on the basis of an aesthetic frame of reference developed in the twentieth-century – is historically unjustified.” (The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century. Phaidon. London & New York: 1971)