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Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Homeric Art

The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, Dahesh Museum of Art and the Princeton University Art Museum, New York and Princeton, October 11, 2005-January 22, 2006.

The Dahesh Museum of Art’s stated mission is “collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting works by Europe’s academically trained artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Located on 57th Street and Madison Avenue, the museum lies in the center of New York City’s most expensive real estate. Active publicly since 1995, it houses a major collection of art put together by Salim Moussa Achi, a Lebanese author and philosopher who bought academic art from the late 1930s through the 1970s. The Legacy of Homer, exhibited jointly at the Dahesh Museum and the Princeton University Art Museum, presented 130 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints, including works by Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Nicolas Poussin, and Honoré Daumier. The exhibition at Princeton offered an overview of subject matter taken from The Iliad, The Odyssey, and related texts, while the Dahesh Museum concentrated on what is called “the long nineteenth century,” a period dating from the French revolution to the First World War, and on France’s leading art academy, the École des Beaux-Arts. The Dahesh Museum fulfilled its slightly idiosyncratic mandate with an exhibition that celebrated a period not regularly given notice in contemporary art. The many artworks shown drew from successful entries in the École des Beaux-Arts competition, which gave prizes to works best describing the specific epic events dictated by the contest.

The Legacy of Homer, in both its strengths and weaknesses, demonstrated the academic taste of a new classicism in France, where the love of things Greek and Roman took place alongside art that challenged the classical ideal, which held such sway in the academy through the middle of the nineteenth century. A conscious attempt to represent the heroism of ancient culture, the neoclassicism of nineteenth-century France was technically exquisite, even as its subject matter was flaunted as a return to the achievements of earlier times. Interestingly, the movement took its precedents from literary texts, illustrating the best-known anecdotes of The Iliad and The Odyssey. The question remains whether the highly wrought artworks of this period do justice to the heroic mode or are so closely faithful to Greek narrative that they lose their way because of excessive adulation of the past and emphasis on purely technical skill. Unlike post-Impressionist artists such as Manet, who struggled to represent the realities of late-nineteenth-century culture, the academician lived in a lost time, deriving inspiration from what can best be described as a historical, idealized past.

The academic penchant for historical accuracy, even to the point of losing energy and contemporary urgency, was brilliantly illustrated by the show at the Dahesh Museum. The Legacy of Homer consummately presented the long spell of classicism on academic artists; however, the technical brilliance of the pictures, along with the portraits of passion based upon ancient tales, cannot substitute for a genuinely contemporary eye and hand. It is probably unfair to judge one era’s taste by the predilection of another, yet it is clear that these French artists were devoted to the illustration of Greek mores, in which the literary values of the pictures were as honored as the pictorial compositions themselves. This show, as accomplished as it was, occupied not only the past in regard to our eclectic, suspicious age; it also represented the historian’s love even then, at the time of the art’s making, when the practice of historical painting was a relatively new phenomenon. Consequently, the works of these neoclassical painters are doubly removed from us: we see the movement as well as the works themselves as historical, distancing our reaction to what must have been a kind of crossroads for the artists in the show, in which the nobility of the Greek epic poems became the ground of historical inspiration.

Because of the inherent historical distancing involved in the École des Beaux-Arts’ competitions, it seems unfair to judge these artists from an ahistorical, postmodernist point of view. Even so, it proves hard to interpret the show’s compositions from more than a formalist standpoint; the notion of a stale perfectionism comes easily to mind when viewing the art. Of course, the work is more than that, as the exhibits amply show, but the question of contemporary integrity in light of narrative—itself an archaizing device—refuses to go away. How, in fact, do we make sense of the art we are seeing: does technical facility and fidelity to nature promise enough to satisfy us now, when postmodernism has rendered the very notion of history suspect, a tale told by those in power? Today’s art, given its emphasis on the political sublime, has little patience for the outpouring of historical issues—except as they demonstrate the metaphysical leanings of the status quo. This is likely a superficial judgment, yet the study of classicism now seems tainted because of its closeness to standards of behavior that seem to many as aristocratic and class-oriented. It would appear that art that championed such standards was actually a call to the culturally and economically powerful to perceive the past as historically and spiritually alive, at a time when class awareness in culture was beginning to take hold of the general society.

It can be argued that these issues are secondary to what the artists of the nineteenth century were actually searching for: an emotionally heightened treatment of nobility in action, underscored by the documentary presence of texts nearly sacred in their implications. What really joins together the body of work at the Dahesh Museum is an attitude, an ethics of action, in which the triumphs of antiquity contain a moral virtue that by itself exemplifies the brilliance of the classical past. Despite the logical absurdity of many of the tales, including the sexual pratfalls of the gods themselves, the narrative drives home the point, larger than life, for the reader as much as the viewer. The work we see comes close to the mere illustration of storytelling, but we are expected to take something more from it than the thrill of an episode brilliantly summarized as a work of art. Homer’s inheritance brings with it a belief system intended to guide artist, critic, and viewer toward a greater idealism, without which culture would seem gray and uninspired.

The works themselves are odes to technical brilliance and literary emotion; they enact feeling through a fair amount of artificial posing and heavy atmosphere. At the same time, the best of the works—low reliefs, sculptures, painterly sketches, and highly finished works alike—show their audience just how enthralling references to classical culture can be: the collection of award-winning efforts shows off the high skill and noble themes of the most talented of the French academicians involved in the competitions. You can see it in the low-relief plaster by Pierre-Amédée Durand, Ulysses Recognized By His Dog (1810), in which Odysseus, naked but for a cloak draped over his left shoulder, extends his left hand around his staff to touch his dog’s muzzle, which is raised in recognition. This scene comes at the end of The Odyssey, in which Odysseus looks at his now-old dog, moved by its current life as an abject, often disregarded creature. The plaster perfectly captures the lean, hard, muscled body of Odysseus, who, despite his heroic status, is moved by the encounter. But if we concentrate on the forms themselves, the clarity of the lines defining Odysseus’ body and cloak, as well as the treatment of the hound, serve a deeper purpose: a retelling of a tale that emphasizes strength of character as much as openness of feeling.

The tension between the emotions engendered by the stories, real enough to the viewer, and the almost abstract idealization of the idea of Greek culture promoted a complicated reading of the works in the exhibition. In Ingres’s great version of a Homeric anecdote, Achilles Receives the Ambassadors of Agamemnon (1801), Achilles rises from a couch, holding his lyre in his left hand and with Patroclus on his side, while Agamemnon’s mediators, including Odysseus in a red coat, arrive to convince him to rejoin the battle. As the catalogue points out, the pleasures of esthetic indolence, as represented by the lyre and the rendering of Achilles’ comrade, Patroclus, as a beautiful young man, only emphasize the noncombatant nature of Achilles at this moment. This is further exaggerated by the difficult-to-see woman in the heavily draped apartment behind Achilles and Patroclus: it would appear that pleasure in all forms comes first. Agamemnon’s ambassadors, by comparison, look weary and aggrieved; they are dominated by a distant, rugged landscape and sea in the upper right of the painting. The question is one of attitude: are the painting’s viewers to prefer the effeminate graces of worldly pleasures or are they to feel closer to the military distress of the ambassadors?

Another powerful sculptural treatment of Homer’s tragic telling of the death of Achilles concerns the warrior’s famous weakness, his heel, which his mother held while dipping him in the Styx and therefore left vulnerable. In The Iliad, Achilles’ death results from his profanation of Apollo’s temple: in anger, the god causes Paris’ arrow to penetrate the great warrior’s heel. Achilles, who chooses to die young and famous as opposed to living a long, safe life of obscurity, is shown in the sculpture by Charles-Alphonse-Achille Gumery, Achilles Wounded in the Heel by Paris, as turning sideways to inspect the wound; this very young man, wearing a crested helmet that is close to overwhelming him, is seen as treating the injury nonchalantly—although it will kill him. Given the physical beauty of Achilles’ naked body, the artist seems to be downplaying the seriousness of the moment in favor of a glorifying treatment of the warrior as great hero. As the catalogue points out, Achilles is literally and figuratively looking backwards and down here: toward the inevitable fate of death arranged for him by the gods. Gumery depicts an elegant youth casually looking over a wound that in most cases would be more of an annoyance than a deadly blow; however, we know the story and see the wound as evidence of the gods’ bitter power, often unfairly used.

Joseph Wencker’s version of Priam’s supplication of Achilles for the body of Hector is entitled Priam at the Feet of Achilles (1876). In the painting, the old father and youth are locked in a gaze of recognition that both embodies and transcends their enmity: Priam is the father of Hector, the killer of Achilles’ beloved Patroclus, while Achilles is responsible for Hector’s death and desecrates his body for three days, dragging it around Troy’s fortifications. Wencker has Achilles raise his left hand in a gesture that is hard to read, perhaps to indicate his power, while Priam, wearing a white beard, clasps Achilles’ right knee with his right hand. This highly dramatic moment is a great event in The Iliad, which employs the complex relationship, past and present, of the two men to comment on power and respect during wartime. In the background, to the upper left of the painting, two men look on beside the column where Achilles’ armor—his crested helmet and shield—is hung. This painting is a case in which Wencker is technically correct but somehow lacking in true drama: Priam and Achilles look too theatrically engaged, even if we give them the benefit of the intensity of the moment.

There is another treatment of this story from a point earlier to Priam’s request of Achilles to retrieve Hector. In two similar oil-on-canvas sketches, both entitled Achilles Places the Body of Hector at the Feet of the Dead Patroclus and dated 1769, Joseph-Barthélemy Lebouteux and Pierre Lacour, respectively, envision the moment of revenge when Achilles sets the lifeless body of Hector at the feet of the dead Patroclus. An important moment in the narrative of The Iliad, it is not at the same time one of high honor, and the interpretation of both artists tends to emphasize the pathos of the scene over any notion of noble motive or action. In Lacour’s version, Achilles is active and militant but hardly great; he occupies the center of the scene, the canopy sheltering Patroclus’ body a frame for a victorious but nonetheless tragic moment. Lebouteux’s vision is similar, with Achilles attending to the pale white figure of his dead friend, Hector abject on a thin mat separating him from the ground. In both paintings, the emphasis on fidelity to the text takes over any sense of nobility or idealization. True, it is a complicated, conflicted moment in the text; however, the emphasis in the paintings appears to be on raw emotion. Achilles is too late to save his beloved comrade from the dangers of combat, but he achieves a brutal revenge in his desecration of Hector’s body.

The possibilities for illustrating The Iliad and The Odyssey are considerable; so many of their events have passed down as separate anecdotes over the centuries. At the same time, the inherent drama of many of these exchanges can also result in an obsessive literalization of the story, along with a sentimentality that finds its voice in the overly mawkish interpretation of occurrences whose details are already part of the culture’s legacy. In his 1880 oil, The Recognition of Ulysses and Telemachus, Henri-Lucien Doucet shows Odysseus embracing his son, who is on his knees. Behind the pair, watching over them, is a goddess wearing an ornate white muslin dress; one assumes she is giving her approval of a scene that should be affecting, but which is cloying to this viewer. The scene’s emotion is strikingly theatrical, but inevitably overacted. Indeed, the problem with these works in general is that the classical texts assume so high a value that there is often a literalization of the story, in which the enactment of the anecdote feels straitjacketed by readings that do not develop beyond the surface of what they are. The story remains stuck in the past, illustrated rather than illuminated. The love of antiquity is one thing, but an overly faithful version of it another: interpretation should not be a case of repeating what is already known.

This is not to say that the exhibition fails. All in all, it is a show of extreme interest, in part because it is so rare to see these works. In the best of them, there is an attitude toward the past that transcends any mere iteration of anecdote; some sense of the greatness of literary antiquity comes through. Curiously, and sometimes excitingly, the viewer has the sense that the work has been made by anonymous artists, whose level of skill is so high that the notion of personal expression is lost to an impersonal vision of art. The idea that the authority of these works should be entirely indebted to the literary precedents they illuminate is not a modern notion and brings much of the art precariously near to illustration. Even so, something of Homer’s greatness comes through; the literary quality of the artworks serves to remind us just how powerful the epic poems are. At a time when there is a rejection of antiquity for political reasons, it is moving to see Homer’s legacy treated as a great source for art. Even if we are no longer in a time when such art carries with it the moral authority it used to, we can enjoy the works as bearers of a heroism that is exciting in its implications of greatness. When the works rise above illustration, we become entranced, not for historical reasons but for the sake of the stories themselves. As a result, we experience the art as narrative, its meaningfulness seen as something fully alive.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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