NEW YORK CITY – The artistic vocabulary developed by the Greeks and Romans never truly lost its appeal and significance for later painters, sculptors, architects and writers. Awareness of classical culture persisted in varying degrees throughout the Middle Ages, and the term Renaissance implies the rebirth of ancient art and literature.
In spirit and representation, the most prolific revival of classical culture was Europe’s Neo-classical movement of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. “Telling Tales I: Classical Images from the Dahesh Museum of Art,” opening on May 29, reaches beyond the strict Neo-classical codes to demonstrate how a variety of academically trained artists throughout Nineteenth Century Europe took that legacy and interpreted it – translating and shaping the classical canon to express new interests and aspirations.
“Telling Tales I,” organized by associate curator Roger Diederen, presents some 35 paintings, drawings, lithographs and sculptures selected from the Dahesh Museum of Art collection, including a number of important new acquisitions. The works of Lawrence Alma Tadema, Charles Bargue, Antoine Louis Barye, Luigi Bazzani, Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Auguste-Xavier Fabre, Jean-Leon Gerome, Henri Godet, Charles Edward Perugini, Jean-Jacques Pradier, Camilio Innocenti and Frederic, Lord Leighton, among others, illuminate the range and depth of the collection, while underscoring the variety of strategies these artists employed to sustain a valued connection to classical culture.
This exhibition of the museum’s permanent collection will be followed by “Telling Tales II,” which opens on October 16 and investigates the diversity and intensity of religious art in the Nineteenth Century. Considered together, these two exhibitions underline the importance and predominance of the narrative in academic art.
The crucial role of studying d’apres l’antique is the first theme to be explored in “Telling Tales I.” The study of ancient art, especially sculpture, became an essential part of an artist’s education because of the idealization of Greek and Roman culture, perceived by many as sublime. Sculptures of the human form taught perfect proportion while providing access to the cultures that produced these marvels. Plaster casts made after the sculptures provided tireless models for students to work from, especially for many who could not travel to see them in Rome.
In different ways, Charles Bargue’s published drawing course, of “Cours de dessin” (1868-1872), and Jean-Leon Gerome’s poignant “Michelangelo” (1849) attest to the centrality of ancient sculpture in the training and education of the academic artist. Michelangelo’s worshipful enthusiasm for the “Belvedere Torso,” depicted in this painting, greatly enhanced the work’s reputation. The sculpture remained in its damaged form – rather than being restored with newly carved limbs as often occurred in other statues – because Michelangelo himself did not feel qualified to perform the task.
The paintings can be read on many levels. Some see in it the master contemplating his roots, others note references to the profession of academic art, the relationship of man and student, even a homoerotic content, based on current knowledge of Michelangelo’s sexual orientation and the bohemian atmosphere of certain artists in Paris.
Gerome’s “Working in Marble” refers simultaneously to both Greek mythology and new archaeological discoveries from the Ancient world. And with an exquisite cast of the “Standing Sappho” (1848) the sculptor Jean-Jacques Pradier emulated his predecessors in a most formidable manner. The Greek poet leans against an Ionic column, contemplatively holding a lyre with a cool and restrained “classical” aspect.
Another group of works, including the newly acquired “Oedipus and the Sphinx” (circa 1806-1808) by Auguste Xavier Fabre, illustrates the Nineteenth Century artist’s fascination with the countless, dramatic tales of Greek mythology that served as primary source material for any history painter. This pupil of Jacques Louis David portrayed the dramatic moment when the deadly Sphinx confronts the young Oedipus with her riddle: “What is that which at dawn walks on four legs, a midday on two, and in the evening on three?” He masterfully replies “Man,” who as an infant crawls on all fours, as a man stands on two feet and with old age uses a staff as a third limb.
Fabre placed Oedipus in a classically composed landscape and gave him the likeness of the prototypical, well-formed Greek hero. He also had him gesture dramatically with three fingers stretched, leaving no doubt that he would answer the riddle successfully. Another mythical confrontation between man and beast is represented in two related and powerful sculptures by Antoine Louis Barye, “Theseus Combating the Centaur Bianor.”
Mythological scenes not only provided artists with intriguing narratives for their compositions, they also required a depiction of the nude body, whether male or female. The luminous voluptuous “Andromeda Chained to a Rock” by Henry Pierre Picou is one outstanding example, and Fabre’s “Oedipus” is another.
Serious and rigorous Neo-classical history painting began to lose its predominance at mid-century, and such historical genre specialists as Dutch-born Lawrence Alma Tadema found a ready audience for their recreations of daily life in ancient Greece and Rome. Rather than addressing ancient cultures by depicting heroic myths, Alma Tadema sought to revive antiquity on a more intimate and personal level.
“A Staircase” (1870), another recent addition to the collection, speaks eloquently of that trend. Alma Tadema and other historical genre painters recreated the ancient past by portraying ordinary people going about their lives against the backdrop of the Ancient world. Here, four women in Roman dress are ascending a marble staircase – he was famous for his technical ability to render marble – seen through the two classical columns of the original frame.
The classical canon could at times be greatly transformed in many different ways. The last section of the show explores how, despite its reformulation, classical roots were maintained and renewed. For example, Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s “The Water Girl” (1885) is clearly inspired by classic statuary, whereas Henri Godet’s sculpture of “Cupid and Psyche” (1896) derives directly from a mythological painting by Bouguereau, making the famous painter himself the “classic” example to be emulated.
Finally, the Czech painter Jaroslav Cermak, who makes a dramatic debut in this exhibition, created an abduction scene, set in the modern world but visually descended from representations of such famous mythological tales as the abduction of the Sabines, Europa or Proserpine. These stories had offered generations of artists the possibility to depict the female nude in a complicated pose of torment. Cermak’s unsettling and overwhelming “Abduction of a Herzegovenian Woman” (1861) reveals both its classical antecedents and a strong influence from contemporary Romantic and Orientalist ideals.
When first displayed at the 1861 Salon, this work was called “Razzia de bachi-bouzouchs dans un village chretien de l’Herzegovine (Turquie)” – or “Bashi-Bazouks Raiding a Christian Village in Herzogovina (Turkey).” Bashi-Bazouks were irregular troops attached to the Ottoman army and feared for their ferocity. Apart from the Salon title, the crucifix in the foreground leaves little question about the religious convictions of the woman.
Thus the painting represent the “Ottoman threat” to “Christian civilization.” This horrific scene reflected actual turmoil in the region, as Cermak had witnessed Turkish troops attacking villages in Central Europe. Given the recent violence in that same geographic area, the painting unfortunately is all-too timely, with socio-political and religious implications that have not lost their significance. This closing image of the exhibition, containing as it does overt and subtle references to classical and Renaissance art brings us full circle.
The exhibit is complemented by a full-color catalogue of the same title, written by Roger Diederen. On June 14 at 6:15 pm in the museum gallery, he will present a public lecture discussing the major themes and concentrating on recent acquisitions to the collection. For tickets, 212-759-0606.
The Dahesh Museum of Art is at 601 Fifth Avenue at 48th Street. Hours are 11 am to 6 pm, Tuesday through Saturday.