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“Our task is not to invent but to continue,” Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres reputedly decreed. The sentiment takes vivid expression in his Apotheosis of Homer of 1827, in the Musée du Louvre. The painting features an immobilized assembly of icons—from Plato to Poussin, from Menander to Mozart—at the foot of the Greek bard, worshipful congregants in the church of classicism. Equating artistic greatness with subservience to ancient precedents, the work advances a vision of classicism that has remained remarkably entrenched in Western imaginations.
Enter Classicisms at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. This delightfully iconoclastic exhibition asserts that for all its associations with ideals of reason, stability, and timelessness, classicism just as readily merits appreciation for its multiplicity, flexibility, and disruptive capacities. The show breaks rank with an enduring conception of the classical as marking the transmission from on high of a powerfully continuous tradition. For one thing, the wall text that welcomes visitors—“When we say that a painting or a sculpture, a subject matter or a style is ‘classical,’ what exactly do we mean?”—appears also at the exhibition’s conclusion. Consequently, those who enter by way of a gallery displaying Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph Canova’s Venus (1982) end their visit in a room housing a North African bust, Head of an Emperor or Female Head (An Empress?), from the late antique/early Christian period, and vice versa. The effect is to send viewers on their way liberated of any lingering myth of classicism as a tidy through line delivering ancient values into the modern age.
Not only does the diversity of artworks assembled—from ancient Greek pottery to avant-garde painting—defy doctrinal belief in classicism as possessed of a fixed, overarching reference point. What is more, the objects that greet us and bid us farewell—the Witkin photograph and the unidentified bust—foster an awareness of the perversely anticlassical characteristics they have in common. The disfigurement of the limestone sculpture—a trait echoed in headless bodies by Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore—has its analogue in the violation staged in Canova’s Venus. The photograph’s displacement of Paolina Borghese by a male nude, of her seamless, marble perfection by intrusions of hair, nipples, genitalia, and ink-splattered drapery, mirrors the achievement of the exhibition as well: its dislodging of a fallacy to make way for a classicism that promotes its own sullying—by bodily existence, by death, by history, by politics, by time. Put differently, classicism’s adherents have often responded less to its promise of clarity and mastery than to its ineluctable obscurity, its mystery, contends Andrei Pop, in one of the catalogue’s seven scholarly essays, which collectively dismantle much of the conventional wisdom on the subject.
Witkin’s photograph manifests another aspect of classicism brought to light by the exhibition: namely, its mediation by reproductive technologies. Among the most striking features of Classicisms is the prominence given to photography and prints—art forms that long occupied the lowest rungs of a hierarchy of media dominated by painting and sculpture. Not until three objects in do visitors who begin their tour with Canova’s Venus arrive before an oil on canvas (Sébastien Bourdon’s Christ Receiving the Children, ca. 1655). Preceding it are book illustrations commemorating royal festivals at Versailles. Marking the centrality of classical tropes to Louis XIV’s self-mythologizing, the volumes’ engravings, by Israel Silvestre and Jean Le Pautre, telegraph less the magnificence, however, than the provisional nature of a regime fated, like the pyrotechnic spectacles it sponsored, for oblivion. This sense of a classicism aligned not with power but rather with impermanence is embodied in the same gallery by Christo’s Wrapped Venus (1975), another print of another Venus, this one a mixed-media work featuring the sculpture engulfed in fabric while atop its pedestal at the Villa Borghese. Christo’s project turns a monument into a sign of its very opposite, encouraging an engagement with classicism not as a repository of eternal truths but rather as an eternally porous thing in progress.
In the context of the exhibition, the postmodern playfulness of Wrapped Venus hearkens back to nearby precedents from the early modern period. Well before Christo’s intervention prompted passersby to assume that the draped sculpture was under renovation, eighteenth-century artists produced homages to classicism that also courted an aesthetics of deception. Examples include a 1765 trompe l’oeil painting by Tommaso Gherardini that passes for a bas-relief of the sorts that were then being unearthed in Italy’s excavation sites. Richard Earlom’s highly successful prints after Claude Lorrain—published between 1774 and 1777 in Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth)—made use of the latest reproductive technologies in order to imitate the effects of his predecessor’s Roman landscape drawings. As exemplified by Earlom’s prints—etchings with mezzotint made by a British artist to resemble the wash drawings from a century earlier of a French painter living in Rome—such objects have special purchase on the exhibition’s theme, in that they underscore the highly mediated character of classicism itself. An impression made from a Hendrik Goltzius plate of ca. 1591 proves especially compelling in this regard, playing on Richard Neer’s proposal, in the catalogue, that “Classicism is, among other things, a theory of imitation” (31). The red-ink Goltzius engraving likely dates from the early eighteenth century, when red chalk emerged as a choice medium in France. Representing the emperor Commodus in the guise of Hercules, it channels a preoccupation with masquerade, mimicry, and fraudulence, vivified in form and content alike.
Classicism demonstrably lent itself in this period to a kind of mode mixing, enacting in its own way the Apollonian and Dionysian drives that Nietzsche would excavate in The Birth of Tragedy. The earnest and the fictitious cohabitate in Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s awe-inducing prints of Rome’s ancient ruins—works that elevated etching to a high art. Étienne Baudet’s engraving after Nicolas Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women disseminated an image that wedded classical principles of symmetry and rationalized forms to the atavistic chaos of Rome’s origin story. Images of Bacchic revelry by unidentified artists and of homoerotic desire in Pietro Testa’s The Symposium (1648) attest to an absorption in classicism anchored in a realm of baseness, indiscretion, and transgression (as well as in racial violence, as Rebecca Zorach observes in her essay). Jacques-Louis David and his ilk—artists who weaponized classicism, marshaling it in the service of uncompromising revolutionary politics—cede place in this exhibition to Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s and Jean-François-Pierre Peyron’s contemporaneous depictions of a licentious and conflicted Alcibiades.
Barring entry to the classical exemplars of austere, self-sacrificing, male virtue that populated French history paintings ca. 1789, the exhibition abounds with gender-bending types: delicately rendered académies (figural studies) by Edmé Bouchardon and Jacques Dumont—works that embody, writes Susanna Caviglia in her essay, a liminal zone between the Classical and the Rococo; the fatally vain Narcissus as portrayed by Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié; the nude male youths posing against Greek monuments in the electrifyingly erotic photographs of Guglielmo Plüschow and Wilhelm von Gloeden. The preponderance of reproductive media—historically aligned with slavish imitation rather than with originality and genius—further erodes the perceived boundary between masculine and feminine. As in Goltzius’s parody of a swaggering Commodus, a plenitude of female figurines—from Tanagras to Joseph-Charles Marin’s earthenware Bathing Girl of 1788—sustains the impression of a classicism emasculated.
In the wake of such works, large-scale academic paintings—Homer and His Guide (1874), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and Homer (ca. 1885), by Bouguereau’s student Émile-René Ménard—are arresting not for their grandiose confidence in classical doctrine but rather for their seeming lack of it. Despite the blind hero’s implacable bearing, the ephebe who holds Homer’s hand while exchanging uneasy glances with an agitated canine turns Bouguereau’s picture into a meditation on the uncertain prospects facing those charged with prolonging the life span of ancient models. Similarly, the serenity in Ménard’s scene of the poet singing before three adoring youths is punctured by instances of anachronism: the reclining male nude in the foreground sporting a modern, brimmed hat; the broken brushwork of the grass ineluctably registering the legacy not of Pastoralism but rather of Impressionism. Such works, the exhibition intimates, reveal a classicism whose persistence has less to do with its promise of ideology conservation than with its safeguarding of human doubt.
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of Illinois at Chicago