21 October 2005

Art History: Problematic situation #1

If you are the kind of person who likes to think of history as “solid, believable, verifiable fact” you won’t like what I have to say today.

History generally, and art history specifically evolve and change. Their priorities realign, and things previously believed insignificant become central to historic discourses. In other words, as our present evolves, we sometimes find that the historical events we thought were shaping and directing our future actually weren’t. Sometimes there was something else going on in the past that we hadn’t seen before that actually turned out to be the most important thing of all.

When that happens, we go back and rewrite or revise history, because what we though was in fact important, in fact wasn’t.

And, oh my, has this happened in art. The following two paintings were each completed by Frenchmen in 1880. Both images have classical nudes and semi-nudes. Both are of traditional mythological subject matter. But the painters’ style is nothing if not dissimilar.

The first is by Bouguereau, a master of academic painting and a favorite at the French Academy’s exhibitions.

The second is by Cezanne. Unlike Bouguereau, Cezanne wasn’t an Academy favorite. But he was one of Picasso’s favorites. During the first half of the 20th century, histories of art glossed over Bouguereau and lauded Cezanne because Cezanne’s work was relevant to the developments of Modern Art.

Since the 1960s, Bouguereau has regained some of the old glory. Over the last 40 years, art history has made an effort to recognize movements and artists that contributed to other events, not just the long and, increasingly austere road to High Modernism.


Matthew said...

You are missing the key issue in this situation. Bouguereau made pretty pictures, and is therefore the better artists.1

Mary Ann said...

Some people have even said that he was the greatest painter of the human figure ever.

Don't tell me this too gets back to the question "what is art?".

Josh said...

hate i missed this post the first time around.

i think this happens alot with the history of the recent past. ideally, perspectives on the past would only improve with new research and the finding of sources. the actual events of the past can't be revised no matter how hard we try. we're not talking about bias here, right? that sort of revision(ism) is irresponsible.

Mary Ann said...

No, it isn't about bias. Well, not unless you consider relevance an issue of bias.

Actually it is about forgetting and how you decide which events of the past are worth omitting from the historic record. For example, the winner of American Idol in 2004 is useless in the discussion of who got elected as American President that year. But who knows, maybe there was some huge conspiracy where the two were linked, and if that were ever to be the case it would be relevant again.

Anyway, the winner of AMerican Idol is not a fact in dispute, only its relevance is.