Saturday, March 18, 2017

Classicisms at the Smart Museum



Must a tradition be defined by every adaptation made of it?  Must that definition account for things done in jest or hostility ?  Must it account for incompetent execution or things made only to be sold?  Must it account for things damaged by time or reproduction?   By  querying “the many ways in which classicism and even its opposite ideals come to be represented” , it is hardly surprising that a multiplicity  of “Classicisms” has been found for this exhibition.


The three sculpture heads at the entrance give some idea of how artworks have been selected and presented. To the left is an undated plaster cast of a Roman portrait bust originally created in the second century.   Signage informs us that such casts were once considered “an idealized model of enduring dignity”.  Whatever quality the original marble may have had, this more recent reproduction has all the enduring dignity of a tombstone – fit to signify, but not exemplify, something of value.   In the center is an original Roman bust from North Africa cut from a limestone relief carved in the fifth Century.  The nose is gone, the lips are chipped and one eye is badly mangled.  Signage tells us that it “would never do” for display in European palaces and academies.  But even in its damaged condition,  it proclaims a  fresh and powerful spiritual idealism that feels early Christian.  To the right is a plaster cast of Rodin’s portrait of Pierre de Wiessant.  It’s been scaled down from his multi-figure “Burghers of Calais”,   cast twenty five years after it was modeled, and the mould seams left uncleaned.  Signage  tells us that Rodin  “adopted the cult of the  fragment”.  But more importantly, this piece demonstrates his amazing ability to control space and express turbulent character with anatomical detail. 


The introductory catalog essay asserts that  “it would be best to consider classicism less as a quality inherent in an artwork than as a tool for understanding it.. a concept pertaining more to the beholder than to the artist”. (1)   Yet within that same catalog,  an 18th Century painter, Antoine Coypel,  is quoted as follows:  “Le dessein elegant de l'antique sculpture, Joint aux effets naifs que fournit la nature". (“L'esthetique du peintre”,1721) .  Though  written nearly a century before the word “Classicism” was first published,  that conflation of historic elegance and fresh observation of nature dates back to the Parthenon. Dramatically reborn eighteen hundred years later,  Classicism has been practiced as a way to enjoy life in the natural world without fear, despair, or attention to a hereafter.  Like concurrent achievements in Athenian democratic institutions and rational inquiry, it has echoed throughout world history,  however often it has been marginalized or adapted for other purposes. 

 Only a few good examples of Classical practice can be found in this exhibit, which does not even include the best pieces in the Smart Museum’s own collection ( for example: its two sculptures by Maillol).   Possibly the scholars involved do not relate to that practice, and evidently they prefer the conceptual to the visual aspects of art. Three of the catalog essays discuss the gender bending concept of Joel Peter Witkin’s photograph, “Canova’s Venus”.  A comparison between Tintoretto’s  “Mercury and  the Graces” and Agostino Carracci’s engraving of same focuses on semiotic details while ignoring overall visual effect. (2)   A discussion of Piranesi’s “Temple of the Sibyl” sees a “heavenly altar” but not the dark, damp,  Gothic mood. (3)


A hundred years ago, modern classicism was championed by the art department of the University of Chicago under the leadership of the sculptor and writer,  Laredo Taft.  Obviously, the university’s cultural mission is now quite different.   But the need for the visual expression of an elegant,  vibrant,  rational life style continues to be felt and addressed.  It may even become academically fashionable again some day. 

(1) Larry F. Norman "Multiple Classicisms"
(2) Frederick A. De Armas "Mercury as a Messenger of the Gods"
(3) James Nemiroff "Piranesi's Imitation of the Classics"