ANTOINE ÉTEX


Rodin dominates the little that is said anymore about 19th-century French sculpture, but behind the Gates of Hell lurk other sculptors, some as successful and more admired in their time, and who participated in the creation of the major public monuments of Paris.

After seeing the young Antoine Étex’s figure of the Death of Hyacinthe at the Salon of 1833, Adolphe Theirs, at the time the minister of public works, chose Étex to sculpt two of the monumental high-relief groups for the façades of the Arc de Triomphe, the colossal victory arch left unfinished by Napoléon, upon which work had resumed after a 20 year hiatus.

A student of Joseph Pradier, Étex learned his trade during the late, sentimental phase of Neo-classicism. He was not a prodigy and failed to win the Rome Prize. His early reputation was based on his facility for carving single figures and small groups in marble, often arranged in languid to limp poses and composed of soft curves. The scepter held by Blanche de Castile serves as an index of the degree to which the curves of the figure and drapery deviate from a straight line.

Étex’s soft, flowing style was well-suited to the lugubrious and tragic subjects in vogue at the time, like the Hyacinthe, its pendant, the Damalis, and the leaden (in both senses) Cain and His Cursed Race. His memorial and funerary monuments are equally fluid and flaccid. The recumbent bronze tomb effigy of Géricault appears to have been poured on to the sarcophagus and pooled there, while the melodramatic, nevertheless impressive, veiled mourner of the Raspail tomb flows from the grate above like a glacier.

The Arc de Triomphe, however, called for semi-allegorical, political subject matter, narrated in multi-figure scenes of gigantic proportions, assembling figures from pre-carved pieces and working with limestone which, unlike marble, was not suited to fine details and surface effects. Apart from adapting to these material constraints, Étex was obliged to harmonize his work with the two completed façades, one of which was the highly-praised Départ de 1792 by François Rude. To put it simply, the commission drew on none of Étex’s strengths and required him to change his entire approach to sculpture.

To his credit, he succeeded in doing so. The resultant summary, planar, and angular style manipulated light and shadow to improve legibility from a distance and from the ground. He wisely did not attempt to match the histrionics of Rude, favoring a more stalwart mood. An army of assistants were entrusted with the carving the simplified forms from a forgiving stone that required no finishing by the master. Building the group from multiple blocks allowed for the simultaneous carving of multiple parts, which accelerated the project’s pace.

The Arc de Triomphe was as high profile a commission as one could imagine and the style of its sculptural reliefs was widely disseminated through prints and photographs, and Étex’s effective and economical approach to official public monuments was taken up across Europe and America and practiced through the 1930s, whereas Rodin’s influence was mainly visible inside museums.

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THE NORTHERN NATIVITY


Happy Holidays

ROMAN ENGINEERING III: DRAINS AND SEWERS

The extraordinary greatness of the Roman Empire manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the drains.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 3.67.5

The Cloaca Maxima, The underground system of drains and sewers lines, was the unseen marvel of Rome, worthy of literary commemoration. Pliny the Elder composed this dramatic paean to the Great Sewer:

Hills were tunneled into the course of the construction of the sewers, and Rome was a “city on stilts” beneath which men sailed when Marcus Agrippa was aedile. Seven rivers join together and rush headlong through Rome, and, like torrents, they necessarily sweep away everything in their path. With raging force, owing to the additional amount of rainwater, they shake the bottom and sides of the sewers.

Sometimes water from the Tiber flows backwards and makes its way up the sewers. Then the powerful flood-waters clash head-on in the confined space, but the unyielding structure holds firm. Huge blocks of stone are dragged across the surface above the tunnels; buildings collapse of their own accord or come crashing down because of fire; earth tremors shake the ground – but still, for seven hundred years from the time of Tarquinius Priscus, the sewers have survived almost completely intact (Natural History, 36).

Writing under the Empire, Livy described the system as one “for which the new magnificence of these days has scarcely been able to produce a match” (Ab Urbe Condita, I.52.6).

The Cloaca Maxima, begun by the last Etruscan king, Tarquinus Superbus, in the 6th century BC, was a canal designed to drain the marshy valleys that lay between the hills of Rome. By the time Frontinus had assumed the post of curator aquarum in A.D. 97, its concrete and masonry tunnels channeled rainwater and waste water used in the baths, fountains, and latrines and trash beneath the Fora and around the hills, and stood among extensive drainage networks in the valleys of the Circus Maximus and the Campus Martius. The joint exit is just south of the ancient Roman bridge now known as Ponte Rotto. One of the maintenance entrances to the system is found behind a door at the eastern stairs of the Basilica Julia at the Roman Forum. Parts of the Cloaca Maxima were still in use as sewers in the early 20th century.

WASSILY KANDINSKY

Born: Moscow 16 December 1866
Died: Neuilly-sur-Seine 13 December 1944

Form, in the narrow sense, is nothing but the separating line between surfaces of colour. That is its outer meaning. But it has also an inner meaning, of varying intensity, and, properly peaking, FORM IS THE OUTWARD EXPRESSION OF THIS INNER MEANING.*

* It is never literally true that any form is meaningless and “says nothing.” Every form in the world says something. But its message often fails to reach us, and even if it does, full understanding is often withheld from us.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Part VI, 1912

SPÄTBAROCK IN SÜDDEUTSCHLAND V: DAS MARKGRÄFLICHES OPERNHAUS ZU BAYREUTH

The Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia (1709 –1758), the older sister of Frederick the Great, was a musician, the lute being her principle instrument, and a composer of opera and chamber music. Through marriage, she became the Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth in 1731. Her ambition to make Bayreuth a major musical center necessitated the building of a modern performance space, adequate to the staging of operas. In 1744, she commissioned architect Joseph de Saint-Pierre to build an opera house, to be situated on the main square in Bayreuth, and the Bolognese theatre architect Giuseppe Galli Bibiena and his son Carlo, to design its interior, including the stage, seating, lighting and acoustics. The opera house was completed in just four years and opened in 1748. In a letter to Frederick the Great of 14 May 1748 announcing the completion of the opera house, Wilhelmine shows herself to be a discriminating and informed patron:

Dieser Tage habe ich das neue Opernhaus besichtigt. Ich war sehr erfreut darüber. Das Innere ist fast vollendet. Bibiena hat in diesem Theater die Quintessenz des italienischen und französischen Stils vereinigt. Man muss zugeben, dass er in seinem Fach ein unübertroffener Meister ist.

Wilhelmine subsequently participated in the theatre’s programs as writer, player, composer, actor and director.

As theatricality is a hallmark of both the Baroque style and absolute monarchies, it seems only natural that after palaces and churches, the building of ornately-decorated theatres was a major form of absolutist architectural self-expression. Not only did the magnificence of the structure and its decoration reflect positively on the wealth, taste, and glory of the ruler, festivals, court masques, operas, dances and allegorical plays were performed there on important occasions to praise the ruler or to commemorate births, military victories, anniversaries, birthdays and coronations. Wilhelmine, the sister of and absolute monarch and wife of an absolutist prince had the Bayreuth opera house built party to assert similar ideological claims and party to fulfill her own artistic inclinations.

MATISSE / PICASSO

dancers

Matisse wanted to express an affirmative vision of the world… Picasso dared to question everything. Matisse was generous… Picasso had a flair for the new, the unexpected. Matisse intensified the interplay of color, while Picasso’s revolt was aimed at structure and form. Their polarity was mutually invigorating… they needed each other as a permanent challenge.

—Françoise Gilot

matisse cone odalisque

I think they are both interested— and know that the other is interested —in what the other is unable to do. Picasso sends Matisse something that he knows is very, very different from what Matisse is doing. And it’s a very powerful portrait (of Dora Maar). And Picasso chooses, because Matisse gives Picasso a choice, Seated Young Woman in a Persian Dress, which in its innocence is completely removed from what Picasso would do.

Picasso knew that Matisse was fantastic with color — he knew that right from the start. Matisse always admired Picasso’s facility as a draftsman, and Matisse knew that he had to go to endless lengths to achieve the same kind of fluency.

In other words, they each recognized the special talent and facility of the other, and each knew that it was not theirs. So, when they dialogued in their world, they tried to address or to combat, to circumvent the facility. And so, that became their goal. Picasso became an incredibly good colorist because Matisse was there as a competitor. He knew that he would never be able to really compete with Matisse, but nevertheless, he worked very hard.

Matisse became an incredible draftsman, especially at the end of his life. His drawings are just masterpieces. They look effortless. They’re not effortless at all, but they look it. And I think it had a lot to do with the way in which each tried to surpass the other’s achievements. Each was obliged to apply his talents in more diverse and more powerful ways.

—Yves-Alain Bois, Matisse/Picasso

Matisse, La Bonheur de Livre

You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.

If I were not making the paintings I make, I would paint like Matisse.

—Pablo Picasso

1986: Eric Fischl

Eric Fischl’s mid-career retrospective at Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986 consisted of 28 paintings of obliquely-observed, semi-scandalous, sexually-charged situations taking place in spacious upper middle class houses, yards and beaches. Fischl’s subject matter is greatly enhanced by his equally licentious painting style, which consists of loosely-handled, summary brushwork, and an approach to the nude that is at once awkward and fluid at the same time.

Reviewing the show, New York Times art critic John Russell stated that Fischl’s work was controversial because his combination of anxious expressionism and suburban anomie, “had come down hard upon the exposed nerve of our time.”¹ Less portentously, Robert Hughes, writing about Fischl’s 1988 show at Mary Boone, credited the artist with conjuring scenes of unforeseen prurience “so vivid that for the moment you ignore the formal lapses in Fischl’s painting.” He also noted

… Fischl’s desire to turn the viewer into a voyeur, a reluctant and embarrassed witness. At such moments you realize that, whatever awkwardness his work harbors, he is up to something worthwhile at least on the plane of psychic narrative.²

By the 1970s, performance art had appropriated the representation of the body, which abstraction had programmatically displaced from painting and sculpture. As Fischl candidly acknowledged his lack of formal training in basic technique, pointing out that basic skills like drawing from the nude were not taught in the progressive American art schools (Fischl received his MFA from Cal Arts in 1974) and the were no American figural artists to serve as exemplars.

The figural tradition was thriving, however, in Britain, and Fischl clearly looked hard at and learned from Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and above all, David Hockney, whose glaring sunlight, anomie, and swimming pools filled with surprises suggested new directions for narrative painting. Stylistically, Fischl is more indebted to the slash and burn manner of Bacon and to Freud’s turgid and vexed exploration of the metaphorical relationship of oil pigments to skin.

The bulk of Russell’s review of the Fischl retrospective reads like an undergrad art history exam: pictures by Fischl are compared to and contrasted with works by Manet, Degas, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Max Beckmann:

[Degas] sets up a charged situation with his incomparable subtlety of insight and characterization, and then he goes away and leaves us to figure it out as best we can. That is the tactic of Fischl, too, though the society with which he deals has an unstructured brutality and a violence never far from release that are very different from the nicely calibrated cruelties that Degas recorded.

These artists were regularly mentioned at the time in conjunction with Fischl, either to demonstrate his place in the tradition of modern painting, or to show how short he fell from it. To a much greater extent, Julian Schnabel, and David Salle, to a lesser extent, were also discussed with reference to the canon in the same tendentious manner. Then again, the terms of the debate had been set by the artists themselves (Schnabel: “I’m the closest thing to Picasso that you’ll see in this fucking life”⁴), who proclaimed their project to be nothing short of the revival of painting itself.

Russell’s review is important not for its pictorial analysis, but because all of the comparisons to past masters are favorable to Fischl. No ironic points are scored and no falling off is lamented. It is clear that Russell feels not only that it is legitimate to assess Fischl’s paintings in terms of their place within the western tradition, but that they can hold their own in the process. At that moment, Eric Fischl, the ultra-hyped, contemporary art star, became a modern master charged with representing “our time”, and an object of art historical analysis. Neo-Expressionism was here to stay.

Notes

1. John Russell, “At the Whitney, 28 Eric Fischl Paintings,” The New York Times, 21 February 1986.

2. Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (Penguin, 1992).

3. Russell, 2.

4. Michael Stone, “Off the Canvas: The Art of Julian Schnabel Survives the Wreckage of the 1980s,” New York Magazine, 18 May 1992, p. 32.