Forward into the Past

John Haber
in New York City

Goethe Collects: French Drawings from Weimar

Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition

Idols of Perversity

"Make it new." That cry has sounded out again and again since the birth of Modernism. In turn, one understands Postmodernism as the critic of avant-gardes and the student of history.

That story never told the whole truth. If the avant-garde has its roots in Romanticism, so in a sense does Marx. If at least one version of modern art demanded a medium's rigorous self-examination, that has to include historical consciousness. Hopes of unleashing the unconscious, from Surrealism to Jackson Pollock's Jungian beginnings, link to narratives of an even deeper past. Besides, all artists have influences and traditions. Conversely, if Postmodernism wants so much to ground art historically, one should examine why it keeps riffing so wildly—and often wonderfully—on the past. Sas Christian's Vexed (Bellwether, 2005)

Does contemporary art nonetheless seem more like a conscious or unconscious retread? The Guggenheim pairs photographs and prints, linking Robert Mapplethorpe to Mannerism, while "Idols of Perversity" traces a culture's images and sexual obsessions to the late Victorians. Meanwhile, one can discover the very origins of a museum drawing collection from Weimar in a towering Romantic's fondness for a then-neglected period in art. Logically enough, none of these retreads of past and present get everything right. Does the post in Postmodernism apply best to the Enlightenment, Renaissance norms, Romanticism, Victorian propriety, the avant-garde, or ideals in general? At the very least, one learns to see every version of the past as nost just a misunderstanding but a story all its own.

Call collect

"The French school is worth nothing at the moment." Few would know that better than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a central figure in the birth of German Romanticism. How could such an age take seriously the art of France, in all its academic propriety, Rococo lightness, and tributes to the absolute monarch? Then, too, Goethe was writing in 1818, just three years after the battle of Waterloo. France's mark on Europe had, it seemed, descended at last to nothing.

Ah, but read that again, this time with the ear of an appraiser delighted at the find—or of today's hot market, where every dollar counts. As privy councilor, Goethe had been building the grand ducal collections in Weimar since 1776, just two year's after his stunning literary debut with The Sorrows of Young Werther. Nor was he simply bargain hunting. As a student of the Enlightenment, he had a lifelong fascination with France, from the classicism of Nicolas Poussin to a post-revolutionary "new energy" under Jacques-Louis David and Napoleon himself. Of course, that point of view—of a connoisseur and an admirer of French drawing—matches the Frick's own. Its seventy drawings on loan from Weimar supply a delightfully biased history of the French Baroque and Rococo.

The exhibition does not try to see the art as Goethe would have. In includes drawings acquired only recently, and it does not trot out former attributions for their own sake—or as a lesson to the modern eye. Goethe never obtained a Poussin, although he thought he had, just as he ascribed a landscape by Claude Lorrain to Adam Elsheimer, the German miniaturist. He never obtained a David, and he knew it. The Frick displays two of Goethe's mistakes, but more for their rarity to modern eyes than as a lesson in connoisseurship or period tastes. Meanwhile, drawings by a pupil of David, Anne-Louis Girodet, document a woman whose wiry style reflects the influence of John Flaxman, the English illustrator of Homer.

However, Goethe's eye still dominates the exhibition—and accounts for much of its fascination. Unsurprisingly, given their more ready availability and closeness to the writer's formative years, drawings from the eighteenth century predominate. And, paradoxically, those drawings often come the closest to Neoclassical restraint. François Boucher may usually care more for art and fashion than for life, but here one finds his close study after a monumental Italian Madonna, a Triton with powerful musculature and deeply cast shadows, and a farmyard so plain that one could almost take it for a Dutch genre scene. An arch by Hubert Robert, opening onto a plaza and port, gives the scene a firm composition and consistent lighting, while allowing the eye to wander everywhere. One can almost overlook the half-comical statue crowning the architecture.

The period favored all the proper moral sentiments, and sure enough Charles Natoire supplies a woman on her knees, with outstretched arms. Jean-Baptiste Greuze's woman pleads with wide eyes, in preparation for his painting of The Ungrateful Son, and another drawing, of uncertain attribution, manages to show a man both suitably learned and crippled. However, each sees his subject at such close range as to resemble portraiture more than theater. In contrast, a Romantic impulse emerges most in seventeenth-century drawings. Lorrain suggests foreground trees with translucent smudges. River in Undergrowth, by the less-familiar Jean Chaufourier, comes closer still to a dream world.

The work has its conventional pleasures. One can compare a variety of media, including the influence of Jean Antoine Watteau in three colors of chalk, as well as stumping—or rubbing with paper to achieve texture. Greuze heightens the traces left by one drawing pressed against another sheet, called a counterproof, as part of working out a design. The sole Watteau, in which two silken figures sketched quite apart from one another appear to share the pursuit of love, may serve as the show's highlight. Still, I most appreciated seeing an enlightened eye turned on an earlier age. One can approach the exhibition as the growth of French art, as the birth of very modern tastes, or as the emergence of drawing itself as an art form with museum status. One can see it, too, for how all three of these depended on art conscious of its history, and it invites one to leap forward to revisionists in the present.

Muscle beach

Talk about museums whose institutional compromises have only muddled their finances and their mission! With exhibitions ranging from its modernist roots to epic video, fashion, and lost empires, the Guggenheim is either truly able to revision the past, showing off its versatility, or simply lost. Of course, as anyone concerned for the politics surrounding public support for the arts and the plight of nonprofits will know, museums make those compromises against a struggle to keep going. Yet in their different ways recent displays of Daniel Buren and Jorge Oteiza have left the museum's top tier all but vacant. Could that represent a symbol of mismanagement or a plea for help?

Either way, I must admire how an exhibition on the ramp below makes efficient use of the resources at hand. The Guggenheim has acquired a large, representative portfolio of Robert Mapplethorpe, and it has gained loans of Mannerist prints thanks in part to its partnerships with the Hermitage. One has to respect "Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition" for itself as well. A Mapplethorpe retrospective, which outraged funders of public art, lacked a stop here in New York. I myself have argued for a parallel between Mannerism and Postmodernism, the one a Post-Renaissance consciousness of its more ideal antecedents, the latter an equally reflexive turn on the avant-garde. Now the museum wants Mapplethorpe to belong to both—the avant-garde and, yes, the ideal.

Mannerism, the exhibition argues, offers a perfect backdrop for understanding the photographer's mix of often sentimental elegance and provocation. They seem a long way from the self-exposure in some of those same years by Francesca Woodman, and yet her body has an eerie resemblance to Patti Smith's for Mapplethorpe. He veers between classical quotation and preposterous exaggeration, anatomical clarity and sexual delectation for its own sake, heavily sculptural subjects and the eye of a select few. The curators find some pretty close parallels in poses, some of which Mapplethorpe actually fits into round frames as evocative of older prints as of the literal camera's lens.

Then too, the photographs and prints alike offer plenty of outrageous male muscles. In the interest of carrying art's political protest still further, I must mention that one set of muscles belongs to a younger Arnold Schwarzenegger. And here you thought bodybuilding was all about heterosexual boasting, shoving women's heads in the toilet, and angling for a career in B movies and the California statehouse. Whether this makes the governor an esthetic elitist after all I leave to art history to judge.

Allying Mapplethorpe and Mannerism sounds so promising and so convincing, but I fear it ends up reducing both more to clichés than ever. The problems begin with the selection of prints. Even with the cooperation of another major museum, the show falls back far too often on minor artists and on copies after better known print makers, themselves mass reproductions of earlier Renaissance and Mannerist models. It lumps together decades of sixteenth-century work, with no recognition of Mannerism's changing relationship to classicism and sculptural realism. It makes it that much harder to understand what Mapplethorpe might ever have meant by a classical ideal, assuming he thought seriously about it at all. It makes it even harder to sort out what Mannerism itself meant—or to know exactly when one is seeing it through Mapplethorpe's eyes.

Less than two years before, New York had another fresh perspective on the photographer, a pairing of Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman as curator. Like the Guggenheim, Sherman presented Mapplethorpe as an obsessive looker and borrower. With a particular emphasis on his portraiture, she showed him as role-player able to give roles to others as well. Ironically, in tracking his dress-up games, she made him both more of a realist and more clearly sympathetic to his sitters. The Guggenheim brings out instead his facility, and that does not help place him up there with the classics. It also leaves one mired in a caricature of the Renaissance, which does not help anyone recover or come to love the past.

Perverse idols

Modernism began when Edouard Manet turned to—or perhaps turned on—Titian, Goya, and Velázquez, and one has had the challenge of sorting out critique, influence, and revisionism ever since. If Mannerism can serve as one metaphor for the present, why not eminent Victorians? It may sound silly. Surely those stuffy characters do not belong in this enlightened (or corrupted) age, not when anything goes and anything can count as art. Yet the parallels are fun to pursue—even more fun as the basis of a "Idols of Perversity," a suitably perverse summer group show.

For starters, one can argue, Postmodernism institutionalizes Modernism and reacts to its ideals of self-expression, just as Romanticism settled into the late Victorian era. Conversely, Romanticism as a movement gave way to the reverence accorded the great Victorian poets—or the outrage accorded Oscar Wilde—in much the way that Modernism's discrete movements seem remote from today's art-world celebrity. The fog-bound industrial cities of the nineteenth century, as well as the British empire, showed the strains of unfettered capitalism, much like postindustrial America. They also nurtured relatively new art forms such as the novel as big business, much like art today. The Salons and their scandals have their parallel in the politicization of outrage, along with today's Biennials and art fairs. One even has a modern Salons des Refuses in open-studio weekends, Brooklyn's "Open House," and "Greater New York," all naturally with official sanction.

Oh, and did I mention sex? A book by Bram Dijkstra, subtitled Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, gives the show at Bellwether its name and theme. Dijkstra argues that Victorian fantasies by no means preclude an extreme misogyny. When art portrayed the Victorian nude, it showed an object of desire, but also the subject of a moral fable. Wavering ever so indelicately between purity and perversity, its images seem not all that far after all from Sex and the City and the Culture Wars. Much as now, a viewer could get away with both a wink and a knowing glance.

At Bellwether, too, one hardly knows exactly where academic art veers into pop culture or lust into irony. John Currin, who all but owns the patent on having it both ways, supplies one model. However, the sheer range of heirs to Frederic Leighton or the Pre-Raphaelites underscores the success today in simultaneously marketing morality and fantasy. Sas Christian can include among her influences Adolphe William Bouguereau, the ultimate Salon painter, and anime, and one might as well throw in sci fi, too. Graham Little and Duncan Hannah find tight clothing and a harem girl in the guise of a staid realism, while Benn Blatt and Dr. Lakra happily pursue poster-style detail to ridiculous extremes.

As the inclusion of Christian or Lori Earley makes clear, women can play too now, and men have their ways of toying critically with misogyny as well. Tim Mensching's feminine idols are actually men, and Christopher Pugliese pursues the Pre-Raphaelites all the way back to Eve Before Adam. She could make Lilith and serpent seem like latecomers. Christian and Christoph Steinmeyer have rather imposing idols indeed, and Pieter Schoolwerth makes it hard to puzzle out exactly whose evil is scaring whom.

I cannot call it all necessary art—not when the pop-culture sources appropriated the same gamesmanship long ago. I definitely cannot call it subtlety, much less the fluid, meaningful imagery that an icon might well presuppose. As a review in The Sun puts it, the Victorians have a lot to answer for. However, Thomas Woodruff, a contributor as well as curator, has the sense in his selections to push things to extremes, so that artists more often lost in stale genres and pale traditions come off ironic, risqué, or at least halfway funny. Besides, all those varieties of excess add up to a perversity and self-consciousness about contemporary art's past that none of the artists alone has yet achieved. Perhaps the viewer already has.

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"From Callot to Greuze: French Drawings from Weimar" ran through August 7, 2005, at The Frick Collection, "Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints" through August 24 at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and "Idols of Perversity" through August 6 at Bellwether.


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