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March 11, 2009

About the Subject: Bouguereau vs. Currin

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Speakers and writers of English, unlike those of German, tend to opt for shorter, simpler words or labels. (I set aside academicians and bureaucrats. But then, I'm not sure what they write is really English anyway.)

Consider that field of painting called "Abstract." Yes, it's often pinned down more tightly by the term "Abstract Expressionism" if the reference is to a school of painting centered in New York City 1945-1960 or thereabouts. As often happens, the labels that stick aren't always the best descriptions. The word "abstract" in one sense is a relative term, not an absolute. And it matters what is being "abstracted" and to what degree.

A better term -- the one used by the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s -- is Non-Objective Art. A long, not-in-keeping-with-English moniker, to be sure. What it translates to is "art with no object" or "art depicting nothing recognizable."

All the rest of painting, therefore, depicts something that can be construed as one or more objects. These objects can be what exist or have existed in the world of experience, imaginary objects as in the case of some Surrealist painters or painters of Science-Fiction books covers, or objects from experience that have been distorted, but not unrecognizably so.

And that's one of the things that can make an artist's fortune or get him in trouble with art critics or usually both, depending on the timing.

Take William-Adolphe Bouguereau for instance.

There is little debate on whether or not he was an extraordinarily skilled painter: he was. Highly successful in his lifetime, his reputation suffered greatly after his death. In part this was due to the Modernist revolution sweeping all non-Modernist art under the critical rug. Otherwise, it was Bouguereau's subject-matter. Sentimental subjects or subjects treated in a sentimental fashion were popular in the late 1800s and are thought icky today by those who consider themselves artistically sophisticated. But that's what he mostly painted.

Among the kinds of Bouguereau subjects were children. Most were girls and many were waifs. Below are a few examples.




Bouguereau is the big favorite of the folks at the Art Renewal Center, and I wish them well in their effort to restore his reputation. The guy did an amazing job of painting human flesh. And the background work in some of his late painting has, in contrast, lots of visible brushwork. Alas, I must have spent too much of my life in the second half of the 20th century, so I don't care much for his subject-matter even though I greatly respect his talent.

John Currin is a currently active artist who was trained in what I'll call a classical manner and who could paint serious subjects well if he so chose. Instead, perhaps in an effort to build a reputation and avoid the starving artist role, his subjects are outrageous. They run the gamut from the pornographic (if you're curious, go to Google, type in his name and then select Images) to what I show below.




It's not sweet sentimentality on display, that's for sure. "Sweet stupidity" strikes me as a better characterization. What is the likelihood that Currin's reputation will be higher 50 years after his death than Bouguereau's was 50 year after his? Not much, I think.

Correct me if you think I'm wrong, but here we have two cases of painters of ability who reputations have been or will be cut down by their subject matter.



posted by Donald at March 11, 2009


Extremely perceptive! Bouguereau was a fabulous painter in many respects. I suspect he will have more up swings in interest over the long arc than Currin. Sentimental kids will always attract fans and be socially acceptable. Currin's appeal is far too much an "in-crowd" thing.

Posted by: Chris White on March 11, 2009 8:06 PM

Wow, Bouguereau really is a fantastic painter, but I agree about the subject matter. Don't like Currin at all.

Posted by: JV on March 11, 2009 9:03 PM

Currin is, of course, fashionably "ironic". Which in his case means "terrified of genuine emotion". His derisive, superior schtick--what contempt he has for his "subjects"!--will eventually be far more dated than Bouguerau's comparatively ballsy arcadian sentimentality.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 11, 2009 10:10 PM

I'll take the sentimental sweetness of pretty little girls painted well over cartoonish nightmares painted well any day.

Posted by: Laikastes on March 12, 2009 4:23 AM

Don't give the wrong impression about Bouguereau! The sentimental children are only part of the story. You've got to see his truly outrageous nudes, cherubs, and spectacles out of myth and legend. Google Bouguereau images and you'll see stuff that blows Currin out of the water for pure brazen sexuality -- and breathtaking painterly skill. You haven't lived until you've seen a Bouguereau nude up close, and plunged your soul into those gorgeous caucasian skin tones. And the man could put together a spectacle! Piles and piles of nude bodies, mounting up to heaven: arms, legs, butts, hair. In spirit, he was a combination of Jacques Louis David and Busby Berkeley. I suspect the sentimental children were just pot boilers.

Posted by: Faze on March 12, 2009 7:57 AM

If you don't like the subject matter of
Bouguereau then you may have a hangup against
beauty. Resorting to calling it "sentimental"
seems like a strained way of saying it's too
pretty in the same way that calling something
"edgy" or "transgressive" is code for saying that
it spits in the face of traditional beauty.

Posted by: J.H. on March 12, 2009 8:18 AM

Faze, you're right about his nudes. Fun stuff! And his rendering of human flesh with its folds and all is amazing.

Posted by: JV on March 12, 2009 12:13 PM

Faze is correct; Bouguereau had a wider range than your selection would suggest, although it's true that his subjects were idealized, a term I prefer to "sentimental" — we don't put down the 5th c. BC Greek sculptors for idealization (at least if we have any sense and haven't been totally corrupted by our modern cult of transgression).

As for this Currin character, I don't see this even as satire with any point to make. Women with big melons? So?

Posted by: Rick Darby on March 12, 2009 1:13 PM

Faze, Rick -- Yes, I coulda/shoulda put in more examples of Bouguereau's work. But the allegorical and other themes -- or the way he staged them -- are still fodder for criticism. Rick's label "sentimental" seems apt. The post-Great War intellectual climate strikes me as being generally anti-sentimental. Until that mindset changes (or softens, at least), Bouguereau will likely remain in Purgatory, if not Hell.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 12, 2009 1:30 PM


Forgive the hair splitting, but I said my preferred term for Bouguereau's style was idealized, not sentimental. Idealization, which was widely popular in 19th century visual arts, can be understood as a kind of artistic Platonism. In its own way it was non-representational: it pictured not the appearance but the essence or "type" of which we experience only imperfect copies, so to speak, through the senses. The artist tries for a higher kind of realism, the realism of archetypes that by their nature are good, true, and beautiful.

Yes, the lesser examples may resemble greeting card pictures, but when executed with talent and insight they offer a spiritual quality that we could use a lot more of today when the arts are dominated by perversity.

Posted by: Rick Darby on March 12, 2009 4:45 PM

Rick -- Thank you for the correction to my hurried remark.

That said, I do think Bouguereau injected a kind of sentimentality even when his subjects have an idealistic theme or component; that's probably why I picked up on that term rather than the other. (I just did a quick thumb-through of Fronia Wissman's book about him to check this assertion. His portraits don't seem sentimental, as are a few of the rest I glanced at. But for the most part it's there, at least from my perspective.)

Please don't think I dislike Bougeureau. I like much of what he did in most of his paintings. But that's my problem with him. I think he did many superb bits in almost every painting he made. Yet, again in most paintings he made, there was a five percent (?), 10 percent (?) X-factor that might be called sentimentality which hold the paintings back from being masterpieces as seen by 20th or even 21st century eyes. This might be more a commentary on post-1916 culture than on Bouguereau, however.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 12, 2009 5:08 PM

Another comment on Currin: he obviously loathes the human body, particularly the female form (this loathing shows up in other paintings, so it's not just the examples here). I noticed that the relatively straightforward picture at the bottom, nonetheless has the woman holding what looks to be a white cane. I'm not sure what to make of this--is she blind? does she need the cane to lean on?--but if that is a white cane, is Currin so contemptuous of the female body that he can't even paint a relatively normal one without giving that body an affliction?

This would place Currin at the opposite of Bouguereau's "idealism", as Rick Darby called it.

Oddly, I find myself personally disliking Currin because of his paintings. I imagine him smirking inside every time he sells one of them.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 12, 2009 5:20 PM

Faze sees a connection between Bouguereau and David. I don't really see this in that David was a severe painter both in terms of his ideological commitment to the Republic and the severe anti-sensuality of his pictorial presentation (hard lines, leached color, bare bones compositions).
I'd couple Bougeureau with Ingres. Both men indulged in a lifelong swooning and essentially brainless embrace of the societally approved bourgeoise sensuality that dominated 19th century France. Although I don't like the too easy put down of all things bourgeoise, the bourgeoise aesthetic is essentially insipid, which fits Bougereau to a tee.

Posted by: ricpic on March 12, 2009 6:05 PM

Currin's style reminds me a bit of R. Crumb's. I don't know Currin's story, but boy does Crumb dislike women.

Posted by: JV on March 12, 2009 6:11 PM

I get the feeling that the last Currin picture shown is a portrait of the singer Karen Carpenter, who died of anoxeria-related heart disease. Does anybody else see this?

Posted by: garymar on March 12, 2009 6:39 PM

"Currin's style reminds me a bit of R. Crumb's. I don't know Currin's story, but boy does Crumb dislike women."

R. Crumb is unbelievably talented and manages to offend everyone as well. If you haven't, see the movie about him too.

Posted by: Felix on March 12, 2009 7:07 PM

"I get the feeling that the last Currin picture shown is a portrait of the singer Karen Carpenter, who died of anoxeria-related heart disease. Does anybody else see this?"

Uh, yes, there is some resemblance. Of course he must have hated KC because he gave her such mannish hands. That and the limp due to lack of blood flow to one of her legs, very common among anorexics, I hear.

Posted by: shiva on March 12, 2009 11:28 PM

Bouguereau's subject matter is not quite as simplistic or naive as it might appear, which has a lot to do with why his reputation was deep-sixed after his death. There was a huge political split in late-19th century and early 20th century France between rival elites. These were the (1) "rurals" (potentates who were based on large agricultural estates) who largely ran France from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the collapse of the 2nd Empire during the Franco-Prussian War and (2) the urban bourgeoisie "republicans" who gradually became ascendant thereafter. The conventional story of the Impressionists is that they were courageous modernists who offended the prudish, conservative and sentimental bourgeois; this is pure B.S. Rather, the Impressionists were urban republican bourgeois making art for other urban republican bourgeois, and were attacked under the 2nd Empire and during the first years of the 3rd Republic for their political allegiance by the Rurals and their many adherents in the cultural sphere (including most members of the Academy.) Bouguereau, while not fiercely political, was clearly in the Rural camp, as you can see by comparing his non-threatening rural waifs with the rather more gritty agricultural figures from Courbet, a socialist but clearly on the Republican side of the aisle, or with figures from Millet (ditto.) In looking at French art in the 1870 - 1914 era, you've got to remember that the Rurals, and the Catholic Revivalists, and the blood-and-soil nationalists viewed the countryside as politically safe and 'the real France', while modern urban subjects, including mass tourism, industrialization, etc., reeked of the Republicans (who ranged from center-left to far-left points of view). When the Republicans emerged triumphant in the early 20th century, they took their revenge by denigrating the importance of the Rural-friendly masters of the Salon, like Bouguereau, Gerome, Cabanel, etc.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 13, 2009 6:34 PM

Actually, John Currin wasn't trained in a "classical manner" at all. It was very noticeable in his Whitney retrospective a few years ago how rudimentary his skills were early on. I think he's entirely self-taught, unless he was sneaking off to the Art Students League after graduating from Yale.

Posted by: Craig Banholzer on March 14, 2009 4:19 AM

You haven't lived until you've seen a Bouguereau nude up close, and plunged your soul into those gorgeous caucasian skin tones. And the man could put together a spectacle! Piles and piles of nude bodies, mounting up to heaven: arms, legs, butts, hair. In spirit, he was a combination of Jacques Louis David and Busby Berkeley.

Posted by: oil painting on March 15, 2009 8:19 AM

Recently discovered Bouguereau upon a reco from my instructor at ASL. My gut reaction was revulsion by the saccharine subject matter and style. But upon further consideration, I got a new appreciation for his work, if only from an academic perspective. The sense of light and, as a prior reviewer noted "spectacle" are tremendous.

Currin is a terrific artist. The pieces you're showing here are not representative of his best work. He might become obscure in the future, but not for the same reasons as B. Currin's problem is that he's not unique. He's just another contemporary artist re-examining the human body like Yuskavage, Prince, Saville, Freud, etc.

Posted by: mike on April 5, 2009 11:06 PM

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