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June 02, 2009

A Shrewdly Managed Painting Competition

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back in April, James Gurney posted about the French Prix de Rome competition, the winner of which gained a good deal of prestige along with a scholarship to study art in Rome.

You should read the whole thing if the subject interests you (it's well-illustrated). Here are some excerpts to provide the gist:

To enter the Prix de Rome competition, you had to qualify by winning the concours d’esquisse, where students composed a painted sketch based on a theme provided by the professors. If you made it this far, you had already been sifted out of a large bunch of aspirants.

Then you went on to a captive sketch competition called the the concours de dessin, or ‘en loges,’ (the loge was an area of cubicles, illustrated above.)

The finalists were ranked and then sequestered into the little stalls. They were all assigned the same surprise theme, usually from Greek or Roman history, mythology, or the Bible.

They were given twelve hours to complete an outline drawing. They could not leave their cubicles, nor could they talk to anyone. (I assume they were given some bread, water, and a chamber pot.) ...

When they finished the session, the professor signed and stamped their entry. ...

Then the students each were given 72 days to complete their paintings, using the full benefit of models, costumes, and props. But they could not deviate in any significant way from their sketches. ...

Success in this competition required the ability to draw figures and compositions from memory and imagination. It also required a familiarity with hundreds of possible stories from the standard myths and biblical texts.

What I find interesting is the psychology underlying the competition, assuming that it was a conscious part of the way it was set up.

Lots and lots of us are prone to dither and dally when having to commit to something important. We'll keep coming up with ideas -- some bad, some good, some excellent -- but none of them perfect. Thus the process could go on endlessly, barring deadlines.

The competition described above had seriously short deadlines and related rules that forced even the most indecisive young artists to come up with one idea and then work out its execution rather than churning and stewing and yielding no result at all.



posted by Donald at June 2, 2009



You raise some interesting points about how to run a design competition. That you found your example in the Prix de Rome competiton of the French Academie des Beaux Arts doesn't really surprise me, because everything I've ever learned about traditional artistic training, especially as devised by the French and implemented between the 17th and 19th centuries has always struck me as practical, effective and to-the-point. The perhaps shocking element is how thoroughly all these clearly sensible approaches have been gutted in most current art education, which almost universally utilizes approaches derived from the Bauhaus in the 1920s. But I'm coming around more and more to a notion I originally denigrated as preposterous: to wit, that if you control the system of arts education, you effectively control the arts themselves. How can this be? I think it's because you not only indocrinate artists via such a system, but you indocrinate patrons, museum curators and journalists at the same time. Note what a narrow set of theories and even literary tropes museum advertising, journalistic reviews of art exibits, architectural reviews, mass-market books on art, etc. use to discuss, justify and evaluate art...all derived, in many cases second-hand, from the kinds of ideas current in art education.

That's one reason I have my doubts about the viability of any "return to tradition" in the contemporary art scene; not enough traction in the academy, and not nearly a strong enough theoretical apparatus to capture the academy.

But then, I'm a cynical old fool...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 3, 2009 1:15 PM

Despite my more eclectic tastes in art, I've railed against art schools for years. I spent three semesters operating an art gallery associated with the Art Department of a private university. I saw some instructors trying to create acolytes rather than teaching. Most were engaged in a hopeless quest to teach "creativity" rather than giving students the practical tools of the trade they needed. Studio Safety issues, for example, was handled as a one day, non-required, lecture demo rather than a semester course. Intellectual Property Rights and other teachable, learnable, objectively provable, fact based areas of great use to would-be artists ignored in favor of endless subjective aesthetic battles and philosophic discussions. I had more than one student tell me he learned as much from working with me installing the student exhibition as he did in any of his full semester classes.

Posted by: Chris White on June 7, 2009 7:01 PM

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