by Jonathan Kamholtz
Cincinnati Art Museum
February 14, 2014-May 11, 2014
In Jean Restout’s “Pygmalion and Galatea,” the statue of Galatea, newly come to life, spreads her arms and bares her breasts to the adoring sculptor. She seems less surprised at her new incarnation than he does; he gazes at him with a sophisticated, impish look, like something you’d see in an old New Yorker cartoon. His knees are bent, perhaps buckling, and he holds out his hands. He has not dropped his tools in surprise. Though his studio is filled with other sculptures, like most of the figures in most of the drawings in this show, there is very little sign of the work he does. He reaches out, perhaps to embrace her, perhaps to present her. But to whom? Aside from us, the only things watching them are all the other statues in his studio, his other works of art constituting the main audience for this one statue that got away.
With any number of potential exceptions (including most of the Bouchers and a wonderfully flesh-like “Seated Female Nude” by Francois Le Moyne), many of the figures in the French Drawings from the Horvitz Collection which constitute this significant loan show could be statues that have come to life. Though the collectors’ passions that led to the accumulation of these works certainly appear to be ardent, the works themselves are less so. At first glance, the show is a hard sell, even a bit off-putting. There are a lot of wigs, a lot of figures done in studios, a lot of myths, a lot of saints. Statuesque people are being drawn with astonishing skill, but it’s hard to decide just what’s compelling about them.
To a large degree, this is due to the great cultural distance between the various generations that are coming to the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2014 and the bonds of knowledge shared by the artists of the Generation of 1700 and their audiences. We are, for example, largely strangers to Ovid, the source of the mediated passions that inspired so many centuries of western culture. Ovid loved better than anything the restlessness of form; in his Metamorphoses, people are being transformed into things or things are being miraculously brought to life, as Pygmalion or Orpheus did, whose abilities are celebrated in the Charles-Francois Natoire drawing of “Orpheus Charming the Nymphs.” Pulling from another traditional source, Pierre-Hubert Subleyras’s “Moses and the Brazen Serpent” also celebrates the power of made things to bring life to humans diseased and exhausted. In this drawing, people are dying for want of an idol, and Moses, following God’s commands, has made the work of art that is transforming its audience. With a vivid and febrile line, Subleyras captures the contrast between the exhausted figures on the verge of death and those who can marshal their strength and look towards the life-giving idol with hope.
The draftsmen of the French 18th century did not generally find their muses in nature. Charles Parrocel’s “Lion Hunt” is wild but artificial. Its purpose seems to be to suggest how much of the exoticism of the world can be brought under the European cultural umbrella: the sign of cultural otherness seems to be the scowl on the faces of the turbaned warrior-hunters. (This show will make you wish you had the turban concession in 18th century Paris.) Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s remarkable “Fighting Wolves” is a harder drawing to characterize. Twelve wolves are mixing it up on the crest of a rocky hill, some fighting, some watching, some slinking off. The caption on the wall notes that Oudry was sometimes invited by the King to tag along on the royal hunts, but it’s hard to believe that this is something he saw. The scene seems more mythic than something drawn from life, as if there was a need to capture a secret, underlying source of violence in nature. Left to its own devices, nature turns on itself.
Oudry’s “Pumpkin Vine” is as terrific as any drawing in the show. A pumpkin is nestled beneath the leaves of its vine, which are turned towards the source of cool, white light. Off to the right, there is a hint of a fence, reminding us that the nature that attracted the Generation of 1700 is likely to be under cultivation; natural forms emerge under the watchful eyes of intervening humans. But it is definitively outdoors. Boucher’s “Large Family Before a Farmstead with Animals” is a rustic piece, dashed off (this sort of sketch is called a “premier pensee”), with a line that is alive everywhere. A dozen or so figures—children, parents, musicians, lovers—are crowded outside a house, mostly absorbed in their leisure or with each other, with the exception of a young woman milking one of the cows.
Not all pictures of humans engaging with nature seem to have been touched by fresh air any more than weary warriors without any clothes are getting respite from the battlefield. In Jacques-Andre Portrail’s “Seated Hunter with a Dead Hare,” an old man is reclining on the ground, one hand resting on a stone globe, averting his gaze from his prey. Not far from him, but otherwise unconnected to him, is the dead rabbit. There certainly is no echo of the thrill of the hunt, or the craft of bringing home the game. The man seems to be overwhelmed by a resigned sort of grief; in killing the rabbit, he seems to have killed a little bit of himself. He looks more like he has lost a pet then gained a dinner. These are bodies—and emotions—that have been arranged in a studio. But there is a particularity and intensity of observation to the old man’s shoe that Van Gogh would have appreciated: the pose is artificial but the shoe is alive.
There are portraits in the show, some by Portail and others by Vanloo, that I have to confess did not do much for me. They were not particularly revealing and seemed less drawn to the kinds of inquisitive observation of individuals that characterize 16th or 17th century portraiture. Few privacies were broached in the making of these portraits. We see, by and large, what the portraits’ subjects wanted us to see. But to complain too much about this seems ungenerous: they’ve gone to such trouble to arrange themselves for us.
Chronologically, the show begins with Watteau, whose work stands out both as a direct bridge back to Rubens and the old masters of the 17th century baroque and as a harbinger of a more modern, non-heroic psychological intensity. His “Standing Man in Persian Costume” could be a drapery hanging up in a costume shop. He stands awkwardly but frankly, turned away from us, his attention pulling him forward, his balance leaning him slightly back towards us. His simple self-display, even from behind, suggests the mixture of self-effacement and confessional, the actor beneath the mask, that Manet saw in Watteau and helped modernity find its inspiration. In his “Studies of a Seated Woman and a Hand,” the female figure is not even complete, but for all the decorum of her pose and the concealment of her voluminous gown, one shoed foot peeks out from underneath a hem and suddenly it seems like the room has just gotten warmer. Without wishing to get too pervy, the recognition of one bit of sensual display makes us look for others, and soon I found myself thinking that there was more sexuality in the folds of her dress than in several of the nudes elsewhere in the show, which looked, like Galatea, as if they were statues come to life. The casual, possibly accidental display of a bit of body drastically increases the level of sensuality in the piece and raises, as do a number of the best pieces in the show, the question of just exactly what constitutes the erotic.
The Watteaus also help raise a significant question that has interested both the collectors and the curators of this show: just what is a drawing? For Watteau, a drawing is an artist’s shorthand, an aide-memoire. Although I did not have access to the scholarship on these particular pieces—and master drawings are a scholarly-intensive art form—it felt like the intended audience for these drawings was the artist himself. This is worth mentioning because the show makes it clear that many of the Horvitz Collection drawings were actively sought by the 18th century public as soon as they were completed. The opposite, in a sense, of the “premier pensee” type sketch, these drawings are finished works of art; some are even signed. It is hard not to be interested in what the 18th century connoisseur thought he was buying. A simplified version of a painting that might be out of his price range? A chance to co-own the drawn version of something that belonged to someone far wealthier and better connected? A carefully-marketed glimpse into the artist’s privacy and artistic process? A century and a half later, Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest will have Cecily casually refer to her diary as “a very young girl’s record of own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.” There is some calculated self-revelation for sale in these drawings. But then again, what attracts anyone to own a work done away from the public eye? Moreover, as the show makes clear, it was possible to enter the art market at a wide range of price points, including a lowest level that was extremely modest: several of the drawings are sketches that would later be engraved as stand-alone prints or to illustrate books.
Francois Boucher is the name on the exhibition poster, the headliner, and the collectors and curators have superb taste in Bouchers. You will leave this show convinced to take his work seriously. His “Heads of Two Young Ladies” captures in abbreviated form the tension and excitement of the theatricality of many of the drawings in the show, where figures are costumed, striking poses, and are involved with each other or with what they’re doing at least partly for the benefit of onlookers. In Boucher’s “Heads,” one of the young women leans back, averting her gaze, apparently making contact with the second woman. The second woman, literally in the shadow of the first, leans on her companion and looks directly at us. It seems a brilliant encapsulation of the dynamics of theatricality, raising questions of whether those we observe enacting things are doing it for themselves or us, and making an issue of just who is looking at whom: the gaze here goes both ways.
The complexity of the gaze is also highlighted in Boucher’s diminutive narrative, “Chief of the Eunuchs.” A figure in Turkish garb opens a door behind which a young woman is pushing aside a curtain. He stands as if he is holding the door open for her to come out, which would highlight her apparent look of eagerness. It might be equally likely that he is about to go in, but both his body and face are turned away from the door, and his face seems to register resignation and sadness, which would presumably be connected to the drawing’s title. The sensual energy of her world is not for him. The drawing is further complicated by two heads, possibly those of children, who are peeking out a window at the scene from elsewhere inside the house. Is the figure opening the door resigned, humiliated, or just going about his business? It doesn’t seem an over-reading of the drawing to think that it’s trying to capture what it means to have access to a world of rich sexuality but to be unable to participate in it, and that everyone knows this. It is hard not to think that the sketch of the eunuch might also be an exploration of other figures involved in the world of 18th century art—patrons? members of the viewing public? the artists themselves?–who come fabulously but perilously close to a wealth of sexuality that is never theirs to own.
Boucher’s “Recumbent Female Nude” is a showstopper. It is hard to believe, as the catalogue tells us, that it was deaccessioned by the Kimbell Art Museum in 1987. A young women, who we might think of today as having some slight flesh to her, lies on her stomach with her legs parted, gathering a sheet around her. The label assures us of what the drawing itself does not: this is not what you think. We are told that this was probably a studio drawing (an “academie”), different in charm rather than in genre from other “academies” in the show, and that the drawing might have been done as a study of a young woman whose figure could have been inserted in a mythological painting. For all we know, in that more finished version, she would have been given clothes. I find this a disingenuous explanation (as did, apparently, Diderot, whose lengthy, sputtering critique of the sexual display of Boucher’s figures is also given some wall space). Just where is the weight of her body? Oh, it’s on her…well…. And that sheet between her legs? It’s bunched up against her…oh well…. The distinction between a drawing with erotic energy and a drawing done as a mythological study should have been a non-starter. Some substantial part of the attraction of the Ovidian narrative realm was its readiness to provide a virtually endless source of sexual situations to explore, for the lack of which, I might add, our own erotic narratives today seem impoverished, repetitious, and limited in scope. And even if it is no more than an “academie,” it is hard to think why one should exclude the possibility that in all that confrontation between naked models and artists’ eyes and hands, some erotic frisson might enter into the picture.
Just ask Pygmalion.