Boy, have I got a show for you—Albuquerque Museum’s (2000 Mountain NW) upcoming exhibit Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris—packed to busting with rippling torsos, cloud banks and never-ending human (and superhuman) drama. The show opens Oct. 11 and runs through Jan. 4, 2015, as a joint venture of the American Federation of Arts and the École Nationale Supérieur des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. Expect every inglorious retro/high-art urge you’ve had in the last decade to be utterly satiated.
le loop, has served as both a training academy and repository for some of western Europe’s greatest art since 1648. Monet went there. Renoir went there. Seurat, Ingres, Degas and Delacroix went there. Rodin didn’t go there. He was denied admission three times, which is probably what his “Thinker” statue is thinking about—rejection.
For reals. Don’t be dissing the École.
And yes, it’s over the top. In David’s “Andromache Mourning Hector,” the hunky, bare-chested, dead hero lies aglow as if stage-lit. The blond Andromache, voluminously draped in what looks to be an entire linen closet, sits bereft at his side, hands open as if imploring, “Whyyy???”
And don’t feel like you need to sneak out to this exhibit to avoid judgment from your Beaux-Arts-bashing friends. It’s okay. In these postmodern times, one occasionally craves a little bombast, a little clear-cut action painting—instead of all this “but what does it mean?”
Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols” means some dude named Jeroboam is sacrificing to idols! And Jacques-Louis David’s “Andromache Mourning Hector” means some dude named Hector is dead and this lady, Andromache, is sad about it!
Or does it? Beaux-Arts painting, obsessed as it was with emulating antiquity, gets short shrift sometimes when it comes to an evaluation of political and historical depth. This is but one of the points the exhibit, featuring 140 paintings, sculptures and works on paper from the 16th to late 19th centuries, seeks to illuminate. The fact is all of the show’s Biblical and Homeric scenery-chewers are grounded in a particular cultural and historical moment. Maybe you didn’t know, for instance, that René-Antoine Houasse’s painting “Hercules Slaying the Hydra with the Aid of Iolaus” is really about France’s war against Holland. (Duh. Hydra—
You really don’t know whether to laugh—because it’s so schlocky—or cry because it’s so beautiful. Maybe in that way it’s not so unlike real life at all.
The exhibit literature admits that 50 years ago, these works would have been “relegated to an embarrassing footnote in the history of art.” But now they're appreciated for their thesis-antithesis influence on great artists like Van Gogh and Cézanne, who sought more ordinary subject matter and more expressive brushwork in response.
The point is, not only was the École the crème de la crème of the day, it established a distinct Western aesthetic and way of seeing that’s still with us. No matter how you feel about a) gods, or b) heroes, you can’t tear your gaze from the unnerving mastery of technique, emotive force and ethereal beauty of these pieces.
To further bring this lofty art down to our level, the Albuquerque Museum is offering a series of public events around the exhibit, all of which are free. First up is an opening-day talk (Saturday, Oct. 11, 2-5pm) by Emmanuel Schwartz, École des Beaux-Arts Chief Curator of Heritage, on the topic of the École in general and its connections to the United States.
Then on Thursday, Oct. 16, 5-8:30pm, enjoy Francophile delights with an event shamelessly titled “Ooh La La.” Think Franglais puppet show, gypsy jazz and French wine tasting (for a fee), all against a backdrop of Beaux-Arts bombshells on the walls.
On Sunday, Nov. 16, local architect and UNM professor Christopher Mead pulls in the architectural side of the École with his talk on Charles Garnier (designer of the Paris Opera House) at 1pm. And, yes, when you hear the phrase “Beaux Arts architecture” to describe a building in the US, it’s that Beaux-Arts, where sundry American architects went to study in the early 20th century. For the full list of Beaux-Arts-themed events, check the museum website (albuquerquemuseum.org).
In the meantime, between now and Saturday, just work on getting yourself pumped for some high drama the likes of which you haven’t experienced since that one day when the clouds parted and heavenly seraphim shot arrows at you for having that one godlike thought that you shouldn’t have had. You, a mere mortal.