Boney's favorite artist

David was decades older than Bonaparte and his passionate views appealed to them almost as much as his paintings.

October 9, 2005 12:48

In Williamstown, Massachusetts, just north of the current Tanglewood music festival, is the wonderful Clark Institute, a large museum that is home to one of the finest arrays of 19th-century art in the United States: its large and eclectic collection ranges from Gericault to Frederic Remington. The Clark's new summer show is devoted to several dozen oils and drawings by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), a pioneer neo-classic history painter, sometime revolutionary and fawning Bonapartist, who fled France after Waterloo and who worked and died, defiant to the end, in Brussels. The show was seen at the Getty Museum in California earlier this year. Jacques-Louis David - Empire to Exile is the telling title of its massive and beautifully illustrated catalog published by Yale University Press.
David backed winners. He sided with Robespierre, voted for the execution of King Louis, abolished the Academy and made himself commissar of the arts, but when Robespierre went to the guillotine David was jailed twice and only just kept his head on his shoulders. His divorced wife helped save him and they remarried. He eventually fell in love with the new First Consul and painted Bonaparte crowning his queen and seated victoriously on his charger. He was in fact a magnificent story painter, famed for his innovative Oath of the Horatii, the Death of Marat and the The Sabine Women, more than for his skilled sucking-up to Napoleon. His students and followers, lead by Gros, were inspired by his ideas of Gallic glory.
David was decades older than Robespierre and Bonaparte and his passionate views appealed to them almost as much as his paintings. By his own account, he was not a handsome man; his self-portrait, painted in prison and on view in this show, is anything but appealing. Its rather dirty, earthy palette may have had something to do with the conditions of his imprisonment and his lack of access to better pigments. But that he could continue to paint under such unlikely conditions speaks for itself. Phillipe Bordes, author of this catalog and its extensive notes to each image, suggests in his speculation about David's survival, that there was some reaction among the revolutionaries to the initial bloodbath and that David, a Deputy, was not without revolutionary friends.
Bonaparte gave David great power as the empire's Number One painter. David used it to fend off rivals, among them a pair of his students working in tandem against his style. His delight in female and male nudity also angered many prudes, but to no avail.
David began - and finished up - painting bread and butter portraits, but they do not pander to the sitters. The portrait of his wife in this show is painfully frank. One of the stalwart generals he painted was married to his daughter.
David's only departure from all this was his foray into allegorical antiquity, much of it stiff and kitchy and by today's standards at least, laughable. But there is one work in this show that rises above all the others, made when David was nearly 70: Cupid and Psyche, 1817, a superb portrait of a pair of naked post-coital teenage lovers. The geometrical composition is masterly, in all its details. Magnificently pale, she lies blissfully asleep, one arm over his thigh. The darker Cupid is seen arising from their bed, a look of almost smugly malicious satisfaction on his face as he smiles directly at the viewer.
I believe that in many ways, Cupid and Psyche is David's best work. Bordes suggests that it was the exile's way of saying to all his enemies: "Nevertheless, I am a great painter!"
This show closes at the Clark September 5, but the $50 catalog is an engaging and informative substitute.

THE ISRAEL Museum, strapped for cash, produced a series of booklets, not quite mini-catalogs, to accompany each of its five current 40th-anniversary exhibitions, each in its own way devoted to the chosen theme of Beauty and Sanctity. But it is also selling a large paperback book-cum-catalog, Masterworks of Beauty and Sanctity, featuring 40 works of antiquity, Judaica and fine arts that figure prominently in its collection. The texts are in English and Hebrew and the reproductions are excellent. But there are too many images on the cover.
A HANDSOME new Israel Museum publication (main texts in Hebrew only) is The Big Book of Illustrators, devoted to the recipients of the museum's annual Ben-Yitzhak Award for the Illustration of a Children's Book between 1978-2004. It will please the prize-winners and their families, but who else, save a few admiring students, will want to spend money on it?
Despite the many charming illustrations reproduced, it isn't for children. Indeed, the kiddies may have nightmares after perusing the grim and forbidding visages of a number of the prizewinners. But some are able to smile and all have been cleverly interviewed by another prize-winner, Michal Bonano, a sometime press illustrator.
Entertainingly enough, each laureate has also contributed a childhood photo and sometimes an early childhood drawing.
Under a (smiling) photo of one of my favorite illustrators, Eitan Kedmy (b. 1955), Bonano notes that there is no law that requires an illustrator to resemble their creations. She found Kedmy something of a melancholic and nothing like his charming and saucy illustrations that once enlivened the columns of Yediot Aharonot. Over a decade ago, Kedmi sank from sight. I really miss his work, the epitome of modern minimalist illustration (and I was brought up on Sir John Tenniel and Arthur Rackham) and this book explains his sudden absence. Bonano reveals that Kedmy has become a sculptor of heavy works in clay that are the antithesis of his deft dabs at the human condition.
Kedmy has been succeeded by another particularly humorous book and press illustrator who is also a Ben-Yitzhak laureate, Ami Rubinger. Like Kedmy, his style is unmistakably his own.
Children's books are notably successful when they also appeal to adults. Another thought: the advent of computer-generated color has given a tremendous push to the profession and offers additional delights.

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