The Writer’s Gaze
Staring at a 19th-century painting of disrobed nymphs
As the genius lies on his deathbed, he may be penniless, obscure and defeated, but he is not without hope. He has a vision of the future, many decades away, when some novice, alienated from the canon of the age, will go searching for something more singular, something more truthful, and will brush the dust from one of his works with a thrill of discovery. Perhaps the novice will grow up to be a respected critic and use that influence to redeem the reputation of the dead genius. Or perhaps the novice will guard the discovery as jealously as a lover. Either way, all these years of thankless labour will be vindicated by that single moment of revelation, experienced without foreknowledge or prejudice. Not long ago, when I stood for the first time in the presence of William Bouguereau’s Les Oréades, wondering why it wasn’t one of the most celebrated paintings in the world, I thought maybe Bouguereau could be the genius in this story and I the novice. The problem was that Bouguereau didn’t die penniless, obscure and defeated. He died rich, famous and proud. Also, he definitely wasn’t a genius.
Nevertheless, Les Oréades (1902), which hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, is a phenomenal painting. Three satyrs watch from a riverbank as a tornado of nymphs—at least 40, by my count—fly up into the dawn sky. According to the original catalogue for the exhibition in which the painting was shown: “The shadows are dissipating; dawn appears, radiant, and colors the mountain tops pink. Then a long procession soars up into the sky: it is the joyful band of nymphs who, during the night, frolicked in the shadow of the forests and by the still waters of the river; they take to the air, watched by the astonished fauns, to return to their own realm and the ethereal regions inhabited by the gods.” This is an experience familiar to us all. You’re waiting for the bus, on the way to the gym or the airport or an early shift at your job, when suddenly there forms around you an aurora of young women on their way home from a rave or a nightclub. For them, it’s still last night, which means they exist on quite a different plane, and you are a ghost, hardly visible. Your heart may sink, not only because you feel boring for having gone to sleep when they were just going out, but also because it’s difficult for your muffled senses to endure all that giggle and glitter so early in the morning. And yet in the right mood the experience can be gently sublime.
Today, however, Les Oréades may be best known in some quarters for its appearance in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing as an example of how western nude painting is always about men looking at women. “Men of state, of business, discussed under nude paintings like this,” he writes. “When one of them felt he had been outwitted, he looked up for consolation. What he saw reminded him that he was a man.” In his book Idols of Perversity, meanwhile, Bram Dijkstra argues that “to float in the air was the eroticized alternative to Ophelia’s watery voyage. Woman’s weightlessness was still a sign of her willing—or helpless—submission, still allowed the male to remain uninvolved, still permitted him to maintain his voyeur’s distance from this creature of nature, this creature that was nature, who both fascinated and frightened him.”
Indeed, Bouguereau is often described as pornographic even by his defenders. But 40 naked women are not 40 times as arousing as one naked woman. Forty naked women are, on the contrary, less arousing than one naked woman. Like a word repeated too many times, nipples soon lose all meaning; this, surely, is the principle on which nude beaches are able to function. If Les Oréades was intended as erotic, it fails. Of course, with a few exceptions like Munch’s Madonna, important old paintings almost always strike the modern eye as failing in this respect. But at least it is possible to imagine that, say, a Cranach might have turned someone on back when standards of beauty were different. Even if you recast Les Oréades (aka Loin Helix aka Babe Flume) with 20 Megan Foxes and 20 Mila Kunises then it wouldn’t do the job, because there are just too many girls in the chorus line. I’m aware that this entire paragraph has been written in exactly the sort of patriarchal, heteronormative, scopophiliac idiom that Berger wants us to question, but that is a sleazy neighourhood I am visiting only in order to rescue Bouguereau from it, or at least that’s what I’ll say if I bump into anyone I know there. Both Berger’s and Dijkstra’s books tend to assume that their readers’ attitudes to gender are as effortlessly progressive as their own—this assumption may be a bit too generous in the case of, for instance, any former pupil of one of England’s medieval public schools who, even several years after leaving, is still running a Truth and Reconciliation Committee on the antique values bestowed upon him by his school. I mean, guys, come on, be honest, you’re can’t be telling me you’ve never even once had a discussion with a female friend that ended with you shrieking something like, “But I’m not a misogynist, I can’t be a misogynist, I don’t hate women, I just find them (as the art historian Bram Dijkstra put it) both fascinating and frightening!” Oh. Really? Nobody else?
In any case, even if it is probably true that the painting conforms to Berger’s archetype of man ogling woman, there is a case to be made that the satyrs look more anxious than horny: one clasps his hands in front of his face, another puts his hand comfortingly on his colleague’s shoulder. And the satyr on the right is posed in such a way that if he did have an erection, we should be able to see it. Is it possible that after all their drunken bragging about their limitless virility, the satyrs now realise that their claims are about to be put a test they can only fail? At the prospect of a threesome, most mortal men will find their excitement qualified by a secret flicker of panic. If this swarm of nymphs should alight, the satyrs will have to satisfy at least thirteen each, in open competition with their drinking buddies. Seen this way, Les Oréades is a pretty hilarious parable about getting what you wish for. Like Jonathan Yeo’s collages, it may be built out of porn but the result is almost anti-pornographic, and like Ryan McGinley’s photography, there’s such an Edenic joy in all that skin that it postpones sex even if it doesn’t quite deny it.
A few weeks after seeing Les Oréades at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I went to look at Nymphes et Satires (1873) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, because my life is more glamorous than you can imagine. Here, four nymphs with ribbons in their hair “have caught a goat-faced satyr at a disadvantage, and are pulling him into the water by the arms, the ears and the horns,” as Edward Strahan described it in his trilogy The Art Treasures of America a few years later. I’m not saying this painting is any more feminist than the other one, but it seems to me to confirm the satyrs as the hapless clowns of the forest. Strahan continues: “The trouble with the picture is that the people are ladies, not Maenads or Baccants. Their undressing is accidental or prurient, not ignorant. Look at any of their faces, and you feel that they need not insult your reason by pretending not to know how to write modern French and read the fashion-newspaper.” Since Strahan doesn’t say whether he prefers prurient flopsies or ignorant ones, I can’t tell whether he’s deriding the painting as posh smut because the women are so urbane, or rather complaining that it’s unsuccessful as posh smut for that same reason. But if that was how it looked to the contemporary audience, it rather belies Dijkstra’s claim that Bouguereau unstitched his women from reality and flung them up into the air to keep their sexuality unthreatening, since in that case he surely would have neutralised those pert faces too. That Bouguereau was in full control of his effects, no one has ever really disputed.
Anyway, enough about goat dicks, because when I first saw Les Oréades what struck me most forcefully was not its sexual politics but rather that I’d never seen a painting quite like it. There’s something uncanny, like nothing in nature, about how tight the swarm is and yet how languorous the individual bodies. For someone of my generation, the obvious reference point is computer generated imagery. These hollow clones resemble nothing so much as the army of Agent Smiths that descend upon Neo towards the end of The Matrix Reloaded. And it was pointed out by a good-looking friend of mine—who specifically demanded that if I borrow this insight I should refer to her as such—that, like Edward Burne-Jones’s The Golden Staircase, Les Oréades seems to anticipate Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Only the most naïve eye would look at that Cubist figure and take its many limbs to be a depiction of many women in the same way that the earlier two paintings are ostensibly depictions of many women, but Agent Smith is the synthesis of this dialectic, being one man and many men at the same time. In a 1905 essay in Scribner’s, Frank Fowler wrote that for all his technical mastery, “Bouguereau felt life pictorially, not really. He made pictures of things, not characteristic impressions which were felt as human situations humanly observed.” But today we wouldn’t be so quick to criticize a painting on the basis that it was “merely” pictorial, that it “merely” jolted us with sensory pleasure without telling us anything about human situations.
Wander away in almost any direction from a Bouguereau, however, and you are likely to find Renoirs and Monets bespattering your vision on all sides. Sad as it makes me to admit it, I don’t think I’ve ever felt even a moment’s joy looking at an Impressionist painting. Compared to the strangeness and exuberance of Les Oréades, nothing could be more tedious than yet another exhibition of blooms and ballerinas at the National Gallery. But in canonical terms this is quite upside down, because in the late 19th century it was supposed to be the Academy painters like Bouguereau who were insipid and stuffy and the bold Impressionists who tossed them aside. Although in his own time Bouguereau was glorified to the extent that we could never with a straight face call him to a martyr to his art (which is what takes all the pleasure out of rediscovering him), it’s also true that he was reviled by the cognoscenti. “There is no art review and no art critic wishing to be employed by a newspaper that fails to lambaste M. Bouguereau in order to appear “up-to-date’,” observed Philippe Gille in the Figaro-Salon in 1896. And he was just as uncool a hundred years later. In her 1989 essay “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” Susan Sontag wrote that “the new sexual realism goes with the rediscovery of the joys of tonal music, Bouguereau, a career in investment banking, and church weddings.” Even worse, Sylvester Stallone used to own one. (Then again, so did Warhol.)
A good comparison here might be prog rock. We all know, or at least have heard, that punk was the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, putting an overdue end to the pretentiousness and self-indulgence that had taken over rock music; famously, one of the first things Malcom McLaren noticed about John Lydon was his Pink Floyd T-shirt with the band members’ names crossed out and “I HATE” written instead. But punk’s victory was almost too complete. It permeates British culture to the extent that Sex Pistols songs are now most familiar to us as the soundtracks for montages on television, so even though no adult ever voluntarily puts Never Mind the Bollocks on the stereo, we all know the riffs. On the other hand, you can easily be in the third or fourth decade of your life before you hear something like Atomic Rooster’s “Death Walks Behind You,” and the first time you do you will think, “This is crazy, and possibly terrible, but at least it’s not ‘Anarchy in the UK’ again.” Here we find the magic of the ancien régime, whichever ancien régime it happens to be: when you meet the White Russian countess working as a fortune-teller in Venice Beach, you’re so charmed by her manners and so moved by her downfall that you don’t care about the excesses that got her driven out of her palace.
Unfortunately at this point it is necessary to admit that Les Oréades and Nymphes et Satires are not the only paintings Bouguereau left us. I can recommend an astonishing early work, Dante et Virgile au Enfers (1850), also in the Musée d’Orsay, in which the tourist and his guide watch Capocchio and Gianni Schicchi wrestling, the two damned souls locked together in a sort of swastika posture which looks at once totally unnatural, like something from modern dance, and viscerally real. But other than that, Bouguereau mostly just painted peasant girls in smocks, and this part of the oeuvre really is dreadful. Here we find double helpings of the glibness latent in his classical paintings but no psychedelia to compensate. “Bouguereau never forgets that he is painting pictures that are to be bought by rich people for the adornment of their drawing-rooms,” wrote the American critic Clarence Cook in 1888, “and he takes care that nothing in them shall be out of keeping with the tasteful and elegant things that surround them. Since one of the things that rich and fashionable people take pleasure in, is the knowledge that there are others in the world who are not as well off as themselves, Bouguereau has provided for his admirers an ample supply of pretty beggar-children, young peasants, mothers of the picturesque poor, and so forth and so on, who are in truth people of the upper class, or seem to be such… all in a state of immaculate cleanliness, and in garments where, if a patch or two is to be seen, it is accepted as mere symbolism, and offends nobody.” And it would be easier to defend Bouguereau from the label of kitsch, in Kundera’s sense of “the absolute denial of shit,” if Bouguereau hadn’t himself once said, “Art is the beautiful. Why reproduce what is ugly in nature?”
I now have to concede that the attempted heterodoxy of this essay is pretty flaccid, because while I’m willing to defend Bouguereau only at his best, there are plenty of people willing to defend Bouguereau even at his worst. “Bouguereau painted young peasant girls with a solemn nobility, and a hushed and reverential beauty,” writes Fred Ross in the two-volume book on Bouguereau he co-authored with Damien Bartoli. “Our artist seems here to say that this young peasant girl is as good and worthwhile as any from the privileged class.” In other words, he’s arguing from the same premises as Cook—that Bouguereau’s poor folk don’t look like real poor folk—but reaches the opposite conclusion. Ross is so convinced of Bouguereau’s social conscience that he compares him to Dickens. Later, he also compares him to Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio. This guy really takes no prisoners.
Ross may, in fact, be the world’s most vigorous Bouguereau fan. He is a businessman from New Jersey and one of the founders of the Art Renewal Center, a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to rehabilitating the reputation of the Academy painters. The Center’s website hosts high-quality images of more than 75,000 paintings, with Bouguereau’s work by far the most popular among the five million visitors that artrenewal.org apparently gets a year. In one of Ross’s essays there, he writes about his own first encounter with Nymphes et Satires at Massachussetts’ Clark Museum in 1977: “Frozen in place, gawking with my mouth agape, cold chills careening up and down my spine, I was virtually gripped as if by a spell that had been cast. It was so alive, so beautiful and so compelling. Finally, after about 15 or 20 minutes of soaking up wave after wave of artistic and spiritual ecstasy, I started to take back control of my consciousness.” If nothing else, this augments the short list of known situations in which you may find yourself with your mouth open for more than ten minutes at a time: oral sex, dental surgery, unexpected Bouguereau causing all the symptoms of ischemic stroke. Ross now owns more than a dozen paintings by the artist. “You can’t be too rich, too thin, or have too many Bouguereaus,” he once told an interviewer.
Ross is not only a fan but an activist. In 2004 he offered a $30,000 donation to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts if they would pull out of selling a Bouguereau called La Bohémienne to a private collector. Although a lifetime’s immersion in Bouguereau’s pastel colors should surely have had at least a mild soporific effect, Ross’s love for Bouguereau’s work is equalled only by his fury at Bouguereau’s abasement. “For over 90 years there has been a concerted and relentless effort to disparage, denigrate and obliterate the reputations, names, and brilliance of the Academic artistic masters of the late 19th century,” he writes. “Fueled by a cooperative press, the ruling powers have held the global art establishment in an iron grip.” On this account Modernism is a sort of gangster cartel, and if you want to find out how it operates, then, like Woodward and Bernstein, you’d better follow the money. “Objects must be shown to have great historical, philosophical and cultural value and profit-thirsty dealers needed to convince collectors of their ‘investment value’. So they hired ‘experts’ to develop complex elitist apologia with essays and texts filled with convoluted obscure, even fabricated terms and esoteric concepts in which the genius of this new ‘advanced’ art was elevated, mythologized and ennobled… The practitioners of art speak helped dealers to sell billions of dollars’ worth of this new art… Wealthy dealers and collectors regularly made large donations to museums anxious to please their benefactors by organizing exhibitions, books and catalogs filled with laudatory descriptions of the Modernist works.”
To find such revolutionary rhetoric employed in the service of an artist as cosy as Bouguereau is pretty odd. But Ross belongs to a category familiar to any author silly enough to read comments about himself on the internet: the conspiracy theorists of culture. Skeptical of the subjectivity of taste, they argue that anyone who claims to enjoy something that they don’t enjoy themselves must be on some level a dupe, a crony or a profiteer. However, what makes it unfair to dismiss them is that, in a fuzzy way, they’re correct. Just as the literary world really is nepotistic—just not as nepotistic as these people seem to think—the art world really is a bit rigged—both on the micro level of influential dealers and on the macro level of shifting tastes. “Art world is not democratic society, but totalitarian one,” wrote the Russian conceptualist Vitaly Komar. “It does not have checks and balances. Individuals who create its laws and criteria are also its main decision-makers. This conflation of executive, legislative and judiciary is hallmark of totalitarian society.” I happen to agree that Les Oréades would be a more famous painting if the art world in general hadn’t stipulated that no serious intellect enjoys Bouguereau (perhaps Nymphs et Satires and Dante et Virgile too). I just don’t agree that any of Bouguereau’s other work would ever have stood the test of time in any conceivable circumstances. One might want to point out to Ross that yoking an appreciation for Bouguereau to a paranoid counterhistory and a consequent dismissal of all abstract or conceptual art is in the long run not going to do the artist’s public profile any favours. But you can’t really blame him. He just loves Bouguereau more passionately than I love anything.
The resurrection of reputations can be fine sport in more confident hands than mine, but in the end perhaps the cliché to turn to here is not the garret deathbed but the burning building. Imagine: you’re reminded of The Spoils of Poynton when you hear that same “far-off windy roar which, in her dismay, she took for that of flames a mile away, and which, the first instant, acted upon her as a wild solicitation.” You run all the way to the house. And you know can’t save everything—not from Fowler and Cook, from Berger and Dijkstra, from 150 years of critical zingers, from the consensus of history—not from all those bad art collections and provincial museums in which most of the paintings found their natural homes—not from Fred Ross’ overenthusiasm—not from Bouguereau’s own sentimental instincts—those flames are just too pitiless. Instead, you have to choose. So you pick up Les Oréades and run back out of the house as it begins to collapse behind you. Sometimes, just one painting is enough.