Revolutionary in Retirement
David: Empire to Exile
and Francine Clark Art Institute through Sept. 5
I’m just going to come right out and say it: The David show
at the Clark is a yawn. Doubtless he had a fascinating life—the
most famous artist of his day, thrown into jail mid-career
for political enthusiasms of the wrong moment, appointed Napoleon’s
“First Painter,” then living out his last days in Brussels
with his beloved French aristocrats—but Jacques-Louis David:
Empire to Exile, co-organized by the Sterling and Francine
Clark Art Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, comes off
more as a history lesson than as an art experience.
Why? Well, to paraphrase our former president, it’s the paintings,
stupid. They are just so stuffy, so mannered, so self-conscious.
And, to my disappointment, when I expected that none of that
would matter because the guy could paint so damn well, he
let me down. Yes, there are some beautiful passages in these
pictures, and there are some fairly attractive pictures if
you don’t think about it too much—but they are killed, absolutely
slaughtered, by the politics, the slavishness, the repression
that ripples through them all.
Even the dozen or so drawings that the curator includes, proudly,
and which ought to give inspiration and excitement to the
more studious fans of technique, turn out to be either stodgily
academic or lightweight caprices that, even so, feel constrained
and full of effort. Where was the mastery? Where was the boldness?
While there are flashes of both—most dramatically evident
in the show’s emblematic Bonaparte Crossing the Alps—the
painter who created the unforgettable Death of Marat
in 1793 is all but forgotten here.
Not that the show isn’t packing them in. I found the galleries
on a weekday afternoon buzzing with retirees and vacationers,
many of them obediently listening to handheld audio tour devices
or discussing what they saw. But still, the energy seemed
more polite than excited, more studious than stunned.
The show begins with a very telling self-portrait, dated 1794,
that the artist made while in confinement. Naturally, it is
morose . . . but it also reveals a personal vanity that goes
part way to explaining the self-consciousness present in the
rest of the work. In the portrait, there is an awkwardness
to the paint in the area of the subject’s right cheek (actually,
his left cheek—it’s a mirror image so the sides are reversed).
Though hidden in shadow, a problem is evident. The painting’s
label explains that this abnormality is a slowly growing tumor,
and that, because of it, David never painted another self-portrait.
At the end of the show is a marble bust of the artist, made
by a former student and close friend after his death in 1825,
that shows the significant distortion of the left side of
David’s face that the tumor eventually wrought. With this
in mind, one begins to understand not only David’s joy in
glorifying the physically challenged emperor, but also why
there are so many portraits in the exhibition, and why in
them David gently evokes his sitters’ physical imperfections,
rather than idealizing them or focusing on more glamorous-looking
subjects. The simple honesty of many of these portraits makes
them a highlight of the show.
Aside from the numerous portraits, three of which depict Napoleon,
there are several neo-classical paintings that draw on Greek
mythology. The wall text points out that David was caught
“between the Ancients and the Moderns”; that as a history
painter he made “public propaganda” and as a commissioned
artist he created private poetry. What’s most curious is how
he sometimes crossed over—in making images of the present,
he was consciously creating myths, and in making images from
mythology he came closer to evoking matters of the present,
such as sexual love.
This revelation of private feelings, though filtered into
properly draped and labeled figures, gives an energy to paintings
such as 1817’s Cupid and Psyche that transcends their
tired themes and shows that David the revolutionary was still
alive, though largely hidden, in those later years.
In a sort of double portent, as I was getting ready to leave
the exhibition hall I saw a friend from Albany, and then near
the exit to the museum ran into another. They were each enthusiastic
about what they’d just seen. The first is a teacher of classics
at Doane Stuart School; the second, the chief curator at the
Albany Institute of History and Art. Clearly, they both had
a good basis for enjoying this exhibition—so take my opinion
for what it is and seek your own experience.
The David show is accompanied by an exhaustive, lavishly illustrated
catalog that will be a delight to those with the stamina and
curiosity to appreciate it.
Gallery, through Sept. 11
In an impressive display of the power of painting
for its own sake, Ghent-based Peter Acheson presents
31 very small works at A.D.D. Gallery in Hudson
that intrigue, confound and delight the senses.
His deep involvement with the language of color
and quirky personal vocabulary of shapes and marks
is readily apparent in these mostly unframed oils
What is not apparent is just what drives and directs
such a pursuit—a mystery that I found more and
more gripping the more I looked. How does a painter
create a 6-by-10-inch quartet of gestures that
somehow grabs your attention from a shop window
and holds it as you stand gaping on the sidewalk?
What process guides the decisions that lead to
a certain composition and set of color relationships?
Acheson’s style of abstract quasi-minimalism is
not unique, but it is not often seen so concentrated;
even more rarely is it so totally convincing.
See it if you can.