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A Revolutionary in Retirement
By David Brickman

Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile

Sterling 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.


Peter Acheson: Paintings

A.D.D. 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 on board.

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.

—David Brickman

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