The BOOKPRESS May, 1996

Truth and Illusionism


Arnold Singer


For most educated Americans during the earlier, innocent years of this century, Western art from the Renaissance through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century represented man’s highest achievement in painting and sculpture. Meanwhile, in France, belief in the invincibility of Western aesthetics had for some time been breaking down and was modified by an interest in Eastern, mid-Eastern, African and South Pacific cultures.

Recognizing the importance of developments in Paris, a few of our more adventurous artists worked there for varying lengths of time but, on the whole, our Western heritage prevailed, and, within that heritage, English culture remained dominant. As a result, we contributed a remarkable literature but, with few exceptions, less than remarkable accomplishments in the plastic arts.

An Anglo-Saxon cultural bias was very much in evidence in the selection of paintings and accompanying texts which constitute Thomas Craven’s 1939 A Treasury of Art Masterpieces, at the time probably the single most influential volume devoted to art published in this country. Today, it seems strange to find, along with a fair representation of familiar masterpieces, reproductions of three Hogarths, two Gainsboroughs, two Turners, and but one Poussin. To many contemporaries, Hogarth now seems little more than a talented illustrator, while Poussin’s pivotal role in Cezanne’s development, which in turn was a dominant force in twentieth-century art, is only now slowly being recognized. To the French, Poussin is a giant among painters. If it has taken Americans too long a time to share that view Craven is partly responsible for he defined Poussin as academic and dehumanized.

American Social Realist and Regionalist painters were, in Craven’s judgment, legitimate heirs of Renaissance tradition and vastly superior to the renegade contemporary French and Spanish, denigrated as nothing more than highly imaginative decorators, divorced from reality. The midwesterner Thomas Benton, notorious for his vehement denunciation of the painters of Paris, was considered by Craven to be one of the most important living painters. Though not appearing to share Benton’s hatred of the French, Craven did not understand that, regardless of how radically the cubists, for example, invented and abstracted, truth was a constant, unwavering objective. Craven was incapable of distinguishing between decoration and abstraction. At the time only a few Americans did understand.

One such was Albert Barnes. Ostracized some years earlier for exhibiting contemporary French and Spanish art and expressing views contrary to establishment orthodoxy, he retaliated by all but closing his galleries to the public. Besides being ahead of his time in recognizing the achievements of the French along with their Spanish expatriates, Barnes’ unique contribution was his insistence upon the primacy of principles of architecture in relation to painting.

One would prefer to attribute Craven’s poor judgment the result of pre-World War II American provincialism. Yet, a half century or so later, with America no longer a society isolated from Europe, Asia, and Africa, a distinguished art historian, in a lecture delivered at Cornell in October 1994, called for re-evaluation of William Bouguereau, an artist representing the very end-of-the-road academicism modern masters from Cezanne to Picasso struggled so valiantly to put to rest. There are indications that Professor Rosenblum’s reassessment of Bouguereau may be just the beginning of a renewal of interest in academic painting, having as its roots the emergence of photography as a recognized art form.

On a related note, it is hardly surprising to learn of the contemporary photorealist painter Audrey Flack identifying Bouguereau as a seminal influence in her career, with Andy Warhol coming in a close second. “If photo-realism derives from anything it goes back to the academy,” said Flack. Imagine, if you can, Bouguereau, the stolid bourgeoisie, and Warhol, the epicene bohemian, meeting in heaven or some such place and discovering they had much in common: the admiration of a late twentieth century American painter and lots of money in the bank. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, Warhol’s silk-screen photographic images of Marilyn Monroe are not far removed from Bouguereau’s oh so adorable sweetly smiling women and children.

To make sense of it all, the issue of illusionism as related to art must be understood. Before the Renaissance, surfaces receiving images were considered simply as flat planes upon which forms were distributed essentially vertically and horizontally. That concept can be described as non-illusionistic. The Renaissance introduced the idea of the picture plane as a window through which subjects were observed and recorded. One paint perspective was the primary means by which the realization of illusionistic depth was accomplished. Centuries later, Cezanne and his co-conspirators rejected Renaissance illusionism and opted instead for a return to the less scientific, architectonic, and non-illusionistic approach to the elementary problem of representation on the flat surface.

As a result of repeated violation of Renaissance perspective, as well as other conventions, Cezanne was considered to have defective eyesight and dismissed as a serious painter. Other Post-Impressionists suffered similar fates. The best of painters from Cezanne, through Picasso, Klee, Mondrian, and our own Stuart Davis, to name a few, can be characterized as non-illusionistic.

Improperly understood is the fact artists of the Renaissance were cautious in their employment of illusionism, rarely letting it get out of hand, rarely abandoning a devotion to classical concepts of form. Rembrandt is a case in point. In all his vast oevre, one simply does not encounter dominating diagonals defining illusionistic depth such as frequently occurs in photography or in certain Surrealist paintings.

As a consequence of their literary nature as well as dependency upon the very illusionism rejected by the major twentieth-century painters, splinter movements such as Surrealism and Dada have become favorites of many critics and historians. The image of a worm exiting or entering an apple by Magritte can inspire chapters of sociological or psycho-sexual interpretations, while an apple by Cezanne is just that and nothing more. Seminars in Surrealism and Dada are common, and some historians whose presumed role is education and enlightenment succeed in doing just the opposite.

While the Post-Impressionists, Cezanne, Van Gogh, etc., were alienating the public by offering images perceived as inept or offensive, the invention of photography offered the safe, familiar fare it hungered for. A few painters among those seeking alternatives to Renaissance-based pictorial ideology kept an open mind about the new invention and, on rare occasions and with the greatest discretion, actually referred to photographic images. On the other hand, the new technology was embraced whole heartedly by academicians. In The Goose Girl, as in much of Bouguereau’s work, we find direct and consistent evidence of the influence of photography upon painting. Except for the somewhat atmospheric, painterly treatment of the background, The Goose Girl qualifies as one of the first photo-realist works. In The Goose Girl, we see the subject as through a view finder.

At first glance, the painting seems both true to life and to Renaissance aesthetics, yet it is shot through with unintended omissions and distortions. Most disturbing is the manner in which the head and neck seem to float mysteriously somewhere beyond the figure; they simply are not convincingly attached. Compounding the problem is the representation of the stiff scarf, which dominates and all but destroys the forms of the upper torso. Nothing in the painting withstands close scrutiny. Skillfully rendered surface detail camouflages defects, fools the eye. Comparison with the Raphael is clear proof of Bouguereau’s failure in the realization of truth and formal clarity (which are one and the same thing, as Keats poetically pointed out). The Goose Girl represents the ultimate in illusionistic representation. Professor Rosenblum, in attempting to restore Bouguereau to that which he considers a rightful place, asks us to accept the very illusionism the finest of moderns struggled to overcome.

Raphael, photographically less real, is more truthful and more convincing, for we have in a sense been invited to visually walk around the figure, allowing us to take in more than had we observed from one fixed viewpoint. Raphael has accomplished this by expanding forms across the surface, providing us with a sumptuous visual experience. Bouguereau, with his photographic eye, imitates what he sees and asks the observer to provide information he has withheld. He has asked us to dinner but requests we bring the wine, entree, and dessert. He has, however, generously provided very elegant silver service and tablecloth.

D.H. Lawrence understood the necessity of going beyond the limiting, mechanical eye of the camera. In his essay on Cezanne, Introduction to these Paintings, he wrote: “[Cezanne] wanted true to life representation only he wanted it more true to life. And once you have photography it is a very difficult thing to get representation more true to life, which it has to be.” It is my feeling Lawrence recognized the urgency of transcending illusion, that he knew it meant nothing less than the life or death of a work of art.

When Picasso, referring to cubism, insisted he was not doing anything revolutionary or being frivolous, he was absolutely correct. Striving for images “more true to life” is inherent to some degree in all good painting. But while earlier artists, particularly those of the Renaissance, disguised the invention necessary to create images meeting that criteria, the cubists and others, such as Matisse and Leger, put subtlety aside and challenged us with their interpretations. The Goose Girl, like much of Bouguereau’s work, is essentially photographic, consequently purely illusionistic, and less true to life.

Incidentally, seventy or so years ago Lawrence chided the avant-garde of the time for proclaiming painting to be dead. Fortunately for us, Picasso and his friends were too busy enriching our lives with fabulous masterpieces to listen to such self-serving nonsense. The contemporary photographic and electronic avant-garde, disinclined to learn from past errors, preach the same gospel.

It is interesting to speculate how Craven might have responded to the post-World War II art scene. He may have had enough sensitivity to recognize the shallowness of OP, Pop, Color Field, etc. What he would have made of Abstract Expressionism is difficult to guess. Jackson Pollock was Thomas Benton’s student and appropriated his master’s swirling lines and arabesques. Probably Craven would have considered Andrew Wyeth Benton’s true heir.

But can one fine a common thread in Craven’s 1939 admiration of Benton and Rosenblum’s 1994 championing of Bouguereau? Since both artists were mired in illusionism do we have then the right to ask if there really has been any change in the past sixty years?


Arnold Singer is a painter and emeritus professor of art at Cornell University.

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