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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Salon des Refuse

It's a little difficult for us today to really grasp the volatile nature of the Parisian art world in the turbulent times of the 1860s. As painters today, we have no dominant art institution to compare to the French Academie des Beaux-arts, nor single, overriding "art contest" to compare with the Academy's annual Salons. France during this period had something on the order of 5,000 writers and critics covering the art scene while there were 12,000 working artists in Paris alone. If that sounds a bit top-heavy from a journalistic point of view, it was. As they say, everyone was a critic. France was drunk with art, which would explain why so much of it was simply bad art. I guess about the only thing we have today to compare with this phenomena is the hullabaloo that goes on in Hollywood every year between January and March when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates, then choose Oscar winners.  In a very real sense, the Salon shows were the Academy Awards of French painting, with often just as much riding on a work being selected "Best Picture" so to speak, as is the case today with the similarly designated gold statuette.

The White Girl,
Symphony in White, No. 1,
1863, James McNeill Whistler
This is not a perfect analogy, however. Although some in the film industry might argue the point, for the most part the A.M.P.A.S. is a relatively progressive organization generally aimed at the promotion of innovative efforts in both the arts and sciences of motion pictures. In contrast, that was definitely not the case with the French Academy. It would be hard to imagine a more conservative gaggle of immobile, stodgy, establishment, stick-in-the-mud hacks bent upon cementing their high and mighty academic traditions in the minds of the public and artists alike, or a group of so-called "art experts" in the press corps more dedicated to aiding and abetting this effort. Even before the Impressionists butted heads with this bulwark of art dictators, there was nothing less than a war going on between these art conservatives and art liberals not unlike we see happening politically in Washington now days.

Le Dejeuner sur 'Herbe (Luncheon in the Grass, 1863,
Edouard Manet
The Academicians were winning. The ranks of those combating them were just too thin. Leading them was landscape artist Gustave Courbet, followed at a discreet distance by Edouard Manet, Jean Francois Millet, Camille Corot, the writer Emile Zola, later Camille Pissarro, and a few others. The "war" reached such a fever pitch in 1863 that the Emperor Napoleon III had to step in and make peace by suggesting that those having their work rejected by the Salon should have their own alternative show called the "Salon des Refuses" (pronounced ref-u-SAY). 

Impression: Sunrise, 1863, Claude Monet
The show became a laughing stock. The problem was that many of the works "refused" by the Academy Salon were quite bad and had been justifiably excluded. But here too, among these inferior pieces, were Monet's Impression: Sunrise, Manet's Le Dejeuner sur 'Herbe (Luncheon in the Grass), and a strange looking portrait of a young lady in white (The White Girl, Symphony in White, No. 1) by some American upstart by the name of James McNeill Whistler. A guard even had to be posted by Manet's work to keep the outraged public from attacking the scandalous painting. But for the most part, they just laughed--long, hard, and boisterously. The show did change things though. Paintings were sold. Art dealers took notice. They might look funny, but there was money to be made from some of these works. In short, the battle might have been lost, but the rebels would survive to fight another day. Eventually, their "war" would be won.

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