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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Louis Janmot

Poem of the Soul--the Sun's Rays, 1854, Louis Janmot
It's not too often I feature here the work of an artist whom I don't like. I've grown so familiar with such a broad spectrum of artists' creative output over the past thousand years (I'm not that old, I only feel that way sometimes), there is, in fact, very l little in the way of painting or sculpture with which I can't find enough positive attributes to say I "like" the work. Moreover, whether I like the artist or not, if he or she is of some important in the history of art, I feel obligated to put aside any personal dislike and probe within the artist and study their output sufficiently to understand why I find an artist's work distasteful. It's no secret among those who frequent this blog, for instance, that I'm no great fan of Henri Mattise. And, of course, we all have fun jabbing at the French Academics. Likewise, I tend to be "allergic" to Oriental and Pre-Colombian art, mostly because I know so little about either. In any case, I pride myself in saying that very few artists fall into my "dislike" category.
Poem of the Soul--Spring, 1854, Louis Janmot.
The late 19th-century French painter, Louis Janmot, however, does. I can't say I dislike him as much as Matisse. Unlike the French Post-impressionist, this Romantic/Symbolist's work is pleasant enough to look at. He doesn't grate on me like Matisse. But pleasant is one thing, bland is quite another. Janmot is bland. Not only that, his work is sickeningly sweet, boring, trite, mundane, and so damned esoteric, even knowing a good deal about the type of art he and others of that era (mid-19th-century) produced, the best I can say about him is that he mystifies me. Worse, he's so relatively unimportant as an artist I can't gather enough enthusiasm to even probe this enigmatic zero.
The Divine Generation, Louis Janmot
--lots of gauzy floating figures--religious cotton candy.
The Flower Fields, Louis Janmot,
a Pre-Raphaelite wannabe.
The man was born in 1814. He died in 1892 at the age of seventy-eight--nothing unique in that. Janmot was born in Lyon. His parents were devout Catholics; his brother and two sisters died in the 1820s. Not at all unusual; most of the French at that time were devout Catholics (well, Catholic, anyway) and the shadow of death was a constant presence in every home. Janmot studied art first at the Royal College of Lyon, then around 1831, at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris under Ingres and two or three other lesser-known instructors--a typical art education at the time for those who could afford it. Louis Janmot couldn't; but his talent was considered sufficient to award him scholarships. Beyond learning to handle paint, Janmot also considered himself something of a poet, though my distaste for poetry and my abysmal French both preclude me from commenting on what or how well he wrote. His major opus, a lengthy work he called Poem of the Soul (1854 illustration, top), Janmot illustrated himself during the 1850s, but only managed to get published during the 1880s, along with two other books later in the decade. He also wrote a 500-page tome called Opinion of an Artist on Art. It sounds like my book, though I don't think I'm opinionated enough to do more than about 495 pages.
Poem of the Soul--on the Mountain, 1854, Louis Janmot.
I don't think he ever painted male figure in his life (except for himself and Jesus).
The Flower Fields by Louis Janmot is sort of a French version of the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (above, left). I can stomach the Pre-Raphaelites (just barely) in that they were exquisite technicians, with a clean, straight-forward, style dedicated to ideals that, though somewhat antiquated, needed to be upheld and advanced. Janmot's painting, such as Poem of the Soul--on the Mountain (above), from 1854 on the other hand is merely "pretty" very close to being little more than decorative. The fact that he saw the need to illustrate his poetry with such enigmatic blandness makes me wonder if his poetry bore similar traits. The influence of Ingres is everywhere in his work, but nowhere does he manage the magnetic, powerful "maleness" Ingres displayed so effortlessly. Janmot's work reminds one of a female Ingres. Everywhere there is quiet grace, sweet softness, and tranquil loveliness. It reminds me of the time, as a child, when I ate a whole bag of vanilla saltwater taffy.
The Wrong Path, Louis Janmot
Louis Janmot, Self-portrait, 1832
Although his 1832 self-portrait is intense, it also raises the question, "why?" It's a straight on, stare-down providing not a clue as to the artist's purpose or reasoning. If he was really such a deep thinker, the portrait suggests it was, in large part, a pretense. Even Janmot's religious works as seen in his The Wrong Path (above) are often unclear as to his message, or even the scene being portrayed. One might call Janmot's Romantic Symbolism "Renaissance Revival," at the risk of being sued by the Renaissance for defamation of character. I'm not crazy about any art or architectural style bearing the word "revival," perhaps because it seldom lives up to the original. The Pre-Raphaelites came close, but if anything may have been guilty of overshooting their goal, in the end creating a style completely unrelated to Raphael and far fussier than anything Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Vassari, or any other Renaissance painter would ever have attached their signatures. Janmot, on the other hand, simply wallows in an idyllic Renaissance nostalgia.

The Nightmare, Louis Janmot. Huh?


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