I have just seen a small, chic and very gay exhibition at the Wallace Collection that should be seen by all ‘emerging’ artists, mainly, because it showcases a series of drawings from the Académie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture and the Ecoles des Beux Arts. It is called ‘The Male Nude: Eighteenth Century drawings from the Paris Academy’. In other words, this is the work of art students and teachers and as such should be compared with our annual graduate art school post minimalist installationist non sensical shit. These group of twenty strong drawings remains an extraordinary testimony to teaching methods and artistic doctrines, which, although they are no longer current, still offer food for thought.
They are drawings of the human figure which appear somehow idealised by a reference to the most important sculptures of the ancient past. It must be said, that the seventeenth century adopted a different view to nature for it was no longer a tangible reality that must underpin all reasoning but the imperfect manifestation of a higher order. Nature consisted of accidents behind which the artist had to learn first to see, and then to reveal to others, a purer, more perfect nature than that which was accessible to the senses. The way to secure that ability to see to see ‘Nature’ was to study ancient art. In fact, only those students who mastered the Antique were accepted into the class where nudes were drawn.
The pose of the model’s body was thus crucial and it was one of the main duties of the teacher who had to also submit, at least, one drawing. The principle of the exercise was to keep shifting from observation to interpretation; the student had to translate what he saw on paper, stripping away anything fleeting or accidental and noting only what was permanent and ‘essential’. In fact, for Roger de Piles, drawing from the Antique and life drawing were not sufficient training for an artist: they provided only ‘a certain routine for contours’. One had to know about anatomy in order to understand what gave ancient art its beauty and so acquire the capacity to see nature ‘through beautiful eyes’.
In the exhibition at the Wallace Collection there are two types of drawings. On one hand, those who isolate the human body as volume (Antoine Coypel, for example) or those who relate to the space around as if they were in motion (Natter, Belin, etc). I found the Francois Boucher one astonishing if one takes into account what made him famous and what he was able to do. The quotes to the ancient past are in all of them: the Torso Belvedere, the Laocöon, the Apollo Belvedere, etc.
I must say that at first sight, this might come across a dull and very gay exhibition but upon arrival make sure you read the introduction by Emmanuel Brugerolles and this article and I am sure you are going to find it the best show in a long time. Needless to say that every single graduate from MFA and BA Fine Arts should come here to be showered in humility and possibly shame. Just a thought.
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