Homer and the French Academy
“The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art from the Ecole Nationale Superiure des Beaux Arts, Paris” at the Dahesh and at Princeton

Historian Lucien Febvre, co-founder of the journal “Annales,” was fond of repeating: “History, science of the past, science of the present.” The formula was shorthand for his insistence that society in all its complexity, including contemporary habits, could be grasped only within the living tension between time spans. The longue durée corrects our hasty awareness and illumines our own brief cultural moment.

Jacques-Louis David Andromache Mourning Hector (1783)

“The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art from the Ecole Nationale Superiure des Beaux-Arts, Paris” is a dazzling project of historical understanding enlivened by love and connoisseurship. First exhibited last year in Paris, this rare exhibition is divided between the Dahesh Museum of Art and Princeton University Art Museum. It’s goals are unabashedly pedagogical: to tell the tale of the Trojan War (“Iliad”) and the voyages of Ulysses (“Odyssey”); to illustrate the history of art teaching in Paris; and to record various interpretations of Homer in France from the 17th to the early 20th century.

Ambitious in scope and scale, the exhibition necessitates joint presentation. Its range of media is impressive: large paintings and sculptural reliefs, delectable small oil sketches and bas reliefs, free standing sculpture. All were selected from the collection of the École, one of the finest in France. Jacques-Louis David’s magnificent “Andromache Mourning Hector” (1783), usually on loan to the Louvre, is here at the Dahesh. Earlier artists, such as Poussin and Ingres, are at Princeton with an extended 19th century concentrated at the Dahesh.

Since its founding in 1648, the Académie Royale, and its successor the École, built its curriculum on knowledge of classical culture. Instruction centered around a series of competitions that concluded in the grand prix de l’Académie Royale. which entitled the winner to a coveted sojourn at the French Academy in Rome. Contestants were assigned a classical theme for interpretation and completion within the allotted time: 12 hours for an oil sketch; one month for full realization on a larger scale.

The Prix de Rome jury of 1872 specified the subject of Ajax defying the gods: “Minerva having sunk Ajax’s fleet near the rocks of Caphareus … the intrepid warrior gained the safety of a rock and arrogantly declared: ‘I shall escape despite the gods.’ He was struck down on the instant by a thunderbolt.” Action, setting and psychological keynote were fixed. The young artist had to materialize them with every tool at his command, chief among them drawing and composition.

Academicians were expected to draw the figure by memory as Joshua Reynolds prescribed: as easily as writing the alphabet. The preeminence of drawing as a critical component of painting is one of the exhibition’s deepest pleasures. The conceptual rigor and power over materials exhibited here is breathtaking. It is also a warning light that flashes far beyond feeble M.F. A. requirements that confer an artistic identity regardless of skills. Nemesis has more than one way to snuff Ajax.

And some are good fun. Nineteen lithographs from Honoré Daumier’s raucous series “Ancient History,” spoofing Homeric characters, are displayed in a 19th-century cabinet with revolving, doublesided frames. Daumier took his cue for burlesque in part from Homer himself who, at one point in the “Iliad”, likens Ajax the Great to a donkey stubbornly holding his ground while children pelt him with rocks. Such images suit comedy or light opera more that the gravity of history painting and, so, never made the grade as worthy assignments. Daumier’s irreverence matches that of Homer himself, different, perhaps in frequency, but not in kind. The fat Helen walks arm in arm with smug, paunchy Menelaus and thumbs her nose in victory at the Academy and its clientele. The series is a telling introduction to the visible decline of history painting, a genre that slowly, inexorably began to reflect the prejudices of the newly enriched Second Empire rather than intuitons of a sensitively imagined past.

No mere exercise in cultural archeology, the exhibition speaks to our own moment in ways a short review can barely convey. At the Dahesh, stay a while with Jules-Joseph Lefebvre who won the Prix de Rome in 1861 with “The Death of Priam,” a tableau of Homeric theodicy as comfortless as our own. Pyrrhus kills Priam's last son in front of him at the altar of Zeus the Protector, where Priam and his family have taken refuge. Theatrically lit, the spotlight is on the brute splendor of Pyrrhus, Achilles’s bloodthirsty son, and the aged anatomy of the doomed Trojan king who hates all war. In the darkened wings, elderly Hecuba, mother of Priam’s slain sons, is taken into slavery. A burnt offering still smolders on the altar in caustic mimicry of Troy burning in the background.

Pyrrhus’s sacrilege prompts thought of other crimes in sacred places: the murders of Thomas Becket and Archbishop Romero at the altar, the massacre of Polish Jews in the Krosnosielc synagogue, the slaughter of Rwandans in churches. We cannot count them all. Greek epic genius explored the ways of gods to man and of men to each other, examining the bones of human suffering with a lucidity that is basic to every humane precept the West has given the world. This is the legacy that reverberated down the centuries until not so long ago.

Through to the end of World War I, Homeric stories, if often in diluted form, were ordinary currency. Together with biblical and Shakespearean narratives, they endowed a common culture and made vivid the wellspring of Western ideals and institutions. What scant commonality remains is apparent in the challenge this brilliant exhibition poses to our viewing habits and to our range of references. Few of us now can speak of Athens and Troy, not to mention Jerusalem or Agincourt. Attrition leaves little for art to transmit beyond the culture-bending delusion that the true subject of art is the artist’s transcendent Self.

Yale University Press has produced a glorious catalogue with magisterial essays by George Steiner, historian Phillipe Sénéchal, and Emmanuel Schwartz, curator of the École’s collection. Mr. Schwartz combines erudition with the wry familiarity of a parent. He knows his brood and comments on them with vivacious affection and a clear eye for the difference between copybook diligence and inspired handling. Mr. Steiner’s preface is particularly welcome. His “In Bluebeard’s Castle” (1971 ) was famous for its post-Holocaust despair over the apparent failure of the humanities to humanize. But Mr. Steiner knows better than most that the West cannot live on nothing. Cultures older and sterner than our own watch our dwindling inheritance and wait.


“The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris” at the Dahesh Museum of Art until January 22, 2006 (580 Madison Avenue, 212-759-1235) and the Princeton University Art Museum until January 15, 2006 (Princeton, New Jersey, 609-258-3788).

A version of this review first appeared in The New York Sun, October 13, 2005.

Copyright 2005, Maureen Mullarkey

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