Empire of the Senses

(top): J. Paul Getty Museum (bottom):Musee National Des Chateauxde Malmaison et Bois-PreauIn the opening salvo of his 2003 pamphlet Artists in Times of War, historian Howard Zinn writes, “When I think of the relationship between artists and society . . . I think of the word transcendent. By transcendent I mean that the artist transcends the immediate. Transcends the here and now. Transcends the madness of the world. Transcends terrorism and war.” Few artists in history have been so deeply enmeshed in such current events — and therefore been offered such a special opportunity to transcend them — as Jacques-Louis David, the founder of the French neoclassical school of painting, a major player in the French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror, and friend and “first painter” to the court of subsequent self-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The entire latter half of David’s career — stretching from his imprisonment after the elimination of his pal and radical reformist Robespierre through Napoleon’s spectacular rise and fall and the painter’s final decade in Belgian banishment — has been underrepresented, even scorned, by the cabal of liberally biased art historians, who thought it would have been nobler for David to go to the guillotine than deal with the contingencies of the mutating political landscape. But a consummately curated exhibition at the Getty — astoundingly the first-ever David retrospective in America and the first-ever anywhere focusing on his later work — goes a long way in correcting this deficiency, and in suggesting that David’s politics were somewhat more complex than that. Beginning with a subtle, earth-toned self-portrait in studio clothes with easel and brush thought to have been painted in prison in 1794, “Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile” launches headfirst into David’s genius as a propagandist. After five years of revolutionary upheavals, during which the artist rose to the level of Deputy of the National Convention (voting for the execution of Louis XVI) and member of the Office of Homeland — sorry, Committee of General Security (authorizing nearly 300 guillotinings), David recognized the PR advisability of reasserting his identity as a painter first and foremost. Not that he had ever entirely given up his artistic practice for his political responsibilities. Perhaps his most celebrated work, 1793’s Death of Marat — sometimes cited for its innovative formalism and its absence of overt classical or religious reference, and thus as the starting point of Modernism — was painted at the height of his political influence. Marat is both a brilliantly composed and rendered visual tour-de-force and an iconic depiction of martyrdom to revolutionary Enlightenment ideals, and its success as propaganda is attested to by the contempt with which his equally impassioned Napoleonic works have been subsequently dismissed. It’s not that his gifts as a craftsman diminished in any way, though some have tried to argue so. The truth is that for his entire career, from his breakthrough neoclassical work of 1784 The Oath of the Horatii to 1816’s Portrait of General Maurice-Étienne Gérard — one of the later works included in “Empire to Exile” — David saw his artistic practice as inextricable from social and political implications. Whether making veiled allegorical appeals to pre-revolutionary republican ideals of civic duty and sacrifice (as in Horatii) or lobbying for the recognition of an exiled Napoleonic general’s patriotism and sacrifice (Gérard), David took the responsibility of pictorial mythologizing very seriously. And he was very, very good at it. Born to a middle-class Parisian family in 1748, David was abandoned by his mother at the age of 9 and raised by uncles after the ensuing death of his father. He studied at the Académie Royal from the age of 16 and won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1774 (having attempted suicide over his previous three losses). During a trip to Italy, he fell under the sway of 17th-century Baroque classicist Nicolas Poussin, whose serene and ordered mythological tableaux inspired David’s own obsession with Greek and Roman ideals. But it wasn’t just the golden-mean architecture and buff torsos that turned David’s crank; he was also inspired by the rationalist philosophy of Socrates and the democratic political experiments of the Greeks and the Roman republicans. These philosophical ideals were deeply and consistently embedded in David’s art, regardless in which regime’s service he offered their persuasive ideological power. It seems small wonder that after witnessing the escalating chaos and authoritarianism of the post-revolutionary governing bodies he would throw the weight of his skills behind a self-made individualist like General Bonaparte, whose taste for classical trappings and postures meshed neatly with David’s neoclassicism. After all, if you’ve reached the conclusion that liberty and equality have to be imposed from above, you might as well go whole-hog with the authority thing. The first section of “Empire to Exile” shows David going whole hog with the authority thing, most succinctly in Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard (1800-01), a delirious, almost surreal equestrian portrait commissioned by the sycophantic King of Spain and so well received that David painted it four more times over the next few years. The even more famous Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (1811-12), offers a somewhat more faithful likeness of the middle-aged Bonaparte, stuffed into pristine military dress silks in the tucked-in-hand pose that has become identified with his name. Preliminary sketches for the monumental canvases The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1805–08) and The Distribution of the Eagles (1808–10) — neither of which actually made it across the pond — flesh out this extended exercise in idol-making. Eventually, Napoleon’s egomaniacal imperialist bubble had to burst. Comparisons to contemporary egomaniacal imperialist bubbles (and corollary lessons for David’s latter-day counterparts) are obvious, but skirted entirely within the confines of the exhibition. In an audacious bit of programming, however, the Getty brought together a panel consisting of guerrilla poster artist (and L.A. Weekly contributor) Robbie Conal, Picasso biographer turned political commentator and activist Arianna Huffington, and British royal portraitist Richard Stone. The evening was rife with fresh insights: At one point Conal nominated Chris Burden — recently, ironically resigned from UCLA over a student’s mock Russian-roulette performance — as the new director of the Department of Homeland Security. Both Conal and Huffington drew a comparison between David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Alps and W’s Mission Accomplished (2003) performance/photo op, which Huffington also compared to John Kerry’s ill-advised Goose-Hunting (2004), noting that to succeed as propaganda, “Even if an image is remarkably false, it has to ring true.” She went on to outline an unsettling parallel between Napoleon’s obliviousness of his campaigns’ increasing futility and the mindset of the current reign of terror — in the executive branch and citizenry alike. “Those of us who disapprove of the war in Iraq believe there’s a similar thing going on there — we’re clinging to dreams, and we’re clinging to the images that somehow confirm those dreams. The reality is not changed: There is still enormous violence, there is still no electricity or water for millions of Iraqis, there is still huge infant-mortality rates, but the heartwarming images of Iraqis voting and the bravery those images displayed basically overwhelmed the reality.” Après Waterloo, David hightailed it to Brussels, where — having seen his Revolutionary and Napoleonic masterpieces serially shitcanned for their political unsuitability — he returned to painting mythological scenes like 1817’s Cupid and Psyche and the Getty’s own Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis from the following year. While often seen as an unsuccessful retreat to earlier formulas, these later mythological pictures are suffused with a more fragile and conditional humanism, and the bittersweet fascination with youthful eroticism of a man nearing 70. Much of this tenderness can be glimpsed throughout David’s career in the many masterful portraits he painted for money or political favor or love, which are well represented in “Empire to Exile.” In the panel talk, portraitist Stone carefully avoided addressing the political implications of painting flattering pictures of Margaret Thatcher, but did note that when he walked through “Empire to Exile,” what he saw were extraordinary human faces. This is the final impression I came away with, too. Much as I am an off-with-their-heads revolutionary at heart and dig Napoleon’s star quality and testicular fortitude, it seems to me that it was in the one-on-one politics of his portraiture and his late portraiture-inflected mythological paintings that David, by will or through circumstance, was finally able to transcend his dangerous gift for propaganda and focus on the politics of individual humans — and the kind of myths that don’t blind us to reality. Now if we could just get Fox to shut down its news division and program a 24/7 Trading Spouses format. JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID: Empire to Exile | At the GETTY CENTER, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles | Through April 24


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