Written by Haomin Li
There was finally an exhibition dedicated solely to French Academicist art in Shanghai after President Emmanuel Macron of France brought more culture-related events in his state visit in early November, 2019. The exhibition, “The Birth of Fine Arts: from the Great Century to the Revolution”, was co-organised by Shanghai Museum and Paris’ National School of Fine Arts.
In the discourse of late 19th Century art making, Academicism has become the counterpart to the Avant-Garde art, a contrast that is itself not a focus of the discourse anymore. Academicist art refers to the art that was recognised by the European mainstream art academies then, the most representative of which are, perhaps, Académie Française in France (founded in 1648) and Royal Academy in Great Britain (founded in 1768). Academicism emphasised traditional subject matters (e.g. Grecian and Roman mythologies) and traditional art making technique developed since the Renaissance. The Neo-Classicist Academicist art, favouring a consistent and legible canvas, stands for the deep-rooted Classical artistic traditions.
The selected oil paintings in this exhibition perfectly manifest the characteristics of Academicist art. In this review of the exhibition, I will pick one painting each from the categories of Portraiture, History Painting, and Landscape Painting, and at the end, I would love to briefly introduce the venue of the exhibition, Shanghai Museum, which is itself a profoundly meaningful architecture.
Nicolas de Largillière, Portrait of Charles Le Brun, 1683
Nicolas de Largillière’s Portrait of Charles Le Brun (1683) depicts the first president of Académie Française, Charles Le Brun. Le Brun, who appears stern and solemn in the portrait, stares straight into museum-goers’ eyes. Le Brun’s elaborate attire makes clear his high social status as the president of the Académie. The treatment of the delicate details on his ornamental costume readily reminds the viewers of the careful depiction of intricate details in Northern Renaissance and concurrent Dutch oil paintings. To accentuate the presence of the main figure, the painter painted this portrait’s background to be very “clean” without any frivolous visual distractions from the main subject, the president of the academy himself. The dimmed background optically pushing the subject to the viewers’ space and the rather communicative posture of Charles Le Brun enable a two-dimensional canvas to become much more interactive.
History Painting (CW: violence and depiction of blood)
Dominique Lefèvre-Desforges, Judith Decapitates Holofernes, 1761
Dominique Lefèvre-Desforges painted Judith Decapitates Holofernes in the late 18th Century.
Judith decapitating Holofernes is a biblical excerpt from the Book of Judith, which is included in Septuagint and is recognised by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Judith is a beautiful widow from Bethulia, and Holofernes is an Assyrian general determined to sack and pillage Judith’s hometown, who also happens to lust for Judith. One night, Holofernes invited Judith into his tent, this Assyrian general completely lost his strength to defend himself after indulging himself with drinking in the company of Judith, and Judith, with the assistance of her maid, decapitated Holofernes. This excerpt reveals that women will stand up to injustice and fight back. There are numerous masters in history who were absolutely obsessed with depicting this scene — Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, and many other Renaissance and Baroque masters. Judith has become an epitome of a Femme Fatale throughout the history of art.
In Lefèvre-Desforges’ version, the highlight within the pictorial space is placed on Judith, who has successfully decapitated Holofernes and is looking up at the sky relieved, leaving Holofernes’ headless corpse by her side on the bed. Lefèvre-Desforges’ realistic depiction of blood was so graphic that the quality is almost able to compete with that in Gentileschi’s paintings of the same scene. From left to right on the canvas, the blood is still incessantly flowing out of Holofernes’ carotid artery, Judith’ sword is tainted with blood, small amount of blood is dripping from Holofernes’ head still, and Judith’s maid could not even stand the bloody scene and turns her head away. Other details across the canvas are also elaborately painted, including the hilt of Judith’s sword, the bed sheet, Holofernes’ fallen helmet in the immediate foreground. The difference of every material in the pictorial space is discernible, thanks to the painter’s excellent use of pigment and paint to convey diverse materialities on a two-dimensional canvas.
Hubert Robert, The Port of Ripetta, 1766
Hubert Robert was widely renowned for his capricci, or semi-fictitious picturesque landscape paintings. This exhibition at Shanghai Museum featured just the right picture, The Port of Ripetta (1766), to exemplify Robert’s specialty.
It is hard not to be reminded of Claude Lorrain’s Classicist harbour paintings (and even J.M.W. Turner’s harbour paintings at a later date) upon seeing this Hubert Robert’s Romanticist, Italianate harbour painting oozing the aura of nostalgia. Despite the different vantage selected by Claude Lorrain and Hubert Robert, the tiny figures, large and solemn Classicist architectures, and the lightly gold-tainted sky all associate the two artists together. These characteristics are perfectly representative of Academicist landscape paintings.
In this painting, careful museum-goers will find in the painting a grand architecture extremely similar to Rome’s Pantheon erect right by the harbour. The appearance of this Pantheon-styled architecture on the canvas conveys the recollection of Rome in the time of antiquity. The Pantheon is the source, the origin of all western Classicist architectures — from St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican to Andrea Palladio’s La Rotonda in Vicenza, from St Paul’s Cathedral in London to the Palladian mansions in the English manors, from the Capitol in Washington D.C. to the National Taiwan Museum in Taipei.
This landscape painting is typical of Hubert Robert’s signature capricci. The port of Ripetta in this painting is, in fact, not the same port the artist has seen with his own eyes; after all, how would the Pantheon suddenly appear at the port of Ripetta? With the artist’s combination of the Pantheon and the port, this painting incorporates the artist’s nostalgia for antiquity. What the landscape painting ultimately conveys is not the landscape itself, it is the artist’s feeling. It is the past.
The Venue — Shanghai Museum
Situated in the heart of Shanghai, the museum was dedicated mainly to ancient Chinese art and antiques.
The museum is an artwork in its own right. What the museum’s exterior architectural design stands for is profoundly meaningful — an ancient Chinese folk belief that the earth is square and flat with the cosmos being spherical and all-enveloping, which, in turn, exemplifies an ancient Chinese Dualist conception of Yin and Yang, describing how ostensibly opposite forces may be intrinsically intertwined and interdependent.