Magazine article Artforum International

Projected Images

Magazine article Artforum International

Projected Images

Article excerpt

THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART'S "Thomas Eakins: American Realist," which opens in October, will in many ways be a traditional survey of an acknowledged master. Even so, it promises to redefine its protagonist in accordance with contemporary concerns.

In his latest permutation, Eakins is nothing less than a pioneer of modern information technology. The exhibition, which is built around 68 Eakins oil paintings and 12.8 photographs by the artist or his students (culled from various public and private collections as well as the PMA's own impressive holdings), will present an artist who achieved his distinction as America's greatest realist by relying more heavily than previously suspected on the one-to-one transfer of photography to painting.

Eakins, the show will reveal, projected his photographs in varying combinations onto the prepared canvas by means of a magic lantern. He traced their images with a pencil and then used a needle to incise tick marks so minute as to have escaped detection until very recently. It was a working method that he spent years perfecting-- and also keeping secret. In his era, such wholesale reliance on mechanical means of reproduction would have been thought prosaic and commercial, and a painter known to depend on it as extensively as he did would have been scorned as unskilled and creatively impotent. Whereas today, with our fetish for sophisticated information-transmitting technologies and glorification of those who invent and deploy them, Eakins looks like a prophet of our own brave new world.

This unveiling of an updated version of Eakins in the first comprehensive show devoted to his art in nearly two decades is hardly surprising. Major artists are reinvented every time their oeuvre is gathered together and viewed afresh, and Eakins is no exception. When his work was first given a retrospective exhibition in 1917, the year after his death, it struck Progressive Era viewers as a forceful criticism of the Gilded Age. They appreciated Eakins for his obstinate refusal to conform to the strictures of the genteel tradition against which they, too, were in rebellion.

Not only the man himself but tight-lipped late portraits such as A.W. Lee, 1905, would have resonated with readers of Randolph Bourne's scathing 1917 essay "The Puritan's Will to Power," which, in the spirit of the new radicalism, berated puritanical guilt, sexual repression, and pragmatically motivated self-renunciation. The painter's austere images of middle-class isolation, anxiety, possibly even despair, such as The Thinker, 1900, Edith Mahon, 1904, and Susan Macdowell Eakins, ca. 1899, suddenly made sense when seen in the context of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Willa Cather's My Antonia (1918), and Booth Tarkington's Magnificent Ambersons (1918).

The rediscovery of Eakins roughly coincided with the Melville revival of the 1920s. Henry McBride, art critic for the small but influential literary magazine The Dial, drew an explicit connection between the two figures and predicted that now that the long-obscured novelist had finally come into posthumous acclaim, the same would happen to the painter. Lewis Mumford praised Eakins's "hearty contempt for the hierarchies of caste and office" and compared his mature work to Thorstein Veblen's caustic masterpiece of social demystification, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).

McBride's prediction of forthcoming public acclaim for the painter was borne out, but only in part. The Eakins who at last became famous in the '30s was no Melville or Veblen; he was not seen as a mordant critic of American pretentiousness and greed but rather as a celebrant of American virtue. Perhaps the stock market crash saw to that, for during the Depression the American public at large, recoiling from over-rapid modernization at home and political turmoil abroad, wanted desperately to feel good about itself and its ancestry. In 1930 the Museum of Modern Art, taking a step back from the avant-garde precipice, mounted an exhibition of works by three turn-of-the-century masters, Homer, Ryder, and Eakins, all of whom were praised for being uniquely American (their European antecedents--and, in Eakins's case, training--notwithstanding). …

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