Adieu to the Avante-Garde

By Limaye, Kanchan | Reason, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Adieu to the Avante-Garde


Limaye, Kanchan, Reason


As the artistic regime shifts, realism, rhyme, and representation make a comeback.

Tom Wolfe is holding his Chelsea audience spellbound with what seems the unlikeliest of stories. Spotlighted in a bare, black "performance space" deep in downtown Manhattan, Wolfe is evoking the careers of a trio of mostly forgotten 19th-century French painters. The story's certainly entertaining, thanks to Wolfe's talent for such narrative. But what's really interesting is his reason for telling it: Wolfe is here to celebrate the approaching fulfillment of a prophecy of his, and to announce the end of a cultural epoch.

First, though, his story. "Exactly a hundred years ago," Wolfe is saying, "there was a survey taken by a French newspaper - they used to love to take this kind of survey - in which they asked leading French art dealers, critics, curators: Who would be the French artists of the 19th century who would still be the giants of art in the year 1997? By the standards of that day, it was a huge survey. And the results were, number one, Adolphe William Bouguereau; second, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier; and, third, Leon Gerome. They were looked upon as the giants."

Who? Wait, there's more. "Even after the era of Andy Warhol, who left an estate of $510 million, we cannot begin to comprehend the scale on which these artists - Bouguereau, Meissonier, Gerome - lived." Wolfe sketches in some detail. "Two- and three-story-high studios. Belgian hangings on all the walls. There were always Persian rugs strewn wherever you could strew one: on top of the piano, on top of the balcony railing, on the bed, everywhere, even on the floor."

Such Belle Epoque sumptuousness reflected the near total cultural power these painters wielded; it derived from canvases which were not only admired, purchased at staggering sums (Meissonier, Wolfe notes, was once offered a million francs just to sign his name), and studied by crowds of intense young artists; they were considered to have carried French art to unsurpassable heights of draftsmanship, composition, and color. Bouguereau's technical ability still impresses Wolfe. "God, what a master of silk folds! He could show you an archangel with a sheet of paper in his hand: You'd want to eat the paper, it was so rich!"

Then, poof. "By 1920, all these people were forgotten. They had become, overnight in terms of the passage of history, zeros, grand zeros in art history." Why that happened - the coming of the various movements of modernism, from the Berlin Secession to Cubism - is not Wolfe's subject. Regime shifting is.

"The 'Regime Shift,'" says Wolfe, "is a term that I'm borrowing from economics. It refers to a situation in which suddenly the rules are changed. And when that happens, suddenly a lot of assets are lost, chaos results....Well, such things oddly enough can happen in art. Not quite as rapidly, but they have happened extremely rapidly."

Wolfe believes that such a cultural shift is occurring right now. "I think it was 1985 or 1986, I was giving a talk at a museum out on Long Island. And the title of the talk was, 'Picasso, the Bouguereau of the Year 2020.' And this was really a prediction of a Regime Shift." Wolfe's prophecy went totally unnoticed at the time. "The only reward I had was a diatribe at the end of the talk," he recalls, by "an extremely angry man."

That was then. Tonight in Chelsea there are no angry diatribes. On the contrary, most of those gathered agree with Wolfe, and many of them are painters, poets, and composers who have been working for years with much the same overthrow in mind. So did it happen? Is Picasso's fate really on the way to becoming that of Bouguereau? Is the art regime actually shifting? "I can sense it here," Wolfe says. "This very festival is a sign of it."

"This very festival" was staged by the Derriere Guard, a loosely organized group of painters, poets, and composers, founded last year, who celebrate technique as artistically liberating, and beauty as a universal value. …

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