Gods & Heroes

Gods & Heroes, together again

The Portland Art Museum's big new exhibit from the heart of historic Paris recreates the period just before the great artistic revolution

In the beginning were the Greeks.

So, at least, goes the catechism of the École des Beaux-Arts, the famed training ground in Paris for painters, sculptors, architects and planners that set the artistic tone of France for more than two centuries after its establishment in 1648 by Charles Le Brun as the Académie de peinture et de sculpture.

The Greek ideal of beauty, and the great Greek storytelling myths, shaped the French artistic imagination and for a time held it like a vise. You can see it in all its exaggerated glory in Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, the big new traveling exhibition that opened Saturday at the Portland Art Museum. In spite of a number of fine intimate-scaled works, it’s a grand-gesture show, a celebration of swagger among the young artists and their instructors, who for the most part had been students at the École, too.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols, 1752, Oil on canvas, 43 7/8 x 56 1/2 in., École des Beaux- Arts, Paris (PRP 7), Courtesy American Federation of Arts

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols, 1752, Oil on canvas, 43 7/8 x 56 1/2 in., École des Beaux- Arts, Paris (PRP 7), Courtesy American Federation of Arts

From its founding under King Louis XIV, the École’s goal was to create great art; and great art, its leaders believed, was to be achieved only though a strict system of copying, practicing, and submitting to a larger world-view. In a way it was like the old studios of the Renaissance masters, but more codified and larger in scope. Mastery of drawing was paramount, and although realism was the goal, it was an idealized realism, a realism somehow finer than reality and also moralistic, or at least cautionary: during the height of its neoclassical years, art from the École was fairly vibrating with extreme storytelling vigor. Everything was edifying. Everything had meaning beyond the paint or plaster itself. There was, often, an extreme artificiality to this realism, a hypertension of dramatic effect.

The question is, did the classical régime of the École and its dominating influence over the art of its time stunt creativity, or release it? The answer is, yes, and yes. The works in Gods & Heroes represent the French art world before the dam burst – before the aesthetic revolt that began in the early decades of the 1800s with the likes of Delacroix, Turner in England, Millet, Corbet and Corot, and broke wide open with the sensation of the 1863 Salon des Refusés. Soon the art world, unshackled and democratized, was swamped by the avant-gardists of Impressionism, who led in turn to the Post-Impressionists, Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, Pop Artists, and all the others who have flooded the art landscape in the past century and a half, creating an artistic Sea of Perpetual Change.

In spite of its concentration on the archaic-seeming idealizations and narrative overstatements of what’s now often regarded as a conservative and hyper-controlled moment in art history, Gods and Heroes feels like some perversely revolutionary act. It dares to ask, what was good about what was swept away? How many babies got thrown out when the bathwater got its necessary freshening? After all, this is the stuff that modernism rebelled against, the stuff that was rejected – and yet, it endures. The show may be most interesting for the way it challenges its audience to go beyond its assumptions and prejudices, and explore a world-view that can seem alien. If you let it, it’ll take you down the rabbit hole – a journey that almost always skews perspectives, and usually also broadens them.