ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I suppose that relatively staid public institutions like the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History cannot bounce across our rooftops announcing that they have hit a home run, but in the case of “Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris” maybe they should.
This 206-piece exhibition is a jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, peddle-to-the-metal romp through several centuries of academic art that brims with masterfully rendered paintings, drawings, sculpture and prints by the who’s who of European post Renaissance art history.
The show reveals how young artists were trained to produce masterpieces and includes works by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Honoré Daumier, Jacques-Luis David, Albert Dúrer, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Rembrandt van Rijn, among many others.
If that lineup doesn’t get the kids in the car then nothing ever will.
By the way, the installation itself looks like a typical European or American East Coast museum before the modernists took the reins. The design is subtle but effective and if your passport is expired like mine, you can go to Europe by driving to Old Town without the cramped plane trip or tour bus.
Among the many wow paintings is “The Conquest of the Golden Fleece” by Pierre Monier, painted in luscious color that highlights the major requirements for an academic tour de force. The first ever Grand Prix-winning painting based upon Greek mythology includes the human figure, landscape, architecture and drapery, all embodied in an advanced compositional design.
The Ecole des Beaux-Arts did not have a grading system. Instead it held a long series of competitive exhibitions that required students to show mastery in anatomy, human facial expression and emotion, architectural rendering, with an emphasis on drawing that required students to draw from sculpture or live models for six hours each day.
In order to transfer drawings and full compositional sketches onto canvas a grid was created over the drawing to allow a scaled-up copy to be easily made by filling in each square.
When Alexandre Hesse created “Group of Two Figures in Profile: A Man Sitting, Supported by a Woman,” he superimposed a grid. This allowed him to translate the original onto a large-scale grid that may have been part of a far more complex composition which included other figures.
Since the drawing was only a study sketch he also used the same piece of paper to render a close-up of his left hand.
The use of a transfer grid has roots that reach back to ancient Egyptian arts and connects with 20th-century grid-utilizing artists like Larry Poons and Agnes Martin. In Martin’s case the grid becomes the subject and means of expression.
Among the few women in the show Julie Duvidal de Montferrier’s stunning “Self-Portrait” of 1820 is a gorgeous example of skills developed through rigorous practice. Women were not accepted into the academies until the 19th century.
Once inside the male-dominated academic art world women were encouraged to paint portraits and still life and to avoid serious subjects like history and mythology. The 20th century put an end to most of that thinking but any contemporary female artist can tell you the battle is not over yet.
If you are a fan of woodcuts “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by Albrecht Dúrer will knock your socks off. If you are a woodcut artist you may throw away your chisels in despair. The hand-cut fine lines and mind-boggling anatomical depiction of people, horses and clouds reveal the high quality of the academic approach to art-making.
But remember if Bouguereau and his buddies had their way there never would have been a Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Kathe Kollwitz, Judy Chicago or Karen Yank.
However, when Kathy Wright, Andrew Connors and their crew hung this one, they hit one out of the park with the bases loaded. Do not miss it.