"Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile"
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
February 1-April 24, 2005

Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute
Williamstown, Massachusetts.
June 5-September 5, 2005

About the last thing one should wish on anyone is “curator of an exhibition on Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825).” But this is the fate that has befallen those curators, led by Philippe Bordes, at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Mark Twain famously warned that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” and so too it goes for David. Jacques-Louis is a fantastic artist who rarely measures up to himself.

There are of course the practical considerations. Mounting a David show in the United States can be vexing. What about his most famous paintings in Europe? The Oath of the Horatii (1784)? Brutus (1789)? The Oath of the Tennis Court (1791)? The Death of Marat (1793)? The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799)? The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1805–1808)? The Distribution of the Eagles (1808–1810)? You can forget about securing loans of these masterpieces.

Then there is the problem of organizing and presenting an artist who in equal measure produced portraits, images of contemporary events, and history painting (if you were to consider Homer an historian). He was a politician who was at various times aligned with Robspierre, implicated in the Terror, at serious risk of losing his head to the guillotine, Napoleon’s Style Guy, and an exile in Brussels. He was a republican who lived smack dab in the middle of the monarchy, the Revolution, the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire, and the Restoration. He was a painter whose mastery of cool composition and the invisible hand spawned a generation of artists including Girodet, Gérard, Gros, Isabey, not to mention the legions of academic painters who followed them, but one whose strange vision somehow dwarfed everyone.

Finally there is the contemporary scholarship surrounding David. No matter what form “critical theory” takes, it always shares the same urge to seduce and the besotted logic of why we never got David up until now. The Marxist art historian T. J. Clark produced the most charismatic of these arguments in his 1999 book Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. In a chapter dedicated to David he writes that, with its new political contingencies, “David’s Marat ‘turns on the impossibility of transcendence’ and shows us politics as the form of a world.” Okay. Politics played a role in Paris in 1793. As an artist in Paris you would be hard-pressed to avoid it—especially when you could see Marie-Antoinette on her way to the scaffold from your window. But “of a world”? Didn’t catch that one. Then again modernism for Clark

is a process that deeply misrecognizes its own nature for much of the time… . Modernism, as I say, is always part rearguard action against the truths it has stumbled upon.

For a Marxist, beneath the surface of Marat is always the Monument to the Third International. Just as for a feminist, Sabines is a justification of heteronormative rape. As for the gender studies specialist it all gets down to sword and scabbard. The answers come fast and loose with a crib sheet in hand, but David remains notoriously intractable to the honest viewer.

 

Honesty pays the price in a classroom of cheats. While it might be true that the only person getting cheated is the cheater, I wish the curators of the current show felt more honor-bound to go and tell on the rest of the academic class. But as I gather from this exhibition, which I saw at the Getty Museum, there has been little desire to contend with limitations imposed by both practicality and bad scholarship. The Getty and Clark museums have billed this show as “the first major exhibition of David’s work in the United States.” In selecting out the later work for exhibition (the seemingly arbitrary “Empire to Exile”), Philippe Bordes maintains that “Those fortunate enough to have seen the thorough retrospective presented at the Louvre in 1989 will recall the staggering succession of pictures leading up to The Death of Marat and the Sabines, and the difficulty in viewing with a fresh eye the paintings that followed.” Yeah, right. Don’t pretend the elephant is in the room when it isn’t. Just face it that American museums can’t get their hands on David’s important early work.

As for dealing with the T. J. Clarks out there, the show replaces Marxist dogmatism with specious irresolution. By producing a brick of a catalogue, Bordes may hope his readers confuse length with importance. The provenancial trivia that accompanies each work can be curious (Joseph Bonaparte took Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard [1800–1801] with him when he fled from Spain for Philadelphia in 1815), but what’s the point? There is no point. There is no there there in “Empire to Exile.” The show exists for little reason other than to highlight some recent Getty and Clark acquisitions of late David, such as the Getty’s Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis (1818). Regrettable.

Regrettable, because more could have been done with available resources, in part by doing less. What about isolating David’s non-Napoleonic portraiture, the least well known of his modes, arguably his most personal, and certainly his most expressionistic? Or focusing on David’s exile related to the exile of Napoleon (two decades his younger, Napoleon died at St. Helena four years before David in Brussels)? What about comparing David to an Ancien Régime predecessor such as Greuze, or a Romantic follower such as Gros? Instead, the selection of David “from Empire to exile,” with a sprinkling of earlier work, dictated by necessity, comes off as hopelessly confusing.

If there is one conclusion to draw from this show, it is that we shouldn’t expect David to explain himself if we don’t go the distance ourselves.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 10, on page 49
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