Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Adolphe William Bouguereau, “Orestes Pursued by the Furies,” 1862.
Bouguereau was the grand master of the French art establishment and set the bar for those painters who aspired to commercial success in the second half of the 19th century. Critics, however, dismissed this painting for its heavy, melodramatic tone. “I soon found that the horrible, the frenzied, the heroic does not pay,” Bouguereau lamented after showing the work at the 1863 Paris Salon.
Click on the image to enlarge.
Reblogged this on Will S.' Sunny Side Blog.
“Frenzied” is the key word there, and it doesn’t work in still paintings.
Emotional or physical states that are snapshotted at the fleeting moment of climax lead the viewer to expect their resolution — the body of his just-stabbed mother to hit the ground, the extraordinarily intense facial expressions to return to a more moderate level. It’s not the same with scenes leading up to a climax — those can leave us lingering in anticipation of the climax, on the edge of our seats.
The mind knows that a lead-up doesn’t always lead to a climax, so being left without it doesn’t confuse our senses. But every climax is immediately followed by a resolution, so seeing it alone and then cut off or interrupted takes us out of the experience — “and THEN wtf happens?!”
Bouguereau’s mythological action scenes all suffer from this weakness of trying to capture a climax. Dante and Virgil is probably the worst in this respect; Nymphs and Satyr is better, for showing a prelude only. This seems like a clearer way of getting at what critics mean by describing his work as “melodramatic”.
Among the Academic painters, Gerome had a superior intuition for how the still medium restricted the range of emotional tone, which in turn would restrict the kinds of action that could be shown. In Pollice Verso, he shows the prelude to one gladiator killing the other — and not by showing a freeze-frame of the sword already plunging, just inches away from the victim’s chest, but by the victorious one asking the spectators what should be done with the loser, and preparing to follow through with their decision.
Bouguereau would’ve done better in film, where both the prelude and resolution of one of these intense “flashbulb” memories could make the presentation of it feel natural to the viewer.
“‘Frenzied’ is the key word there, and it doesn’t work in still paintings. Emotional or physical states that are snapshotted at the fleeting moment of climax lead the viewer to expect their resolution — the body of his just-stabbed mother to hit the ground, the extraordinarily intense facial expressions to return to a more moderate level.”
Not sure I agree with this. There are other great artworks that capture intense feeling or action at the moment of climax and I’ve never felt the need for any kind of resolution. For example, “Laocoon and his Sons” or Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes.”
In this piece, it’s pretty easy to imagine what happens to Clytemnestra when she’s stabbed in the chest. But I’m not even sure if we’re supposed to imagine that she has just been stabbed — I think she’s merely supposed to a ghost reminding Orestes (and the viewer) why he’s being plagued by the Furies in the first place. Her resolution isn’t important.
If she’s a ghost, she’s a flashbulb memory of the few moments after he stabbed her, before she’d fallen. She isn’t portrayed as ghostly, back from the dead to remind him. To the viewer, it looks like she’s just been stabbed.
I don’t mean that it’s important to see her conceptual resolution, I mean the physical, thudding-against-the-ground resolution of her body. It’s like at the end of an ’80s movie, where there’s a freeze-frame of someone jumping into the air.
More important is how intense those facial expressions are — no one can hold their face twisted like that for very long, so they ought to diminish during the course of your viewing / studying. But when you’re looking over the painting for a little bit, and those expressions remain so elevated, you lose the sense of “being there”. They don’t strike us as real people but static dolls with permanently etched-on masks.
I disagree that Laocoon and His Sons shows them right at a climax. They’re still struggling for their lives, and it’s not clear just from looking at it that any of them has been dealt the coup de grace by the serpents. They certainly look doomed, but they’re not depicted as just having been killed, a la the mother in the Orestes painting. It’s still in the stage of rising action, where any of the three could use agility or strength to escape against all odds.
In Judith Beheading Holofernes, the effect of showing a climax is softened by portraying the subject with a fairly calm expression — she only has a little knit in her brow, not the twisted caricature masks that the Fates do in the Bouguereau painting. Her body is composed rather than making extreme motions. Judith’s servant is also shown with just a raised brow, like it’s no biggie that some dude is getting his head sown off a few feet away.
That is one of Caravaggio’s weaker works as far as credibility of tone goes, though (always have thought so). Extreme-faced Holofernes looks like he was placed there for shock value, so that we don’t feel like we’re witnessing a scene but reacting to a provocation by the artist. It makes us too aware of the artist, and takes us out of the moment, whether it’s to want to chastise the provocateur or to high-five our buddy about how freakin’ badass this painter is.
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Does a work of art require a resolution? Should the viewer/listener/spectator always leave with things wrapped up neatly? I suppose it’s personal preference, but I don’t think so. Many times, omitting resolution leads to greater engagement with the work. Yeah I said it, “engagement.”
I’ll bet it’s breathtaking in person. Bouguereau always is. The skin, the skin …
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Orestes certainly looks like he’s in a whole lot of deep shit.
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