Art Review

Critique of (Neo)Classicism

I’m taking an art history class at college and I’ve finally realized some things about Classicism and Neoclassicism (movement: the Enlightenment, 1750-1789), as well as the art these movements imitated. They were a revival of the idealized art of the “Ancients,” or artists such as Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, and Raphael, whom the art revolutionists viewed as epitomizing the ideals of the Enlightenment: “noble simplicity and calm grandeur,” which contrasted the frivolous Rococo style that the contemporary aristocracy preferred (and to which this movement rebelled).

Art history lesson aside, I’ve had some time to stare at art by the great ancients as well as those who revived their work and… I’ve find them to be emotionally boring. Beautiful, yes, but…well let me show you:

The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-1508

The Village Bride, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1761

Adromache Bewailing the Death of Hector, Gavin Hamilton, 1764

Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces, Joshua Reynolds, 1765

Parnassus, Anton Raphael Mengs, 1761.

There is absolutely no question that these artists could paint; they are exquisitely executed. My personal qualm with some of the greatest artists of all time is the lack of emotion contained within the face. The figures are highly posed (which is something that can get redundant and boring as well…), but it is only the figures which hold any semblance of emotion. Where is the expression? You can argue that it is only the figure that must carry the feeling, or that artistry lies in subtlety, but how boring it is to follow more than two figures over a huge painting and see absolutely zero change from the neck up. I believe artistry lies in making the audience feel something. Because of this method I have never been completely sucked in to a painting by any of the greats that embody this style.

One other issue I find to be quite common is the way the figures do – or really don’t – interact. This seems to be an incredibly lazy way of executing a piece of art as far as I’m concerned. The method commonly used by these artists was bringing in one figure at a time, or painting each figure individually, or possibly posing each figure so “perfectly” that they lose something of the feel that there is more than one person in the frame (though there are a dozen).

I find that there’s something of humanity lost in these pieces, for both of the reasons I’ve listed. The fashion of posing figures to such an extent that they lose the emotion they are supposed to convey is something I really can’t condone. I (and most people I talk to)  find beauty and feeling in the imperfections of humanity, and the conscious pursuit of flawlessness that these artists embodied really frustrates me. But at least looking at the centuries worth or art that follows these methods has given me a reminder of what to avoid; a boring and redundant way of painting people.

Some artists from that general time that I find to be inspirations for the opposite reason:

Two Satyrs, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618-1619

Diana Returning from Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens

The expression that I’m looking for by no means has to contort the entire face (Two Satyrs), and can be subtle (Diana Returning), or like one of my personal favorites:

Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse, 1888

I have many more favorites of course, but I think you can understand the difference between the two styles. Soon I’m going to post the movement that rebelled against the (Neo)Classicisists :}

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