Reign of Modernism will End
in 21st-century, Critics Contend
Art in the 21st century will draw its inspiration from traditions
that were largely neglected during modernism's 20th-century heyday,
say artists, critics and collectors who advocate a return of classical
"I look at modern art as very much like
what happened with communism -- it was an idea that was a house of cards
and couldn't work," says Allan Banks, president of the American
Society of Classical Realism and vice chairman of the American Society
of Portrait Artists.
"A lot of the rubbish that we've been
handed (in the 20th century) has pretty much played itself out,'' Mr.
Banks says. "I think you're finding generations of (artists)
who are really interested in getting back to discipline and tradition."
While American artists are enjoying this
return to tradition -- Mr. Banks says leading portrait painters now
report being ``booked two and three years advance'' -- public tastes
have likewise turned toward the traditional.
There is renewed interest in 19th-century
artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites -- a movement begun in England
in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others -- as well as later
Victorian painters like John William Waterhouse and neo-classical artists like
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
Canadian artist Jonathon Bowser says such
artists were long ignored by educators.
"Those Victorian painters were swept under
the rug -- we didn't learn about them in art school," says Mr. Bowser,
who specializes in landscapes and fantasy paintings in a style he calls
Mr. Bowser says he believes "art should
speak to the universal human condition."
"Modernism, by definition, cannot be universal,
because if you're not conversant with the lexicon, you're not invited
to the debate."
Nothing exemplifies art's turn toward
tradition as much as the revived interest in William Adolphe Bouguereau,
the 19th-century master of the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris.
Bouguereau's carefully finished mythological
scenes and romantic genre paintings were attacked as "sentimental" by
admirers of the Impressionists, and later critics relegated him to
the role of a villain in the story of modern art's triumph.
Modern critics are unreserved in their
scorn for Bouguereau. The New York Times denounced him as "bland and
boring" when his paintings were exhibited in Hartford, Conn., in 1984.
Six years ago, the Christian Science Monitor sneered at Bouguereau's
work as "official art" that was mostly "purchased
by rich, undereducated Americans."
But his work has risen sharply in value
in recent years. Bouguereau's painting "At the Fountain," displayed
for years in an Evanston, Ill., library, was appraised at $100,000 in
1992. Auctioned last year by Sotheby's, it sold for $900,000. An auctioneer
from Sotheby's called the Bouguereau a "show stopper."
Critics may still sneer but, as the London
Daily Telegraph admitted in 1997, "Bouguereau is among the few
painters who has become ever dearer ... as the rest of the market
Among the collectors of Bouguereau's work
is actor Sylvester Stallone. In May, Bouguereau's "Charity" sold for
$3,528,000 -- the most ever paid for one of his paintings, eclipsing
the $2.6 million paid for his "Alma Parens" in 1998.
Among Bouguereau's most enthusiastic admirers
is collector and critic Fred Ross.
Bouguereau is "the greatest painter in
the history of the world," says Mr. Ross, a New Jersey businessman who
has founded the Art Renewal Center, dedicated to encouraging artists
in what he calls the "humanist" tradition.
"We have to go back to where art was at
its peak and build from there," says Mr. Ross, who locates that peak
prior to the 20th century: "Real art is about life. Modern art
is art about art. It's about `pushing the envelope.' It's about time
somebody stamped that envelope 'return to sender.' "
The revival of traditional art owes much
to Boston painter R.H. Ives Gammell, who trained dozens of artists
before his death in 1981. Mr. Gammell felt the need to pass along
the tradition he had absorbed from his mentor, William Paxton, who had been
a student of Jean Leon Gerome, who in turn studied under the French master
Jacques Louis David.
Mr. Gammell "woke up one day and realized
that this tradition was not being passed on," says Mr. Banks, who studied
under Mr. Gammell. "He took it upon himself to teach a handful
of students at a time and worked with them from scratch."
efforts, along with Mr. Gammell's 1946 book, "Twilight of Painting," helped
spur a traditionalist movement that has grown steadily in recent
decades, though with little recognition from established art critics.
The hostility of art critics is a pet peeve of traditionalists.
"We have put our artistic culture into
the hands of philistines and I'm just trying to find a jawbone of an
ass," says Mr. Ross, referring to the Israelite hero Samson's
feat against the original Philistines.
Though most people prefer traditional
art, the opinions of critics prop up the reputation of modern art,
"Real people will reject modernism every
time, if they're given a context that justifies the feelings they've
always had," Mr. Ross says, likening modern art's critical hegemony
to "the emperor's new clothes."
One artist who bemoaned the influence
of modernism in art was the late sculptor Frederick Hart.
"Art is a dying force in public life,"
said Mr. Hart, whose "Ex Nihilo" at the National Cathedral is perhaps
his most famous work. "It is now in the world of art as a cult,
where you have to know the peculiarities, the rites, and that makes
art meaningless to the vast majority of people."
The division between public tastes and
the opinions of the art establishment can be seen in the case of
American painter Thomas Kinkade.
His popular romantic landscapes -- many
with religious titles like "The Mountains Declare His Glory" -- have
made Mr. Kinkade a name brand worth $138 million a year. Yet the art
magazine Flak recently denounced Mr.Kinkade as an "insidious" manifestation
of "capitalism ... coldly and very quietly manipulated by corporations."
It is not corporations, but a generation
of enthusiastic young amateurs who have created a burgeoning Internet
universe devoted to promoting traditional art.
Iian Neill experienced "the iron grip
of modernism" while an art student.
"A couple of years ago I realized that
fineand unjustly malignedartists like Bouguereau, Gerome
and Alma-Tadema were excluded from our art galleries, museums, textbooks
and university courses due to the iron grip of modernism," says
Mr. Neill, an Australian whose Renaissance Cafe site features an
extensive gallery of works by 19th-century artists.
Alan Linh Do of Frederick, Md., set up
his Web site devoted to English painter John William Waterhouse after
he became "hooked" on the artist's portrayals of Arthurian
"I am hoping to help revive the interest
in classical art through Waterhouse," says Mr. Do, a recent
graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Last year, he visited England to view
the paintings of Waterhouse and other Victorian artists. "These works
are classics and unbelievably stunning up close. I was extremely emotional
when I saw those of Waterhouse," Mr. Do says.
Valerie L. Criswell, an Internet consultant
from South Carolina, "first became aware of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement
when I took a course on Victorian history while in college," she
"There are close ties between historical
periods and the art that is born from them," Mrs. Criswell says of the
inspiration for her Nouveau Net site. "The fusion of Victorian
ideals into Pre-Raphaelite art captivated me.
"The art clearly demonstrates the Victorians'
struggle between religious morality and innate human sensuality."
The combination of Internet technology
and traditional art has proven potent, according to Mr. Banks.
"Now we are seeing, with the computer,
we are finding that a lot of (traditional artists) are able to communicate,"
says the painter, who notes he has received inquiries from artists as
far away as Spain and Taiwan. "I think it's going to be a major
factor in bringing people together."
"The Internet is the greatest thing,"
agrees Mr. Ross, whose Internet connection allowed him to reach as
far as Australia to hire Mr. Neill to design the Art Renewal Center's
Mr. Ross says he hopes to revive the 19th-century
tradition of the Paris salons, "a competition between the greatest
artists in the world."
He is working with sponsors, galleries
and museums to develop a series of annual salons he hopes to begin
as early as next year.
"My goal," Mr. Ross says, "is
to build this as the focal point upon which a movement for renewal can be built."
(The following accompanied the article as a graphic.)
The Internet is home to many Web sites featuring classic 19th-century
art, as well as contemporary artists, inspired by classical traditions.
* The Pre-Raphaelite Collection
- Features art and biographies of artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite
movement, which began in England and was an important influence in 19th-century
* Classical Realism
- Home site of the American Society of Classical Realism with articles,
an on-line gallery and links to art schools that teach traditional methods.
* Nouveau Net
Art enthusiast Valerie Criswell's celebration of the Pre-Raphaelites
and 19th-century French master William Adolphe Bouguereau.
* Art Renewal Center
Dedicated to the revival of traditional ideals in art, with features
about 19th-century painters Pierre Auguste Cot, William Adolphe Bouguereau
and John William Godward.
* Frederick Hart
- The official site of the late Frederick Hart, famous for his sculptures
at the National Cathedral and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
* The Renaissance Cafe
- On-line curator Iian Neill's site offers an extensive cyber-gallery
of 19th-century art by Bouguereau, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Jean-Leon
Jerome, Lord Frederic Leighton and others.
* Gandy Gallery of Realist Art
- Richard R. Gandy's gallery, based in McDonough, GA, features portraits
and other paintings by contemporary realists including Richard Lack,
Allan Banks, Stephen Gjertson, Kamille Corry, Kirk Richards and Richard
* John William Waterhouse
- Alan Linh Do's tribute to one of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite artists,
with an extensive on-line gallery, biographical essay and links.
* Mythic Naturalism
Fantasy artist Jonathon Bowser combines dramatic landscapes with
depictions of "the goddess" in works inspired by his
own esoteric philosophy.
THE WASHINGTON TIMES