Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Stuff Seen - Girodet, Romantic Rebel



If you take a stroll down to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts you'll be able to get a gander at what I would imagine was one of the biggest and badest queens in Paris 200 years ago. Then again, I haven't read the catalog, so if he wasn't as gay as the day is long then I betcha dollars to doughnuts he had sex with more women than Casanova. The word 'romantic' in the title is genteel speak, dig?

According to what I was told, his big hit painting was 'The Burial of Atala.' He got the Legion of Honour because of it. From what I understand, the Legion of Honour is sorta like the Order of Canada but more important - maybe a combination of the Order of Canada and the Sobey Award. Imagine scoring both because of one painting. It just doesn't happen like that these days.

But beyond scoring a pretty impressive award for one painting (just for the record, in case you think I am dead serious, the previous sentences can also be called a reasonable use of hyperbole) Mr. Anne-Louis Girodet looks like a pretty gosh darn good painter, judging from this show. As the fine folk at the museum told us, it has already been seen by more than 500,000 folk in Paris, Chicago and New York. Because of technicalities Montreal is a stand in for Cleveland (first time in my life I ever am thankful for that) and judging from previous attendance figures we might just be able to get more eyeballs to see it here than saw it in Chicago.

The thing that I got the biggest kick out of, and made me think that the show was a superlative example of a kick-ass show was how Sylvain Bellenger treated an art history show - 'there has never been an exhibition of his work in North America' - as if it were a contemporary art exhibit. The two pictures above this paragraph give you a basic idea. Normally with what I call art historical shows, there are a whack of paintings and a humongous text in a catalog that can be used to beat you into submission that absolutely every gosh darn painting in the freakin' show should change your life if you only knew what you were looking at.

In this show, while I would not want to be even threatened with the catalog (I can't think of a larger one published by the Musee des beaux arts, and I only saw hardcover copies, that sucker is going to hurt and hurt something fierce if you hit me with it, it's scarier than a .357 magnum) there are numerous studies and sketches and test patterns and attempts and dress rehearsals done before the real thing that make you (or at least me) realize that M. Girodet was dead serious about his painting. The amount of obsessive detail that he must have pored over and over and over before committing a single drop of paint to the real thing is phenomenal.

Normally, I'm not a big fan of paintings that are 200 years old, heck there are a whack of paintings that are less than 50 years old that I think suck dead duck eggs. But despite that M. Bellenger has done a superlative job of making me think that an exhibition that for the most part is a whole whack of portraits of some folk long gone dead is as important and imperative to my life right now as the Rodney Graham show down the street, or the show that I have up on the walls here, or even the beer I just finished drinking.

This is one of the many paintings of mythological happenstances that sort of make me think that M. Girodet was gay.

Yes there are the requisite pictures of naked women as well (I don't think that there was any other way of getting porn in those days) but somehow they left me unconvinced. I didn't bother to go through and count naked guys versus naked girls but...

There also the requisite portraits of some really famous folk

And some folk who weren't so famous - although you gotta hand it to M. Girodet, being able to paint the first ever portrait of a black man, as a person, not a slave, and about 15 years later being able to paint a portrait of the leader of the free world. He runs the gamut from 'A' to 'Z' and then some.

The 'then some' being that this guy apparently wasn't too fond of Napoleon, and Napoleon wasn't too fond of him. Can you imagine these days someone, anyone, being able to paint portraits of Osama Bin Laden in 1998 and then in 2004 paint a portrait of George Bush (ok, you're right, I haven't read anything by Bin Laden recently, but hyperbole is mighty fun, ain't it?)

And lastly, I'll finish by writing that I was also impressed that the Musee des beaux arts had not set up a store just at the end of the exhibit, it runs contrary to everything one thinks and hears about contemporary museum culture these days. As a consequence, I was unable to peruse the selection of goods associated with M. Girodet (d'ya think his great-great-great-great-grand children are entitled to any royalties (oops! I forgot he was gay!)) but for reasons that are extremely personal I hope that the next time I am at the museum store they have this painting available for purchase as a postcard.

It is a good thing that I have to go back and see the show two more times. If I can convince my sister that she needs to see it too, then that'll make it three more times. I like it when old paintings get me as giddy as new paintings. If you have a sister, mother, or sweetie (or all three, like me) take 'em to this show – remember how everyone you knew swooned over James Dean? - M. Girodet did Dean better than Dean did 150 years earlier.

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