A ghastly assemblage.
I was so provoked by James Panero's review of the exhibition "David, Empire to Exile" (June 2005) that I felt compelled to respond to what was a ghastly assemblage of misinformation and diatribe passing as reflection on an exhibition.
It is both irresponsible and simply wrongheaded to associate Philippe Bordes's catalogue for the exhibition with "Bad scholarship." Philippe Bordes is probably the preeminent scholar of David's work, and the catalogue brings significant documentary and interpretative insights. To claim that "The show exists for little reason other than to highlight some recent Getty and Clark acquisitions" is just utter nonsense (especially as the Telemachus and Eucharis was acquired by the Getty in 1987 and has already been the subject of a "Getty Studies" volume). While Mr. Panero is quick to follow others in, as we say, "stating the bleeding obvious" by remarking on the absence of the Oath of the Horatii, the Coronation, and the Distribution of the Eagles (paintings that never travel anywhere, as everyone in the museum world knows), Mr. Panero does not appear to have actually looked much at the walls of the exhibition itself or noticed the hang. Instead, what the readers of The New Criterion have been entertained with is a peculiar mix of off-the-cuff glibness and long, entirely beside the point diatribes against Marxist and feminist art history. From its appallingly glib and cliched sentence in the opening paragraph--"Jacques-Louis David is a fantastic artist who rarely measures up to himself"--which sounds vaguely okay until you think about it for more than a minute, when it quickly becomes meaningless--there is an irritating, faux-vernacular tone to the whole review. What, precisely, does "Napoleon's style guy" mean? I presume he means that David was involved in creating the image of Napoleon, but your reviewer might have taken the time to establish the subtly different ways in which the various Napoleonic paintings achieve this--and the unusual circumstances of their creation--aspects which the catalogue deals with at length. There are the annoying, smartarse throwaway phrases, like "if you were to consider Homer an historian" (in reference to "La Peinture d'Histoire"). Typically glib, but laughably wide of the mark for anyone who knows their painting theory. "La Peinture d'Histoire" refers not just to the depiction of "History," but to a genre of painting that exploits historical, biblical, mythological, poetic, and allegorical subject matter. A publication which seeks to define itself as serious and engaged should think twice before allowing such writing to pass for serious criticism.
The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute