Until a few days ago I had no idea who William-Adolphe Bouguereau was , and in fact, I still struggle to pronounce his name accurately.
My first encounter with Bourgereau started with a sense of skepticism, reading some information on the internet. From the high-sounding name and the date of his work, I immediately thought of a boring painter and a servile French academic among those who paint lavish portraits of nobles as well as hunting events. Somewhere else in the past century, or, more simply, old and dated.
Before I talk about such beauty, however I will also share the crucial lesson I have learned, that is what inspires my desire to talk about art without being an academic in the field of art Art should be viewed and experienced through the impact of the emotions it produces on our bodies. The senses and instincts are the best guide to determine if an artist can get into our souls. I barely knew Bouguereau's name If I had I would have felt the same, because his paintings captivated me and touched the oldest archetypes of my soul and displaced everything I thought I knew about academic art.
That's what art does by sending us information that is unconscious and brings us back to past and parallel worlds, it lets us enter for a brief moment in the head of a stranger and is able to enter our world without even knowing who we are. We and him, two people distant in time and space together in the same space for a brief moment. Our worlds meet and merge in the territory created by a work of art.
Bouguereau The one who is snubbed by modernists
My error was made by a lot of other people before me and by those who, as they stepped into the modern age and after a long and acknowledged career, decided that Bouguereau was not good enough, that he was not modern enough and modern enough, not "cool" enough and, overnight, downgraded his status to that of a basic academic artist, a member of the Art Pompier (an expression that suggests the mastery of a technique, however it is often empty and false to the point of bad taste) without any genius.
Bouguereau, the one of the Pieta.
The error is not more significant. It is enough to look to Bouguereau's Pieta to comprehend it, to feel an emotion that reaches into the insides. william adolphe bouguereau 's Pieta conveys a universal message which is that Christ is the symbol of the suffering of the world and the Madonna as a black and mysterious woman who is the bearer of truth and of Justice and conscience, all at once She hurls in our faces the facts, both uncomfortable and concealed, about the ugly that belongs to us. That black dark Mary is in a crowded and nearly imprisoned by guilt, represented by those good-natured characters, with a somewhat melodramatic look that have surrounded the dead body of Christ. She, dignified and angry, really desperate, appears to be a gypsy, a refugee who holds her deceased son in her arms beneath the wreckage of the bombings. It is an image taken by an official war photographer but we find this on the wall of an academic from the 19th century who without much aplomb and smacks us on the face.
The Pieta is nothing more than the second chapter (the last and most funereal) of a story about a woman, Mary but it could also be another one. The story starts with the painting The Madonna of the Roses in which Mary appears as a girl and a mother of a child, white and round-faced. She does not look us in our eye, instead she looks upwards, to the sky, as if looking for help by God or the universe, mindful of the daunting task she is about to begin. That task is gathered by her arms a little Jesus who, through his eyes (he will, because he looks at us with his eyes) we sense the important fate. She wraps him around in a maternal pose, one that is practical, functional, rather than emotional. The two, facing us, demand acceptance. Then, in Pieta this embrace, it becomes the hand for a mom who can't take the burden of her son's death and life slips away. The feeling was familiar to Bouguereau who had lost three children and his wife. In the painting, while he expresses all his sadness, Mary declares her defeat, or rather, the defeat of the world. Prayers to heaven and her doubts prompted by the awareness of her mission, shatter into the certainty. Her dark eyes, her hollowed-out skin, stare at the perpetrators with a glare and hope for humanity slips into the certainty that evil is present and we are the ones responsible.
Bouguereau is the most intense of the Academy
Like I said the biggest error made by modernists was to undervalue the expressive potential of the painting by Bouguereau. Sure all of his work is academic: From the precise technicalities which he creates naked body, to the religious and mythological themes taken from neoclassicism, from the naturalistic backgrounds to romantic and bucolic subjects. But Bouguereau is not only that, and it's enough to keep looking at the eyes of certain characters in his paintings, where all the human emotion he's in a position to perceive and convey on the canvas is manifested. His peers understood this and made Bouguereau among the top well-known artists of the 1800s. Then, with the dawn of the century of 1900, the Damnatio Memoriae banned him. They accused him of not being daring, but maybe they were unaware that behind the technical order of his work, Bouguereau hid chaos, pain, malice, and even seduction.
His paintings are the perfect example of the bourgeoisie: beautiful forms that hide disturbing dark secrets, dark and desires are no longer his desire to keep from being repressed. The naked is one of the methods he employs to reconnect us to our primal instincts: the bodies want to lure us in and their brightness can make us enter a dream, but also in the set of a movie, where the actors are well lit and are able to entice us. Simple gestures are transformed into something extraordinary (like removing a sock for example) as bodies pile up and stack up, touch and seek each other, it's all an act of foreplay and Bouguereau is a tightrope walker poised between an education of bourgeois that is looked (and is looked) at as well as the need to speak to human desires in a physical way. Both exist and it's the viewer who decides whether to focus on one or the other.
It was another great artist, as emotional, sensual and dreamlike as Bouguereau who, during the 1950s and 1960s, saved him from the ashes and wrote his praisesfor him: Salvador Dali. Dali, like many artists who were adamantly attached to the bourgeois model knew the secrets in the human unconscious and the fact that you don't have to make a choice between content and form however, you could fool the audience with magical surrealist tricks.
Bouguereau The one who knows the right doses
Bouguereau's secret is in the proper balance of holy and vulgar, pure as well as sensuality. It is also about malice as well as innocence. Even if you think you are seeing the usual shepherds, the typical Venus and angels Bouguereau overcomes every stereotype or commonplace in art. A woman defends herself against Eros and that irritable putto represents the cravings of her heart, desires she doesn't really want to pursue; a shepherdess possesses the look of an old woman, bearer of the wisdom of the common and rural, of those who know how to live their lives through practice and a little suffering. The Nymph who doesn't conceal, but rather makes absolutely clear, with one intense gaze, the attraction she feels for the Satyr. The homosexual passion carefully positioned in Dante's underworld. There are a lot of young mothers who are who are overwhelmed by the need to take the care of their children within an environment that doesn't recognize them, and in which they are just functional individuals. The power of the expressions that his characters send us back, and the glances they exchange with each other is awe-inspiring. They appear like photos films, or movie scenes and gracefully tell the real life stories. Realism is packed into mythical and dreamlike images, here is the world in all its complexity.
Bouguereau the artist who paints using human archetypes
My impression is that Bouguereau is quite aware of human archetypes, social patterns, and multiple identities of the being. I wouldn't be surprised should it turn out that he was a member of some esoteric school. A few of his photographs swept me right into the surrealist world of Jodorosky, where the nude is a human characteristic as well as where virtues and vices are exclaimed with a loud voice, where the unconscious pops forth and finds representation.
These are the many things that I can see in his painting. And If you aren't convinced, look into the gaze of these characters, the mirror of the souls of the world. Through my eyes in 2021 I see in him profound awareness of the realities of existence, intellectual accountability and a desire to break down social taboos. He does this in the most simple and "formal" ways, with the language of the day and without pretense or snobbery with no pretension or judgement and, most importantly, with no violence, that at this moment in both the text and human history, it is the modernists who seem antiquated to me.