Modern Art

Julian Barnes writes:

N ineteenth-century​ French art, and French artists, were fortunate to have the backing of some of the best writers of the day. Stendhal, Baudelaire, Gautier, Goncourt, Zola, Maupassant, Huysmans and Mallarmé all doubled up as art critics. (The bullish Courbet took on both tasks: doing the work and the self-promotion.) It helped that there were extraordinary new artists to support, as well as a hulking and immobile target to attack: the annual Salon. The Académie des Beaux-Arts organised it, controlled who and what was shown, awarded prizes and public commissions. The thousands of artworks were all for sale: this was, as Huysmans put it, an ‘official bazaar of art’, the ‘Stock Exchange for oils on the Champs-Elysées’, the ‘temple of Offcuts’ from ‘the state-run farms of the Academy’. It also controlled, both implicitly and explicitly, what and how a painter was expected to paint. There was an established hierarchy of subject matter: high solemnity and low sentimentality were applauded; imagination should be orderly; finish was preferred to vivacity. You could say that all Salon pictures were still lifes, even a picture of a heroic battle or a portrait of Victor Hugo – perhaps especially a portrait of Victor Hugo, whose marmoreal fame had turned him into a still life already.

(LRB 21 Mar 2020)