Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jacques-Louis David

The fellow in the picture is Jacques-Louis David. He's described as the man who brought 'feeling' back to Western art after it had collapsed into the insipidness of rococo. I'll be honest and say I have a problem with this use of the word 'feeling'.

As for David, it's a big call to say he single handedly invented Neoclassicism, but for the sake of space, let's do it. His watershed break was his Oath Of The Horatii. Says David - bugger picnics and pooncing about, real men take up arms, sobbing women or no.

Art is art unless it's politics and David's head was there. One wonders if there was ever a painter as politically ambitious as David. He was a Jacobin, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, and otherwise up to his armpits in the French Revolution. Whilst he's not as famous in this regard as Robespierre say, depending on how you look at it, the revolution could not have succeeded without him.

He was to the Revolution what Goebbels was to the National Socialists and effectively functioned as their propaganda minister. His paintings (maxed out with the uber-famous Death of Marat) served, indeed were conceived of, precisely as variations of agitprop. The painting of Marat was the rallying point for the huge march to the National Convention, all the trappings of which David also designed, along with those of many others. In fact the National Socialists took tremendous inspiration from David in coming up with their various rallies and propaganda events. David was there first.

Um... there's actually a lot to be said for the French Revolution. And there seems to be a lot to be said for Robespierre too. At the time he was known as 'the incorruptible' - he lived, dressed, and ate modestly. Had he said he wasn't a crook no one would have sniggered. That aside, his desire for a unified France free of the parasitic aristocracy is, on its face, laudable. Unsurprisingly we only know of him as a bloodthirsty unleasher of chaos. I'm not saying he wasn't, it's just that it's not that simple.

And then there's David. He swore to Robespierre that if he was killed, he, David, would join him. But on the day in question he called in sick and Robespierre died on his own. So much for that. Sure enough, in the collapse of the revolution and the lead up to the First Republic he was prosecuted and jailed. But nothing too dreadful - back in the day if you had money, jail could be quite pleasant: furniture, good food, servants. But he wasn't there long, and on his release, and before you could say 'Je suis un rockstar', there's David as Napoleon's official portraitist. Napoleon spookily enough, is depicted by David, the scourge of the aristocracy, in a fashion that would have done any aristocrat proud.

So what is this 'feeling' that he brought to art? Are they his feelings? His painting seem uniformly sterile - a hint of arrogance perhaps. In terms of a painting conveying the feelings of the artist compare David to just about any of the masters of the Renaissance. Take a quick jog through Giotto to Da Vinci, and Caravaggio, even Vermeer and Canaletto, and you'll know more of the artist than David will ever tell you.

David's 'feeling' would more correctly be described as 'what he would have us feel'. And what he'd have us feel is political arousal, which is to say righteous anger (and later awe for the dictator). We are his to be pushed in the direction of his choosing. He's precisely a didact. Do didacts have feelings? Who can tell? Is ambition a feeling? Or arrogance? How about self regard?

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