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Until a few days ago I had no idea who William-Adolphe Bouguereau was and in fact, I still find it difficult to pronounce his name correctly.
My encounter with Bourgereau began with distrust, reading some information on the internet. From the high-sounding name and the dating of his works, I immediately thought of some boring painter, some servile French academic, one of those who paint expensive portraits of nobles and hunting parties. Something from the other century, in short, old and dated.
But judging too quickly, I fell into error.
I quickly learned my lesson and it didn’t take me long to become enchanted by the works of Bouguereau found on Open Art Images.
Before I tell you about such beauty, however, I will reveal the fateful lesson learned, which is also what drives me to write about art without being an art academic: art should be looked at and felt through the impact of the emotions it produces on our bodies. The senses and instincts are the best guides to understand If an artist has able to get into us. I barely knew Bouguereau’s name, and if I hadn’t, it would have been the same, because his works bewitched me, touched the most ancestral archetypes of my soul and displaced everything I thought I knew about academic art.
This is what art does, it sends us unconscious information, it takes us back to parallel and past worlds, it lets us enter for a moment into the head of a stranger, who in turn has managed to enter ours, without knowing us. We and he, people distant in time and space, are in the same room for a moment. Our worlds meet and merge in the territory created by a work of art.
Bouguereau, the one mistreated by modernists
My mistake, however, was made by many others before me, by those who, at the gates of modernism and after a long and recognized career, decided that Bouguereau was no longer good enough, that he was not modern enough and ready for the future, not “cool” enough and, overnight, downgraded him to a simple academic artist, one of the Art Pompier (an expression that indicates a masterful technique but often false and empty to the point of bad taste), devoid of any genius.
Bouguereau, the one of the Pietà.
No error was greater. It is enough to look at his Pietà to understand it, to feel a feeling that goes straight to the bowels. Bouguereau’s Pietà carries a universal message, where Christ represents the pain of the world and the Madonna, a black and esoteric woman, is the bearer of reality, of Justice and conscience at the same time; she throws in our faces all the truths, uncomfortable and hidden, about the ugliness that belongs to us. That black dark Mary is surrounded and almost imprisoned by guilt, represented by those good-natured characters, with a slightly too melodramatic look, who surround the dead body of Christ. She, dignified and angry, really desperate, looks like a gypsy, a refugee who holds her dead son in her arms under the rubble of the bombings; it is an image from a war photo reporter, but we find it on the canvas of an academic of the 19th century who, without too many pleasantries, slaps us in the face.
The Pietà is nothing more than the second chapter (the final and funereal one), of a story about a woman, Mary, but it could also be another one. This story begins with the painting The Madonna of the Roses, where Mary is still a girl, a young mother, white and round-faced. She doesn’t look us in the eye, but looks up, toward the sky, like someone asking for support from God or fate, aware of the arduous task she has just begun. That task is gathered in her arms, a little Jesus, from whose gaze (he does, he looks us in the eye) we sense the important destiny. She encircles him in a maternal pose, one of those practical, functional rather than emotional. The two, standing in front of us, ask for understanding. In the Pietà, that embrace becomes a handhold of a mother who cannot bear the weight of her murdered son, while life slips away. This feeling was very familiar to Bouguereau, who had lost three children and his wife. In the painting, while he expresses all his despair, Mary declares her defeat, or rather, the defeat of the world. Her prayers to heaven, her doubts dictated by the awareness of her mission, shatter into a certainty. Her black eyes, her hollowed-out skin, look the culprits in the face, while the hope of humanity slips into the certainty that evil exists and that we are responsible for it.
Bouguereau, the intense one of the Academy
As I said, the serious mistake made by the modernists was to underestimate the expressive power of Bouguereau’s painting. Certainly, everything in his style is academic: from the perfect technicalities with which he draws the naked bodies, to the religious and mythological themes taken from neoclassicism, from the naturalistic backgrounds to the bucolic and somewhat romantic subjects. But Bouguereau is not only this, and it is enough to linger on the looks of some of the characters in his paintings, where all the human intensity that he is able to see and transport on the canvas is manifested. His contemporaries understood this and made him one of the most famous artists of the 1800s. But then, with the advent of the new century, the Damnatio Memoriae banned him. They accused him of not daring, but perhaps they had not realized that behind the technical order of his paintings, Bouguereau hid chaos, pain, malice, and seduction.
His paintings are the perfect example of the bourgeoisie: beautiful forms that hide disturbing secrets, darkness, and desires that he no longer wants to repress. The nude is one of the means he uses to bring us back to our natural instinct: the bodies want to seduce us, and their brightness makes us enter a dream, but also in the set of a film, where the actors are well lit and bewitch us. The simplest gestures become sublime (like removing a sock for example); bodies pile up and stack up, touch and seek each other, it’s all a game of foreplay, and Bouguereau is a tightrope walker poised between bourgeois education that looks (and is looked) at, and the need to express material human needs. Both worlds are there, and it is perhaps the viewer who decides whether to see one rather than the other.
It was another great artist, as expressive, sensual, and dreamlike as Bouguereau, who, around the 1950s, saved him from oblivion and wrote his praises: Salvador Dali. He too, so attached to the bourgeois formula, knew the secrets contained in the human unconscious and that you don’t necessarily have to make a choice between form and content, but you can fool the audience with magical surrealist tricks.
Bouguereau, the one who knows the right doses
Bouguereau’s trick is in the right dosage between sacred and profane, purity and sensuality, malice and innocence. Even if you think you are seeing the usual shepherds, the usual Venus, and angels, Bouguereau overcomes every stereotype, every commonplace of art. A girl defends herself from Eros, that annoying putto represents the cravings, the desires that she doesn’t really want to approach; a shepherdess has the expression of an old woman, bearer of popular and rural wisdom, of those who know life through practice and even a little suffering. The Nymph who does not conceal, but rather makes absolutely evident, with a single intense gaze, the attraction she feels towards a Satyr. The homosexual passion carefully positioned in Dante’s underworld. There are so many young mothers, overwhelmed by having to take care of their children in a world that does not accept them, where they are considered only functional personalities. The power of the looks that his characters send us back and those that they exchange with each other is enormous. They look like photographs, film scenes, and politely reveal real-life stories. Here is realism, packed into mythical and dreamlike scenes, here is the world in all its complex simplicity.
Bouguereau, the one who paints with human archetypes
My impression is that Bouguereau is very clear about human archetypes, social patterns, and multiple identities of the being. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that he belongs to some esoteric school. Some of his images catapulted me into the surrealist world of Jodorosky, where the nude is an intrinsic characteristic of the human, where vices and virtues are declaimed loudly, where all the unconscious springs forth and finds representation.
These are the many things I see in Bouguereau’s painting, and if you don’t believe me observe the eyes of his characters, the mirror of the many souls of the world. With my eyes of the year 2021, I see in him a great awareness of the truths of life, intellectual responsibility, a desire to unmask social taboos. He does all this in the simplest and most “formal” ways, with the language of his time, without pretension or snobbishness, without judgment or presumption, and above all without violence, so much so that, at this point in the text and in human history, it is the modernists who seem antiquated to me.
Artworks by William Adolphe Bouguereau