Art’s evolution is unruly, sloppy, rich, and bizarre. Even its central figures can be highly eccentric. Ingres may be a pillar of nineteenth-century art, but he also made some outlandish works. As the modernist faith in a stable canon has eroded, museums have increasingly mined the past for whatever is idiosyncratic or overlooked. In addition to creating shows about famous figures, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently presented retrospectives of lesser-known artists, such as Théodore Chassériau. The newest oddity at the Met is “Girodet: Romantic Rebel.” The title of the show (conceived in France and organized in New York by Gary Tinterow and Kathryn Calley Galitz) sounds canned, like something that’s good for you on public television. It would be no less accurate to call it “Girodet: Kinky Neo-Classicist.”
Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767– 1824) came of age in revolutionary France. His master was Jacques-Louis David, a great painter who, in the waning years of the eighteenth century, developed a style that gave form to the republican passions of the day. In place of the rococo fantasies of the aristocracy, David proposed a clear, linear, dramatic flair that announced—like a clash of cymbals—the rebirth of manly virtue. Girodet tried to meet such expectations. He mastered David’s rigorous neo-classicism. He won the Prix de Rome. He made official portraits of Napoleon. He even created a dramatic history painting, The Revolt of Cairo, to celebrate French heroism. But his heart was obviously elsewhere. What Girodet really loved was a kind of art-swoon, a hothouse intoxication of the imagination that yielded the bizarre and erotically charged.
In 1791, as the heads of France rolled, Girodet chose to paint The Sleep of Endymion—a picture of the beautiful youth seduced by Diana. He depicted the goddess in the form of lush moonlight enveloping the sleeping figure. Her light traces his lips, makes his nostrils flare and glow, and exquisitely picks out his right nipple. His body is milky, soft, androgynous. (One of the essays in the catalogue asks, “Is Endymion Gay?”) It would be easy to dismiss Endymion as an example of the bounteous-bosom-and-blushing-buttock school of French painting, but, in fact, the picture has a mysterious conviction. Girodet means every detail; nothing seems produced by rote. Along with a number of superb landscapes done in Italy, Endymion is the work in which Girodet appears most naturally and comfortably himself, a romantic at ease in classical attire.
It was not given to Girodet, however, to find a settled perspective. He never abandoned neo-classicism, but, instead, melted and twisted its armature into increasingly mannered and even freakish forms. Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes, a hallucinatory vision of French soldiers meeting the Celtic bard in the dream world, seems made of crystal and smoke. In The Revolt of Cairo (represented by drawings and an oil sketch), the painter appears more interested in a decapitated head than in military virtue. Scene From a Deluge, a cliff-hanger that would please Hollywood, shows three generations of a family clinging desperately to a tree on a rock face during a storm. (One sweet maiden is already, inevitably, lost to the deep.) Perhaps the strangest picture in the show is a work of icy rage, Danaë, Daughter of Acrisius, in which the artist visually savaged an actress who had insulted him. He depicted, among other things, her husband as a cuckold, in the form of a turkey wearing peacock feathers.
Girodet struggled over his last major work, Pygmalion in Love With His Statue, for years. It’s a silly picture, but the silliness is fascinating and poignant. It depicts the sculptor who brought stone to life not as a powerful form-giver but as feyly tentative, reaching delicately toward his gorgeous creation. (He looks like Harvey Fierstein about to pop a soap bubble.) In this Pygmalion, there’s probably more than a little of Girodet himself, an artist in whom something does not seem fully realized. Much earlier in his career Girodet made a picture, Portrait of Citizen Belley, Ex-Representative of the Colonies, in which life and stone also figure. He posed an elegantly dressed black man beside the white bust of a famous abolitionist. Inside Belley’s trousers, careful scholars have discerned, is quite a package. Mind and body, principles and facts, the hidden and the revealed. Perhaps Girodet was born into the wrong time. He would have done well as a Symbolist, a Surrealist—or a postmodernist. A Matthew Barney. A Robert Mapplethorpe.
Girodet: Romantic Rebel
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through August 27.