This is the work of Constantine Guys (1802-1892), yet another artist whose work has fallen into complete neglect in our age of the vapidly commercial. Guys was a Dutch artist and the inspiration for Baudelaire’s influential essay “The Painter of Modern Life.” The publication of the essay coincided with the birth of the Salon des Refuses, which exposed to the public the work of Edouard Manet, who was considered scandalously shocking at the time.
Guys’ work is no doubt in eclipse because he refused to have his name used by Baudelaire (he’s renamed “Monsieur G” for the piece). On top of that, while a friend of the Impressionists and other refuseniks he stayed on the fringe of the art circles of his day, working as an illustrator for publications like the London News. Guys was apparently unaware of the need for publicity and marketing that the savvy artists of today have become so marvelously attuned to. Or perhaps (more likely) he couldn’t have cared less.
It’s interesting to me that Baudelaire, as astute an art critic as ever existed, is nevertheless unaware of the tremendous artistic skill employed by Guys, as he describes his work as that of a “barbarian, or a child.” I’ve put a drawing by Delacroix beneath the selection of Guys’ drawings to show that the qualities of barbarism and childishness Baudelaire detects in Guys are no different from those found in Delacroix. In other words the looseness and distortions found in the work of both artists are due to the practice of attempting to draw life in motion, and there is nothing remotely barbaric or childish about either artist.
The barbaric and childish, of course, are now the primary ingredients necessary for success in today’s art world. And thus by visiting contemporary art galleries we’re able to see how culture is an entropic process, proceeding from a system with requirements of exquisite skill in order to participate to a system where exquisite skill is derided. Just to be clear, there is no exquisite skill necessary to paint a photorealist painting other than a nerveless hand and infinite patience. These are craft skills, not artistic skills.
On the one hand we have mindless designer expressionism and faux-naive ineptitude. On the other, we have superb copyists painting in the “style” of the French academy. But the kind of painting which the Impressionists/Post-Impressionists practiced? Perhaps somebody could tell me where I might view that kind of work in a contemporary art gallery.
This sentence written by Baudelaire in 1863 cuts to the heart of where Modern Art was heading, “But genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will…”
Here Baudelaire isn’t referring to the epidemic of posturing by the faux-naive. He’s referring to a return to the direct apprehension of the world in its deepest mystery. The great misfortune of Modernism is that in 1960s America posturing and faux-naivete became the norm. Of course, it presented itself as ironic sophistication…..Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg are the primary heralds of this kind of puerile gag art. Pop got the message and the rest is history. Welcome to the Haring/Basquiat/Rothenberg/Schnabel artworld.
If there were any real painters extant you’d hear the above work denounced, rather than fawned over. To denounce the kind of farcical infantilism would, of course, identify you as a serious painter and God knows the art world has no use whatsoever for serious painters. It’s doing just fine, thank you very much, with simulacra.
And so culture is sucked down into Eliot’s wasteland, not with a bang but a whimper. Or perhaps more like an epic display of flatulence. And the big name artists of the time are the biggest belchers and farters of the lot.