By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007
BALTIMORE -- To understand some of the greatest French artists of the 19th century, from Jacques-Louis David to Claude Monet, it helps to think about a pair of pants.
First, we need to imagine pants as they were, say, around 1700: made from wool hand-spun by small farmers, hand-woven by cottage weavers then laboriously cut and assembled, one pair after another, by small-time craftsmen. Each pair, of the few your average person owned, was a precious mix of valuable materials and manual labor, to be worn and mended and retailored until it fell apart.
And then we need to imagine pants today, or any time after the Industrial Revolution: a machine-produced, repeatable commodity, with each pair exactly like so many other thousands and, therefore, close to disposable.
How could such a massive transformation in the way we relate to man-made objects not affect that archetypal man-made object, art?
An ambitious new exhibition called "Déjà Vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces" at the Walters Art Museum lets us watch great artists responding to profound changes in the way objects were made and duplicated.
We see works like "The Death of Marat," painted by David (pronounced "DahVEED") in 1793, in response to the republican politician's recent assassination, in his bath, at the hands of the infamous Charlotte Corday. Painted by David . . . and then repainted again and again by the master, or the master and his pupils, or just by pupils, to fill demand for that iconic image of the French Revolution. And all along there's no hint that something's wrong with such duplication, since we're looking here at the old "hand-tailored" model of making and remaking, where every man-made object is a handmade, precious thing. If one object has another that is very like it, that's because the labor of its making has been repeated more or less from the beginning, the way making a second pair of pants once involved most of the same work as sewing the first. In fact, according to this old way of thinking, if two objects are almost identical, it's a sign of prodigious talent in the copying. There's no conception of any cheapening through mass production -- because mass production was barely even in the picture.
And then there are works of art such as the oil paintings in Monet's famous "Haystacks" series, made almost 100 years later, in 1891. They, too, exist in multiples: They were first shown in an exhibition that included 15 of them, one quite like the next. After all, Monet needed lots of pictures to fulfill demand, just as David did. (The Walters show, and its important catalogue, underline the fact that a new kind of art market, with much broader appeal, had boosted the demand for pictures in 19th-century France.) The difference is that Monet made a point of making each nearly identical picture different enough to claim its status as a quite separate work of art. He did more than that, in fact: By showing all of them at once, in series, he made a statement that, however much the works might seem alike, they were in fact responding to different moments in the day and light and weather, as filtered through the artist's fine-tuned eyes.
You weren't supposed to notice how impressively alike Monet's "Haystacks" were. You were supposed to note their crucial differences -- since perfect repetition had, by this point, been tarred by the brush of mass production. Monet's works, meant as luxury objects, had to make a point of showing how strongly they resisted the industrial model, in a city where the new department stores could let you finger 20 identically impressive cashmere shawls. (Émile Zola, ardent defender of impressionism, wrote a stunning novel called "The Ladies' Paradise" about the brand-new plenty in such stores.) Monet's "Haystacks" don't just unconsciously reflect the issues of an age of mass production. By showing his repeating pictures together, in series -- as David, of course, would never have done with his copies -- Monet turns the issue of making and remaking into part of the content of his art. Duplication had become a pressing modern problem; to be acceptable, look-alike pictures now had to deal with how much they looked alike. And they did, again and again. There was a "fever" for painting in series around the time of Monet, according to Charles Stuckey's catalogue essay.
What came between the repeating paintings of David and those of Monet was, of course, the peak of the Industrial Revolution. And that revolution's most directly important product, for the art world at least, was the camera. It replaced the laborious hand labor of painted depiction with the mechanical click of a shutter. That, too, profoundly changed what duplication meant.
It's hard for us to recognize that, before photography, a crucial function of any painting was simply to report on what the world looked like, beyond what we could see with our own eyes. A painting could show us a real death we'd only read or heard about, or it could show us far-off or imaginary scenes, such as the riddle-fight between the Sphinx and Oedipus in ancient Thebes. (That subject -- in several copies, of course -- gets treated in this show by David's pupil, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.) Either way, a picture was as much as anything about the simple quantity of novel information that it carried. That was one reason it could only be a good thing to watch it get copied, and copied again. Even if there were some loss in quality or character in each copy -- from the master's own original and copies to ham-fisted reductions by pupils to, often, even smaller black-and-white prints -- the information stayed basically intact. Viewers could still get the essence of that view they'd never seen before.
And then photography arrives in 1839, and starts to make at least that function of painting seem redundant.
The simple subject of the painting starts to matter less, compared with how it's made and who made it. That is, a hand-made picture had once been a repeatable commodity that got a lot of its worth simply from what it showed -- it was about information. Then, with the arrival of photography, such a picture went on to become art -- a deluxe, rarefied, one-off object that was about the particular sensibility that brought it into being.
We can actually watch that shift happen in the Walters show. A very famous 1857 painting by the now-neglected Jean-Léon Gérôme showed the cleverly conceived fiction of a bunch of masqueraders dueling in their costumes -- a novel world, that is, imagined then presented to us by the artist. That's what the image showed in its original oil painting. And that's what it showed in the master's own reduction, purchased by Baltimore's William T. Walters in 1859. And that's what it showed in the lithograph of it that circulated widely. All these pictures, like David's, were crisp, detailed views -- almost transparent windows -- onto a distant world. They still think of images in terms of the information they could give about that world.
And then, within just a few years, we can see the new art model at work. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's "Evening Star," painted in 1864, is a mass of very personal, suggestive brushwork, conveying the artist's intimate response to a sunset in a woods, perhaps the forest of Barbizon he helped make famous in his art. There's still a relatively old-fashioned "subject" in this picture: We see a sentimental figure of a woman looking at a star, backed up by a shepherd with his flock. But you could easily imagine getting rid of those figures and still having as good a picture, if not a better one. In fact, when Walters himself asked Corot to make him a smaller copy of the work (Walters was still thinking according to the old model of doing things), he asked the artist to ax the sheep. Corot made the copy and kept in the sheep. But the striking thing is that the new painting is notably weaker than its big sister: Without much in the way of information to do its heavy lifting, the painting leaves you time to notice how, in the act of repetition, the brushwork that is so crucial to this new kind of picture has lost a lot of its energy and freshness; how the woman's hand, rendered by that weaker brushwork, has now become more like a claw. In an object meant to be a one-off product of artistic personality, rather than a carrier of data, you simply lose too much in copying. The copy becomes almost a fraud; it's more like a lousy, mechanical bootleg than a worthy repetition of the original, inspired artistic act.
That's what Monet realized. So did every painter who followed. (The exhibition goes on to show suites of pictures by Degas, Cézanne and Matisse, each one ringing changes on a theme.)
Which leaves us a challenge. We have to imagine how copying worked before a painting's inspiration was more important than its information. We're so used to thinking of duplication as a problem that it's hard for us to think back to a time when having more of a good thing, by laboriously copying it, could only be a plus. "Déjà Vu" helps show us the way back.
Déjà Vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces runs through Jan. 1 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore. Call 410-547-9000 or visit http://www.thewalters.org.