|N.C. Wyeth In the Crystal Depths|
1906 oil on canvas
|William-Adolphe Bouguereau The Little Knitter|
1882 oil on canvas
Being me, I butted in and offered my opinion that it makes more sense to distinguish by intention - that modernism pretty much took away arguments about technique or material in art, but that it still seems that a piece is commercial if its intention is to serve some purpose other than the artist's self-expression, and that it is fine art if it serves no other clear purpose (regardless of quality). I recall that we referred to one of the Bouguereaus for reference, but couldn't determine by looking at it if it was meant to tell a story (like an illustration) or if it was more clearly a product of the artist's personal expression. The man then added thoughts related to musical composition (turned out he's a professional cellist), citing similar arguments and disagreements in that field. The point? Not that we came to a consensus in defining illustration versus art, but that the exhibition had caused us to engage heartily on the subject.
|George Bridgman Keeper of the Flame 1904|
charcoal, ink and oil on board
The other element of education that pervades the show is actually its raison d'etre: An intriguing, deep dive into the influence of teachers on their students, presented as numerous juxtapositions featuring label copy that persistently identifies all the artists as teacher, student, or both (e.g. Norman Rockwell, American 1894-1978, Student of George Bridgman; Henri Lehmann, German-French 1814-1882, Student of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Teacher of Francis Coates Jones). Wonderfully, many of the juxtapositions went beyond strict pairings, with combinations of teacher in the middle and students on either side, or strings of teacher to student, that student then as teacher to another student, and so on.
Nolan has added text panels to this section of the show with reverse-chronological lineages that trace back through time from our three 20th-century protagonists to their common influences in the mid-1800s academies of France (and beyond). These strings are gathered together into Nolan's charming tree drawings, and each of the rooms is pointedly titled (i.e. "The Education of Norman Rockwell"), which further underscores his thesis.
Though I found the counting backwards a little hard to follow, this element of the exhibition was so unique, so meticulously researched and documented, and so passionately expressed, as to be quite irresistible. Nolan, who also wrote nine chapters for a big catalog that accompanies the exhibition, clearly spent many years on this project, and the effort shines through. Not that we remain mired in the past here - the final room includes a whopping interactive digital screen that works like an encyclopedia, allowing viewers (even two at a time) to tap Nolan's massive genealogical-style illustration of the artists' tree of influence and thereby learn the history of and see more images by each person represented. It's technology that has a purpose, that works, and that was actually fun to use (though I was disappointed to note that most of the visitors I observed just clicked on our three main illustrators, rather than digging into their historical counterparts, somewhat undermining the digital display's real point).
Adequate but acceptably brief label copy, and incisive quotes in wall texts augment the exhibition without overwhelming it. Still, it was a lot to take in, and I found myself often using conveniently placed gallery benches to grab breaks. But the quality of the show and the art in it kept reviving my interest. If you go (and I recommend that you do), allow plenty of time. It will be rewarded.
|Maxfield Parrish Solitude, 1911, Oil on board|