The Baddest of Bad Art

Reviled until recently, academic art is being revalued, and a museum inspired by a mystical Beirut collector is helping to show the way

AFTER a century that saw age-old notions of artistic quality cast to the winds, it seems curious that some critics quaintly continue to condemn art for being "bad," as though the meaning of the term had remained constant. For the past five years I have enjoyed visiting the Dahesh Museum, in New York City, which bills itself as the only American museum devoted to what some still consider the baddest art of all: the super-realist painting and sculpture, often termed "academic art," that flourished in Europe throughout the nineteenth century, until Impressionism, the first modern-art movement, supplanted it.

Academic art, as a recent Dahesh publication defines it, is "that produced according to the precepts of an academy." By the end of the eighteenth century most major cities had an academy, usually based on a Renaissance model (the first was established in Florence in 1563) and promoting neoclassical realism, the Enlightenment ideal. In Paris the Académie was a branch of the government, and the artists who ran it defined official French tastes and standards. There, throughout the eighteenth century, aesthetics were being codified and subject categories ranked, with religious and allegorical scenes -- "history painting" -- at the top and domestic scenes at the bottom.

It is easy to assume that the urge to raise everyday life to the topmost rung propelled the rise of Impressionism. Yet academic realism was itself curiously populist. The years after the French Revolution saw a huge expansion in the audience and market for contemporary art, and the Académie's regular group exhibition, known as the Salon, was one of the first places in Europe where ordinary people could see it. At its peak, in 1880 (which was also its last year of government patronage), the Salon attracted, by Emile Zola's famed estimate, more than 30,000 visitors each Sunday. Its popularity probably explains why the categories of academic art had by then expanded to encompass solemn-eyed peasants, cutely anthropomorphic dogs, and Greek goddesses who resembled European vaudeville stars. Its popularity also probably explains why after World War I academic art began to drop in value until, in the 1940s, it was written off by most as the kitschy, benighted style that had forced the Impressionists to revolt. Today the fortunes of academic art are undergoing a surprising reversal. Museums throughout America are hauling out of storage their late-nineteenth-century pastoral landscapes, society portraits, and still lifes. Over the past two years the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, has mounted full-scale retrospectives of Pierre-Paul Prud'hon and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the cream of early-nineteenth-century French academicians.

The Dahesh, however overlooked, has been a standard-bearer for this revival. The great thing about the museum, which is housed in the same midtown office building as a concern called The Fine Art of Hair Replacement, is that it unselfconsciously zeroes in on the nineteenth century's most discomfiting trends and talents. By 1998 the museum, which opened in 1995, had mounted shows focusing on Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alexandre Cabanel, whose titillating nudes were celebrated in their own time for upholding idealized neoclassical standards. One might encounter at the Dahesh an over-the-top, Hollywood-style Egyptian fantasy by the British Victorian Edwin Longsden Long, an exactingly detailed rendition of a snake charmer by the German Orientalist Karl Wilhelm Gentz, or a fetchingly bedraggled peasant girl painted by Adolphe-William Bouguereau, whose chocolate-box style is best known today through mass-market calendars. Visit on a weekday and you might also see at least one elderly lady gazing at a painting of a flower-garlanded ingenue and exclaiming, "Isn't that beautiful!"

Yet by drawing attention to art history's more dubious margins, rather than its highlights, the Dahesh offers entry into another world -- the one that set the stage for Modernism. Academic standards continued to exert a strong influence even after 1881, when the French government effectively turned the business of rendering aesthetic judgments over to the open marketplace. Now that our own art world seems to be undergoing a similar sea change, away from the certainties of an increasingly academicized avant-garde and toward the unknown, the nineteenth century makes for a usefully distant vantage point from which to consider the present.

One recent Dahesh show, for instance, offered a sampling of the many genres that would have glutted the Salon in its heyday, such as history painting, ethnic studies, and rural landscapes -- fascinating to see today, in an age that congratulates itself for artistic pluralism. Other shows have focused on the technical prowess, including smoothly finished brushwork and a flair for anecdotalizing history, that was demanded of well-trained artists in the mid nineteenth century, before the Romantic revolution persuaded the world that the artist's primary goal should be self-expression.

Dahesh shows frequently offer unexpected insights into social history. Beginning in 1997 the museum displayed work by Rosa Bonheur, whose naturalistic renditions of horses, sheep, oxen, and other creatures made her one of the most admired animal painters of her day -- and the first woman to be awarded France's Légion d'honneur. A show of work by graduates of Paris's Académie Julian, one of the first European academies to train women and to let them paint from nude male models, opened in mid-January. (Surprisingly, the Modernist sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who recently became a benefactor of the Dahesh, is a Julian alumna.)

Some of the Dahesh's most intriguing shows, to my mind, have been devoted to Orientalist scene painting. For some years -- especially since the 1978 publication of Edward Said's pioneering critical work Orientalism -- this genre, a by-product of Europe's nineteenth-century colonization of the Middle East, has mostly been kept under wraps, because its genesis seems politically dubious. Yet in 1998, with a display of Orientalist works on paper, the Dahesh demonstrated how and why the rise of nineteenth-century print and photographic technology helped to popularize the notion that the Middle East was a land of mysterious muezzins, voluptuous odalisques, and haggling Bedouins. This fall, with a show on Occidentalism, the museum will focus on the way in which the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Middle East, in turn, evinced its impressions and fantasies of Europe.

LIGHTNESS of touch, combined with the museum's way of looking straight at the unvarnished, unlikely past, should have won the Dahesh recognition as a true gem of New York. And, indeed, the museum has enjoyed some welcome publicity of late: for the past couple of years it has been bidding against Donald Trump to take over the old Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, the odd-looking marble turret at the southernmost tip of the city's soon-to-be-revamped Columbus Circle. Yet since the Dahesh opened its doors, it has been beset by controversy.

Some of this, of course, can be explained by the withering scorn with which many critics and artists still regard academic art. But it is also the fault of the Palestinian-born mystic Saleem Moussa Achi, who amassed the Dahesh's original collection. In the 1930s, about a decade before Lebanon became fully independent of French control, Moussa Achi settled in Beirut, where he was known as "le docteur Dahesh" -- a Franco-Arabic amalgam that translates as "Dr. Wonder." Dahesh's life (he died in 1984) came to the attention of New York art circles in 1995, when the museum mounted its first show, "When Art Was Popular." In addition to presenting works by long-forgotten painters such as Henry Pierre Picou and Henry-Louis Dupray -- works that one critic excoriated as "fifth-rate examples of the second-rate" -- the show introduced the museum's mysterious namesake.

Initially the museum styled Dahesh, somewhat disingenuously, as an "influential Lebanese writer." But less than two years after the museum opened, the magazine ARTnews published an investigative report revealing, among other things, that in 1942 in Beirut, Dahesh had founded a spiritual movement, Daheshism (some of its present-day adherents consider Dahesh the second coming of Christ), and that his doctorate had been awarded in 1930 by a French psychic-research institute. More damaging was the suggestion raised in the article that the museum, even though staffed by seasoned art professionals (and not Daheshists) might be a front for a cult. The Zahids, the wealthy Saudi Arabian family that had established the museum in Dahesh's memory, had also funded a publishing company dedicated to translating and disseminating his work and Dahesh Heritage, a bookstore and information site near Columbus Circle.

writes for Art in America, Art & Auction, and other publications.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; The Baddest of Bad Art - 00.04 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 4; page 115-119.