We, however, live in a world where the oblique nature of pictorial or textual narrative is virtually taken for granted; where such narratives routinely seem drained of moral or ethical force; and where art’s seemingly relentless self-referentiality makes a mockery of the idea that historical subjects must of necessity present an aspect that is at once both “tragic and timeless.”10 Take an example referenced in the catalog: Andy Warhol’s White Burning Car III (1963). The small figure that walks from right to left across the background of the image can be taken to establish, by its very unconcern, its apparent obliviousness to the horrific particulars of the grotesque foreground scene, and that the work itself is all surface and no substance, all copy and no original, all screen and no corpse.
These are not quite claims that can yet be made for Gérôme’s Caesar. Even though the body of Caesar has become no more than a corpse like any other, the referencing presence of the portly senator remains to guarantee that the Roman Empire and all that it entails will live on. While in the last analysis Warhol’s victim may be no more than an image, a simulacrum of death without real human signification, Gérôme’s Caesar remains a point of human and historical reference despite both the political and the painterly violence that has been done to it. Gérôme cleverly, and quite consciously, undercuts precisely the conventions of academic history painting that we might have expected him to defend against Modernist painters such as Édouard Manet. It is as if, in contrast to Warhol strolling through the world of spectacle and simulacrum, Gérôme sits in his seat in the Senate, brooding on a world where significance may be sure, but where the power of painting to represent that significance has been called into question.
Although Gérôme and Manet might seem strange bedfellows, they appear in juxtaposition on several occasions in the catalog discussion, where, to borrow a military metaphor, they are apparently intended to function as the two prongs of a double envelopment that overwhelms and eventually obliterates the moribund academic tradition. This strikes me as a brilliant revisionist strategy, since it doesn’t just present a free-floating re-reading or re-evaluation of Gérôme, but rather places him as a significant figure in what we can begin to see as an alternative art-historical narrative, one that does not depend on the idea of inevitable Modernist triumphalism. Although this is no place to attempt a full articulation of such a narrative, we might just note that it would counter-pose the “Just Say No” (to the classical tradition) attitude of the Impressionists against the work of Manet, Gérôme, and eventually Cezanne, all three of whom were deeply engaged with the classical tradition, albeit in radically different ways.
Between the three of them, however, they subjected that tradition to a microscopic, analytical examination that had the ultimate effect of undercutting its authority as a normative model for artistic practice, while at the same time leaving it available as an archive of images virtually endless in its extent and immediately available for appropriation, quotation, reconfiguration, mass reproduction, etc.—in short, for re-assimilation as raw material in the process of cultural production.
Thus, while the quality of Manet’s facture, as well as his disregard of accurate perspectival construction (for example, in the Déjeuner sur l’Herbe of 1863), guarantee the “sincerity” of his Modernism, the fact that his most powerful works, like Déjeuner and Olympia (1863) are unthinkable without his experience of Giorgione and Titian places him in a position of active art-historical engagement. He shares this engagement with Gérôme (whose slick, Davidian production values and flawless spatial construction would seem to identify him as “the Man” in this situation) and not with, say, Monet or the Renoir of the 1860s, who strove to give the impression of disrupting or denying tradition in every aspect of their practice.
- The quotation is taken from the classic “Statement” prepared by Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko in response to remarks made by the New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell in his column of June 13, 1943. See Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley: University of California, 1968), 544–45.↵