Girodet at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes (1801), oil on canvas, 192 cm. x 182 cm.; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Vaseline being slathered upon the august walls of our greatest cultural institution—the image leapt to mind upon being told that painter Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824), whose art is the subject of a big retrospective at the Met, was the Matthew Barney of his time. But your hands and feet won’t be slipping on anything oily at Girodet: Romantic Rebel; the greasy stuff is relegated solely to the paintings themselves.

And what awful paintings they are. “I prefer the bizarre to the insipid … ,” Girodet declared, as if the two were mutually exclusive. They aren’t—a point that the Met inadvertently underlines by placing the aforementioned quote directly above Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes (1801).

As far as tours de force go, Girodet’s otherworldly tribute to “Peace and Friendship” almost qualifies as so-bad-it’s-good. Almost. Combining a technical finesse gleaned from his teacher, Jacques-Louis David, with a stilted theatricality that is all his own, Girodet packs the canvas with narrative incident. The legendary Celtic poet Ossian greets a phalanx of French generals. Surrounding them are a winged Victory, grotesque warriors, an eagle, a rooster and a floating bevy of shapely nymphs, one of whom arches her back in the throes of ecstasy. A cloying and antiseptic light bathes the afterlife, it would appear. It’s enough to make one plan for other accommodations.

Ossian was all the rage in 18th-century Europe. Napoleon is said to have kept a volume of Ossian’s poetry in his pocket. That “the Homer of the North” was later pegged as the invention of James Macpherson, a Scottish poet and contemporary of Girodet’s, provides the perfect footnote to Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes. One man’s elaborate ruse leads to another man’s hokum. Baloney begets baloney.

David considered the paintings of his student to be that of a “lunatic.” At this historical juncture, we have a more certain appraisal of Girodet’s accomplishment: He’s a pornographer, and a kitschy one at that. The work isn’t pornographic because the Virgin Mary is endowed with an anti-gravitational bosom, or because the dead Christ looks like a cousin of Tom of Finland, or because Jean-Baptiste Belley—a former slave who struggled against the racial politics of Revolutionary France—wears tight yellow trousers that leave little to the imagination.

Discussions about whether the sexuality coursing through the paintings is homo- or hetero- are beside the point. The sexuality is exaggerated and stylized far beyond human intimacy; fetishism trumps eroticism. This is where the Barney comparison comes into play. It’s Girodet’s soulless technique, all sickly surfaces and manipulative effects, that qualifies him as a pornographer. Spectacle and finish can’t camouflage an overriding lack of empathy.

Girodet, like Mr. Barney, is a narcissistic showmen. Admittedly, there are moments when Girodet drops the unctuous veneer: Portrait of Doctor Trioson in a White Frock Coat (circa 1803) provides a rare moment of understanding and introspection. The drawings are less prone to affectation—a drapery study done in black crayon and white chalk is sexy, supple and just plain amazing in a way the paintings never are. The old Frenchman’s the more tolerable artist, for sure. Still, that doesn’t mean you won’t want to take a shower after seeing the show.

© 2006 Mario Naves

A version of this article was originally published in the June 25, 2006 issue ofThe New York Observer.


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