By: John Dorfman
Sometimes hindsight isn’t 20–20, but that might not be a bad thing. In this issue, our columnist Jonathan Lopez writes about the academic painter James Tissot (see page 46), who is not much discussed nowadays. No matter. As Lopez shows, some of Tissot’s works, at least, provide an excellent case study of the ways in which, try as we might, we cannot recreate the past.
This month, 124 Tissot paintings from his monumental Life of Christ series will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum. These polished watercolors illustrate scenes from the New Testament with what Tissot thought was perfect historical accuracy. He wanted to clear away the detritus of centuries’ worth of artistic distortion and show Jesus and his environment as they really looked. But how could he know how they really looked? Why, by going to Palestine on exhaustive research trips and sketching the physiognomy of modern Middle Easterners. Of course, all he ended up producing was a rather stagy, very late-19th-century-looking set of images.
Tissot’s quest for detailed accuracy about the past didn’t put his art into a timeless place. Instead it gave him away as a typical product of his time. But a century later, we can appreciate The Life of Christ for what it is, in a way that the past couple of generations couldn’t. The same is true of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. As Sallie Brady points out in her feature story (see page 82), the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to sweep art academia away and recapture the unaffected realism and emotional purity of the early Renaissance. But did they paint just like Van Eyck or Giotto? Of course not. They painted like what they were—earnest, over-the-top Victorians. But unlike the modernist generations, who had to sneer as a matter of principle, we can now enjoy the Pre-Raphaelites with the benefit of distance. That’s the good kind of hindsight.
The authenticity zeitgeist came to the world of American furniture in the late 19th century, as well. Barrymore Laurence Scherer has ferreted out one of the few remaining areas in furniture collecting where discoveries can be made, as he relates in his article on so-called Centennial furniture (see page 52). Starting around 1876 there was a craze in the land for re-creating the furniture styles of the 18th century. But what the makers made was hardly ever pure Chippendale or Duncan Phyfe but something different, more eclectic, even more creative. Inevitably, whatever we do bears the stamp of our time. The charm of these pieces today lies in the way they reflect the aspirations of their time in a pleasing aesthetic manner.
In a completely different vein, features editor Sheila Gibson Stoodley writes about an art form in which authenticity and accuracy aren’t key concepts at all: contemporary artificial-light art. If the fluorescent tube in a Dan Flavin piece burns out, what if that type of tube isn’t made anymore? As a conservator tells Gibson Stoodley, it doesn’t matter; just use a different tube. The point isn’t strict historical accuracy to the technology of the 1960s or ’80s or whenever it was made; the artworks are made of light, not lightbulbs. In this delightful freedom we find the purest kind of authenticity.