Get Real

Can a small school of figurative art revive a great, dead tradition in painting?

On a rather ordinary Thursday morning in March, six students in the Bougie Studio are struggling to save an artistic movement from extinction. What they're doing at the moment isn't exactly that heroic: They stand sleepy-eyed and slump-shouldered at their easels, with expressions that suggest concentration if not a little boredom. The sun filters into the studio from the skylight overhead, which is built to the specifications of a design by Leonardo da Vinci--angled 45 degrees to the north so as to capture rays reflected in the northern sky. The students are trying to render the deep shadows this bluish light casts on their model. This man is unclothed and stands rigid in a heroic pose, his hair down to his shoulders and his skin pale. He looks vaguely Gallic, a figure from a painting by David or Courbet, a grape-picker perhaps, or a man just back from the fighting in Algeria. The students peer around their easels to scrutinize the man, scratching charcoal across sheets of cotton rag paper to capture an impression of the cool white skin of the model, wiping their brows with the sleeves of their rumpled smocks.

The scene is on one hand absolutely normal. After all, isn't this exactly as we imagine art instruction should be? On the other hand, in a world increasingly removed from traditional craft forms and traditional training methods, there is something anachronistic about these students and this atelier located on a stretch of Nicollet Avenue, where the scent of curry and fried dumplings mixes with bus exhaust. Right next door to the Truong Thanh Food Market, which advertises 18 different types of cuttlefish, squid, and octopus in its window, hangs a sign over a small street-level doorway reading "Painting and Drawing Upstairs." Simply put, the priorities of the students and instructors who walk up these stairs five days a week have little in common with what is supposed to be the agenda of artists today.

Classical realist standard-bearer Peter Bougie (left) with a friend from anatomy drawing class
Craig Lassig
Classical realist standard-bearer Peter Bougie (left) with a friend from anatomy drawing class

"We have a concern with representing the beautiful--whether in landscapes or portraits," says Peter Bougie, the owner of this school, and the executive administrator of the American Society of Classical Realism (ASCR), a small organization of worldwide membership wholly devoted to the study and appreciation of 19th-century art and its rigid standard. (Bougie is also the editor of the society's Classical Realism Journal, a nominally semiannual, glossy color publication.) "So we're pretty much out of the mainstream of modern art....Some people may think the style is too tight. But we focus on the fundamentals. We teach traditional techniques, such as how to mix pigments, framing canvases, using elements of line, color, values, and not just using a brush. Most of all we are teaching how to see."

Peter Bougie is a placid and relaxed man of middle age who wears a goatee. He is one of the mainstays of this movement locally, having studied in the early 1970s with the people who brought it to Minnesota. His face glows as he discusses the basic genres of the classical realist tradition--landscapes, still lifes, historical and religious scenes, and above all portraiture. He gains momentum as he talks of works by the masters of this tradition from yesteryear: the Americans William Paxton and R.H. Ives Gammell, who brought the work to the United States from Europe; the 19th-century French painters Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier who made massive and heroic historical scenes; and William-Adolphe Bouguereau who was a daredevil with realist details. So, too, he mentions the contemporary painter Richard Lack who studied with Gammell and Steve Gjertson, and who recently painted then-Gov. Arne Carlson's official portrait.

During this litany, Bougie sits behind a large desk, keeping one dissatisfied eye on the French door that looks onto the main studio where students work, and the other on a small white terrier that patters and shuffles at his feet. He hesitates a bit when comparing the creations of classical realist artists to the icons of 20th-century art. In Bougie's eyes, Warhol, for instance, is pale, nonmasculine, and insincere. "I think he's a clever fellow who made the most of his opportunities, but there's no substance to his art. I don't think he really believed in it himself," Bougie says. Picasso, while a vigorous and masculine figure, was also insincere and opportunistic. De Kooning, Bougie believes, was nihilistic. "It's hard to look at his paintings of women and not see misogyny," he says. "The portraits aren't flattering. They're not about beauty. The women in the portraits seem to be ravenous, devouring bitches."

These are just personal views, Bougie emphasizes, stray thoughts on an intellectual history that holds no particular interest for him. "I don't personally have an active relationship with the modern art world," he explains. "We're really in conflict with it. We're into beauty and representing what we see. And this is not what modern art is about at all. The main thrust of modernism is nihilism. It is anti-beauty. We stand for the right of artists to work in [the classical realist] tradition and to be judged and recognized according to its standards as a craft.

"Modern artists set themselves up as rebels, but in fact they're in the mainstream. We're the real rebels."

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