Get Real

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

"It's almost a cliché that you're trained here to 'see,'" says Steven Sweeney, a former lawyer who first heard of the Bougie Studio when he was living in Australia. "Once you internalize that training, however, you never see things the same again." Several other students nod and make noises in agreement. "It's a very strict discipline. Everyone works very hard, investing a lot of time and money."

 

 

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

Despite the warm feelings Bougie's students have for their methods of instruction, they also seem to have a deep-rooted anxiety about their eventual place in the art world. When asked what this crew plans to do after they are graduated, George Bowles answers somewhat gruffly, "We'd like to know that ourselves."

While the outlook may be dim for artists working in a realist manner, recent years have brought some renewed hope. Increasing numbers of people are becoming fed up with the seemingly insubstantial trends of the contemporary art world, and are looking back to the art forms of the past.

"We're living in a postmodernist age," says Gabriel Weisberg, a University of Minnesota art history professor and vice president of the Association of Historians of Nineteenth Century Art. "We are open to more styles and diversity than ever before. And this is reflected in the upswing of younger artists working in this mode....Artists working in this vein are going back to basics. There is a renewed study of 19th-century academic art. Paintings are coming out of basements and out of storage. The time is right for a reexamination and reappearance of artists long [relegated] to the trash bin."

As a case in point, Weisberg cites the Dahesh Museum in New York, a small organization devoted to 19th-century realist work. The mission of the Dahesh Museum, according to David Farmer, the museum's director, is to give space to art that has long been neglected.

"We're here to say there's more to the 19th Century than the mainstream stuff," says Farmer, who contrasts the academic artists such as Meissonier and Bouguereau to their near-contemporaries who helped overturn the system--Monet, Picasso, Matisse. "People like this work. It's accessible, well-constructed. The artists are very well-trained....People who come in have never heard of these artists, but they end up thanking us for pointing them out."

Minnesota's classical realists have played a significant role in reviving interest in this lost tradition. In fact, according to Gary Christensen, who founded the ASCR in 1987, Minnesota is nowadays viewed as "the new center" for this kind of art. Christensen started his own art studies at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, but he grew dissatisfied and dropped out of the program. After looking around for a while, he came to Minnesota to enroll at a small training school, run by local artist Richard Lack, that was teaching the traditional methods. "When I found Atelier Lack and heard about its lineage to the past, a light bulb went on," Christensen says.

Throughout this century, even at the height of modernist movements such as abstract expressionism and pop art, interested young students like Christensen, if they knew where to look, could find traditional ateliers, hidden away from the art world at large. In these places the students could learn techniques of representation that have their origin in the Renaissance. One such establishment, located close to the Red Sox ballpark, was founded in the early part of this century by the realist painter R.H. Ives Gammell, who is considered by many to be the primogenitor of the atelier in this country. In fact, it may be the most important repository for these instruction methods in the 20th Century.

Richard Lack came back to Minnesota in the mid-1950s after having studied with Gammell at the Fenway Studios. Over a 40-year career, Lack sold paintings all over the nation to collectors interested in realist art. One of his most well-known portrait series was his first big commission--a series of six portraits of Joe Kennedy Jr., who was killed during World War II. Each of the portraits, based on photographs, showed the young pilot in different surroundings, and each was placed in a family memorial to the lost son.

Lack, who coined the term classical realist to describe his own style--a mixture of the idealism of the classical painters and the careful attention to detail of the realists--founded his workshop in 1969. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Atelier Lack became home to a number of curious artists.

"Students would show up from all over, and still do," says Christensen of the early years of the Lack studio. "People sometimes go to the Boston Museum of Art who want to learn old-master techniques, and the museum people say, 'You should go to Minneapolis. That's where you can learn this.'"

In time, Lack wrote an instruction book, The Training of Painters, and served as inspiration for the founding of the Society for Classical Realism. Many of Lack's students form the backbone of the current Society board, and they continue teaching methods Lack originally taught them. Several, such as Steve Gjertson, work as professional artists; others, such as Bougie, as well as Syd Wicker and Dale Redpath, run ateliers just as Lack did.

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