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.

"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."

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

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."

According to Bougie, students come from all over the world to study at the Bougie Studio. "We even had a student from Japan until this fall," he says, a computer glowing behind him. Overall, Bougie's atelier, which currently has six full-time and three part-time students, is a place of order and discipline. Full-time students have 15 hours of hands-on drawing and painting coursework each week--from 9:00 a.m. to noon--and attend lectures in the afternoon on subjects such as anatomy (a skeleton waits in the corner for one such lecture this very day). At the same time, students are expected to work an additional 15 to 25 hours on their skills each week in personal cubicles located behind the main studio.

This commitment is even greater when considered with the fact that the studio is not accredited in any way, and has no actual grades, graduation requirements, or even a diploma. Students have no way of getting financial aid of any sort to attend the academy. Most rely on evening jobs (table waiting is a popular one) or the support of parents or spouses to get them through the four-year course of study. "It's hard for students to pay for this," says Bougie. "It's a big problem. We have a high attrition rate."

Bougie takes me on a tour through the studio and past the students' work areas. In each there is a neat collection of objects: still-life items, such as small plaster busts, flower pots, grapes, and musical instruments; convoluted lighting systems; various draperies of red and green velvet; easels, brushes, and paints; and other artistic trappings. Inevitably, on the floor of every cubicle, stacked against the wall, are various smallish canvases--portraits, studies of statuary, still lifes, and the like--made by each student as they intensively study how to control form, value, shape, and color in their images.

Bougie points out the studio of a fourth-year student, George Bowles. He is getting set to graduate, and as such has been completing a few small masterworks to take with him when he returns to Washington, D.C., at the end of spring. One of the paintings, a portrait of a young woman, is so precisely rendered and carefully modeled that for an instant it strikes the eye as an old-master painting, perhaps pilfered from the Institute of Arts located just two blocks to the east. On closer examination, the young woman's hairstyle and clothing gives away the contemporaneity of the work.

The atelier method of training artists certainly has strong roots in craftsmanship, treating the learning of art like an apprenticeship in any other trade: cooperage or farriery, for instance. In the latter half of the 19th Century, the atelier system and its rather plodding instruction methods were commonplace, particularly in France, where the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts trained several generations of the best artists in the world. In fact, nearly every artist filling the art-history books from the early 1700s till the time of the impressionists was graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and learned pretty much the same things in the same ways.

At lunchtime, Bougie's students break from their studio work and mingle quietly. Some gather at a small table to eat a brown-bag lunch. One, Julie Schiffmayer, a woman in her 20s who sports a ready smile underneath a mask of fatigue, reports that this type of instruction is exactly what she was looking for as an art student. "I want to be a portrait painter when I go back home to Austin, Texas," she says. My undergraduate degree in art at the University of Texas was unsuccessful for me....My teachers couldn't paint or draw at all. They didn't learn it themselves, so they couldn't teach it. Gesture is emphasized and not anything else.

"For instance, the very first painting I did in school was on a five-by-six-foot canvas. The teacher came in and told us to make mud on the canvas," Julie gestures with her hands, squeezing tubes of paint on to an imaginary canvas, an incredulous look on her face. "It was frustrating."

"That's a lot of paint," says another student. "And paint is not cheap."

Julie nods in agreement, as do several other students. It turns out that many students at the Bougie Studio are dropouts of the mainstream contemporary art scene as it is taught at university art departments across the nation. Their discontentment may, in fact, reflect something of a trend in the academy. According to Rebecca Alm, chair of the Fine Arts Department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), bachelor's students in drawing or painting are required to complete only five courses in the discipline over the course of their studies.

"Students are requesting a lot more figurative classes," Alm says. She cites recent student-organized drawing co-ops, in which students pool resources to hire models outside of class time. "Though we're not a figurative school, there's a lot of demand....There is definitely more interest in learning figurative techniques than ten years ago."

At the Bougie Studio, meanwhile, students are generally required to complete twice the number of classroom instruction hours as one might take in a typical course of study at a college or university. And as in Schiffmayer's example, university students generally are expected to consider theoretical, expressive, and experimental issues above any technical concerns. This has lead to several generations of degreed art students who can wax poetic about how abstract notions of "the body" have influenced their oeuvre, without being able to render an actual human body.

"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."

 

 

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.

According to Lack, who is now in his 70s and in ill health, his life's work may have ultimately served a losing cause. "I consider it one of the great tragedies of the 20th Century--the destruction of the painter's art," he says. "There are only a few people keeping it going. And nobody is aware this great tradition of Renaissance painting has disappeared from the face of the earth....The art is just so valuable....Needless to say, though, it's underground. It doesn't make the news or get covered in the art magazines or show up in museums."

According to Professor Weisberg, the forces butting up against the realist painters may be more than a small group such as the ASCR can handle. "It's part of a greater cultural battle," Weisberg says, citing the stronghold of the "modernist elite" in such institutions as Walker Art Center. This is the problem most often cited by Society artists: They are convinced that they're being shut out by a cultural establishment intent on upholding the standards--or the lack of standards--of the modernist century.

"I do believe that artists who studied in this tradition have been pretty neglected by museum curators and scholars, the people who control access," says David Farmer, who also believes more realist artists should be given institutional opportunities to show their work. "We've swallowed the mainstream argument to the point that artists who don't fit into the standard textbook history of art are ignored and not valued."

Curator Patrick Noon of the Minneapolis Institute of Art figures the problem is one of ambivalence. "It's not as though people hold these [classical realist] philosophies in contempt," says Noon. "You just don't see that sort of art in the museums. I suppose that's part of the problem....I thought Atelier Lack was an interesting thing to exist in a place like this. And they should be encouraged."

But when asked whether she would consider having a show of art by the classical realists, Joan Rothfuss, associate curator at Walker Art Center seems bemused; she is left temporarily speechless by the question. "We don't even talk about it on those terms....I go on personal interest. Responding to whatever is going on....Everything is considered if it's 20th-century or contemporary art. That's what we do."

At the same time, Rothfuss, who reported she was aware of at least a few of the works Richard Lack produced over his long career in Minnesota, would not comment on whether she'd ever consider showing his art at the Walker. Ultimately, she declined to say what she thought of Lack's work.

"The museum people don't even think about our art," Lack says. "In our little way, though, we've tried to find the way back."

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