Academies, Academicisms…

What is academicism and academic art, and are these terms interchangeable? Which artists typify the ideals of academic art? What has constituted academic art in the past, and what is it today? To what extent can this term be redefined and/or rehabilitated? And to what degree does it overlap with the concept of tradition? These are just some of the questions that this exhibition and essay are trying to address. As a general rule, we should first define the term we are discussing, so as to avoid any potential ambiguities. Based on the definition of the Institute of Lexicography , academicism in art presupposes the use of well-established (educational, traditional) procedures, technical skills without invention. According to the historical sequence of meanings it has acquired, the term academicism primarily refers to the principles and method of instruction at the historical academies (Academy of Saint Luke in Rome, Academy of Fine Arts in Paris), and then the works and critical judgments created based on those principles by the members of the academy, professors and students, or, in turn, adherents of their methods… However, as the short article of the Lexicographical Institute further elaborates , the meaning of the terms “academicism/academic painting/academic artist” has not been as clear cut throughout the history of artistic creation. On the one hand, academic education is coveted and praised, it is taken as confirmation of creativity of the highest order (when issuing praise and/or trying to sell a particular artist’s work, one often hears the phrase, he/she is an academic artist, regardless of the stylistic expression), and on the other, there is a juxtaposing rebellious attitude against the academic method of artistic education. It is considered conservative, regressive and even backwards, especially after the second half of the 19th century. This refers to works that insist on strict rules and non-inventive eclectic work procedures. The question that arises is whether the opposing sides refer to the same term. We will, therefore, briefly try to consider the reasons for such attitudes and the very concept to which they refer. Coincidentally, all artists who study and graduate from the academies of fine art are considered academic artists, but they are not all viewed in the framework of the mostly undesirable concept of 19th century academicism, as the term is still commonly used, that is, in the sense in which it was defined by the first modernists. Academicism is also inevitably associated with the concept of “tradition”, which, although somewhat superior is also mostly used as a phrase of censure, or at best, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction. At the same time, we forget that tradition is not a petrified category and that its thesaurus is continuously being augmented, without us even realising it.

In the peripheral regions of Europe, such as Croatia, where art academies were a rare and exceptional phenomenon until the first decades of the 20th century, systematic education at such institutions represented great individual achievement, and such individuals went on to become the centripetal force of progress in their milieus in relation to an almost amateur local art creation. Admittedly, artistic creativity was encouraged even before to some extent – during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, painting schools have been established throughout the Empire, which directly implied the need to raise the level of broader art education in those parts of the Empire where artistic creativity was lagging behind.
Bearing in mind that human (artistic) creativity has been ongoing for millennia, academic art is a relatively new syntagm, its outlines appear during the Renaissance, that is, with the advent of systematic transmission of knowledge, and thus certain rules. It is, therefore, identified as the systematic acquisition of knowledge necessary for practising and creating works of art at qualified institutions. In the course of history, this method of education will occasionally be characterised by a short-lived period of rigid formalism, which will, of course, give rise to justified criticism and, it seems, leave a kind of stigma on “academic education” forever.
It is generally considered that criticism of the academic system of education, as well as exhibition institutions (museums, galleries) is a relatively contemporary phenomenon, most often associated with the emergence of historical avant-gardes. This is however not entirely the case. It is certain that historical avant-gardes, above all Dadaism, stood up against previous tradition and art, but also society in general. Dadaism, the most radical movement within the European avant-garde, no longer criticises schools that preceded it, but it criticises art as an institution, and the course its development took in bourgeois society. Still, this does not diminish earlier critical reflections related to parts of the rigidly structured academic education. Because, although academies are institutions that essentially promote instruction (métier) and education, in our case, in the field of fine arts, by the late 18th and the first few decades of the 19th century, they have already been subjected to serious criticism and calls to reform their method of work. Historically speaking, academies were founded as a kind of counterpoint to medieval guild associations in which master-craftsmen worked in workshops, which also covered those activities that were later bestowed with a consecrated halo of artistic activity. It was therefore the case of promoting artists from their original status of physical workers towards the concept of the intellectual, which also supplies the creative process with theoretical legitimacy. In this sense, the Renaissance, which revives the knowledge of classical antiquity in terms of education, is also modelled on the ancient tradition, more specifically on Plato’s Academy , and thus represents a major leap forward in relation to the medieval corpus of knowledge transmission. Accordingly, the newly founded academies represented a positive novum (novelty) because, as contradictory as this may appear from out vantage point, they were once the vehicles of progress and innovation, including the freedom of expression as well as the first theoretical precepts that were over time occasionally lost in favour of canonization, that is, by insisting on imitation and following of strict rules or dull repetition of tradition that was not enhanced by the creativity of individual talents, as T. S. Eliot saw it.

The gradual, but systematic establishment of art academies was important for the formation of a new social group – the artists, who were no longer considered to just be master-craftsmen. With the knowledge acquired at the academies, they were able to better meet the demands for artworks by the wealthier members of society whose desires to buy art were proportionally dependent on their wealth. And there was, as yet, nothing conceptually disputable in the fact that works of art were directly commissioned from individual artists or their workshops. Only with the advent of Romanticism did the understanding of artistic work change, in terms of the “cult of the artist as genius”, perpetually calling for originality that does not require rules , which became the essential artistic premise that continues to this day. Thus, the period between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries is very similar to our time. The speed of change is incredibly similar, and a sentence written in 1818 could as well have been spoken today, our age has, in three generations, reconciled the irreconcilable, just like the words written by a Belgian music critic in 1838, who said that during his lifetime the world has changed in more ways than during all of previous human history .
The art academies in neighbouring countries are important for our geographical area, but, like all other academies of that time, they were criticised for having strictly established curricula, not only in formal but also substantive terms , which have not been changed and modernised for years. And it is precisely this rigid academic attitude that will be the cause of many dissatisfactions within the academic community itself and opposition to academic education. This relatively short period of academic rigidity will unfairly characterise future academic education as uncreative and indicative of institutional statism, and will be the cause of misunderstandings related to academic education.
Frank Bűttner presented one of the paradigmatic examples of misunderstanding, indeed different understanding of the concept of “art” in relation to academic education, by citing the “case of landscape painting” at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, where …after the reopening in 1808, there was admittedly a class of landscape painting (…) but with the reorganisation of the Academy under its second director Peter von Cornelius, this class was abolished. As Bűttner notes, in this regard, Cornelius’s oft-cited sentence is justifiably seen as an indication of his backwardness: I consider the chair of genre painting superfluous. True art knows no object; it encompasses all visible nature. Painting divided into genres and types is a kind of moss or lichen on the trunk of art. If we were to take this statement literally, outside of the context of time, we might consider his position to be a very modern, even holistic approach to art that we would fully agree with today, which, however, he was not by any means. The bone of contention being the definition of “true art” at the time, which relied on the interpretation of art as creativity that strives to loftier goals, achieved by shaping ideal beauty. Accordingly, there were different ideas and strict recommendations related to, for example, the possibility of depicting landscapes, because it was considered that landscape, or nature, cannot be represented. The landscape as an independent motif was considered insufficiently lofty as an autonomous motif for art. Nevertheless, as part of a figurative composition, landscape partially relied on direct observation of nature, but in order to be worthy of the moniker of “true art”, it had to be refined. Such an approach was, of course, contrary to the aspirations of contemporary artistic practices of direct representation of “reality”, above all, it was opposed to working outdoors from direct observation, without previous studies and the like. In this sense, the example of landscape painting is especially instructive for academic art education of the time, and we consider it here extensively. What seemed superfluous – the insistence on a special chair for landscape painting , turned out to be an aspiration for a freer, more direct and also more individual approach to art that deviates from the rules prescribed by the academic curriculum. Resistance to such rules did not take place only outside academic institutions – the best-known, of course, is the case of the French Impressionists and their simultaneous, parallel exhibition in opposition of the large annual official Salon – but also within the academic faculty. This type of Salon, which supported only one type of art – academic art, has been held ever since the first decades of the 20th century. Works that were exhibited may have had some spark of originality twenty or thirty years ago and academic success did them no good artistically. It is therefore the case of contrasting art concepts: the academic concept against the modernist one. Contemporary exhibitions of art (the salons) are not familiar with this type of dualism because there are, in fact, no radical differences in terms of their criterion being some restrictive artistic moment. Along these lines, last year’s exhibition titled Salon of the Refused at the Atelier Žitnjak Gallery, which presented the works of artists who were not accepted at the 57th Zagreb Salon, is interesting. Although the name of the exhibition directly refers to and suggests the situation in the nineteenth-century Paris, that is, the Impressionist exhibition Salon des Refusés in 1863, the reasons, however, do not lie in the radically different stylistic and poetic position of the refused works, but probably in the personal sensibility of members of the jury. The mission of such annual art exhibitions should be to showcase works based only on their authenticity and originality. We should, at this point, once again recall the earlier mindset of the Romantics who, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries essentially opened numerous modern questions, not only in art but the general understanding of human thought. All ideological and stylistic-poetic characteristics that traditionally define Romanticism – cultivating creative freedom, questioning the nature and status of artistic creativity, the cult of genius, irrationalism, fantasy, emotionalism and the cult of “passion”, demonism, the concept of two worlds, romantic irony, interest in national (folk) forms of life and creativity, historicism, exoticism, syncretism, energeticism, magical understanding of nature – they all have something of the antinomic-uncontrollable nature of those framework categories. It seems that almost all moments of contemporary creativity have been enumerated here and that today there is nothing new that has not been the subject of Romanticism’s interest. An important moment in freeing artists from unnecessary rigid academic constraints is precisely the “cultivation of creative freedom” so Delacroix, for example, writes, if by romanticism one understands the free manifestation of my personal impressions, my aversion to models copied in schools, and my loathing for academic formula, I must confess that not only am I romantic, but I was so at the age of fifteen.
Another fluid term often associated with academicism is “realism”, perhaps the most significantly indeterminate stylistic concept. It is mostly identified with mimesis, in the Platonic sense as the shadow of a “shadow”, since it depicts/imitates nature, and that very nature reflects the eternal order of ideas. This imitation of reality will mark the nineteenth-century art in a particular way, which leads us to the term “realism” in its narrower, historical sense, which was introduced by Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877) who exhibited his works separately at the Pavillion de Réalisme, during the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. What Courbet insisted on and why he was rejected at the Salon were depictions of scenes from everyday life, unconventional “ordinary” motifs for that time. Such an approach was directly in opposition with the then lofty themes and work method of academicism. Another notable case, in this sense, was that of Ferdinand Georg Waldműller (1793 – 1865), one of the most prominent painters of the Biedermeier period and professor at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts , who on more than one occasion clashed with the representatives of the Viennese academic establishment, precisely for his belief that direct observation and study of nature is the basis of painting, which he found extremely important because of his specific meticulous manner of painting. His views, and especially a series of polemical texts , were the cause of his early retirement in 1857.
The Munich Academy was experiencing similar problems. There is an interesting article written by Iso Kršnjavi about instruction at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich during a period of about ten years (1870 – 1880). The training started in Antikenklasse, that is, working based on plaster casts, after which students transitioned to working with life models in the academy’s classrooms in the so-called Naturklasse, and produced numerous typical portraits. At the advanced levels, the Komponierenschule was most important. Kršnjavi humorously describes the less-than-ideal situation and work at the Academy, reserving special praise for Piloty as a director, whom he describes as a commendable organiser and professor, exceptionally important for the academy, who was always trying to improve classes but had his hands tied for several reasons. It is difficult to make old gentlemen, whose time has passed but who don’t realise it, retire, especially as a colleague. He had to smuggle, so to speak, new forces into the academy. So, he invited Wilhelm Dietz to the academy. A wooden house was built for him and a dozen of his students in the Glass Palace, with the explanation that the academy really needed a landscape and animalist painter, and for this purpose, a few sheep were also procured in the dirty yard in Marsstrasse to serve as models. However, when it comes to our economically, socially and culturally underdeveloped areas, attending these academies will provide an impetus for the creation of artistic culture. The first generation of Munich students, the typical so-called academicians, Ferdo Quiquerez, Iso Kršnjavi, Nikola Mašić and somewhat later Menci Clement Crnčić and Celestin Medović, will become the exponents of serious artistic progress in our country, while Bukovac’s impressionistic manner, which is essentially also academic, will then represent a kind of rebellious novum. At the end of the 19th century, some of them will also encourage the establishment of the first fine art academy in the South Slavic region , based on Iso Kršnjavi’s initially progressive ideas. Founded first as an Advanced School of Arts and Crafts, it was based on the principles of Kršnjavi’s Art Society, “…in accordance with the principle of equalisation of the so-called major and minor arts, as he interpreted it as far back as 1879, fascinated by the Renaissance: Identifying arts and crafts, the Art Society adheres to the principle that was valid for the greatest age of arts and crafts, according to which art is a broader term that also includes crafts. What Kršnjavi also had in mind was the creation of the “Zagreb School” modelled on the Vienna School, but even more so on the Munich Academy, where the Munich cultures of painting were shaped in the various professors’ studios. The basis on which the Royal Advanced School of Arts and Crafts, the future Academy, built its heterogeneous program and work method is derived from the genes and components of Crnčić’s and Čikoš’s painting school and Frangeš’s and Valdec’s sculpture school, as well as the decorative fine crafts along with the complex of folk art. With the burden of the past and a vision for the future, featuring not only local characteristics, the School’s painstaking success or failure to achieve all of its goals made it a distinct representative of modern times in our region. Thus, thanks to a concatenation of positive circumstances, the Zagreb School (later the Academy) avoided the rigid academic approach. However, there were other controversies, for example, those related to the desire to include the architecture department, which Frangeš advocated, or the strengthening of the fine crafts orientation, which Krizman insisted on. Earlier, Kršnjavi also advocated for a similar approach, relying on the even older ideas of Gottfried Semper (1803 - 1879) and William Morris (1834 - 1896). Accordingly, the Academy’s first professors referred to what they had seen and learned at the Vienna and Munich Academies, which in practical terms meant a greater emphasis on the acquisitions of the skills necessary to engage in fine crafts. However, the next generation of professors, led by Ivan Meštrović, Ljubo Babić, and somewhat later Krsto Hegedušić, will shift the focus to fine art. And it was precisely this brief respite between the horrors of the two world wars when the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb reached its pinnacle. In addition to the aforementioned artists, the classes were taught by other iconic personalities of Croatian art, Jerolim Miše, Tomislav Krizman, Jozo Kljaković, Marino Tartaglia… whose individual approach will facilitate the emergence of Croatian modernism. At the same time, interest will shift from the predominantly Germanic geographical area of education to the Romance (French, Spanish, Italian). The different poetics of the academy professors who considered themselves to be artists first, and only then pedagogues, will be visible in the individual approach of each professor-artist, which probably contributed to the fact that the academy did not become academized, that is, it did not turn into an art school with a schematic curriculum. Moreover, the free approach included in the professor’s methods was sometimes also antagonistic, as were, after all, the artistic poetics of individual artists themselves. The essential difference stemmed from the understanding of art , and on the one side we had highly artistic preoccupations (for example, the Group of Three). In Spain, Babić is copying Goya at the Prado and he writes full of admiration: Everything is movement, and the impressionist atmosphere is everywhere. Everything is painted with temperament. He asks, even more explicitly in his diary in 1920: What does Impressionism want after Goya? Manet deftly modified Goya. Speaking of Velasquez, he wonders: Are “Las Meninas” the last word in European painting? , he is therefore only interested in the question of form. On the other side, there is an evident tendency of art to actively influence social changes (for example the Earth Group), so Krsto Hegedušić instructs the students in his Technological Notebook from 1929: Attention! Biplaneness, an open colour scheme plus the primitivism of form. Pure colour, no shading, as it appears in nature, in contrast to the volume. There are no shadows cast, illumination from various sources, and modelling is reduced to a minimum. His instructions corresponded to the scarcity of forms that coexisted with real misery in line with the works and activities of Käthe Kollwitz or Frans Masereel. Both tendencies will latently be exhibited by various professors at the academy in their subsequent modernist poetics, ranging from, for example, geometric or lyrical abstraction to the existentialist questions of social responsibility posed in their works by the Biafra Group.
And precisely because of the avant-garde and modernist movements and their exponents – professors, art academies opened their doors to different poetics and work methods, so it is quite justified to ask the question whether artistic poetics, or practices, to use a contemporary term, exist outside the academies today, in the sense of such historical phenomena as Impressionism or even more radically, historical avant-gardes, that is, if we were to completely radicalise the question: is all contemporary fine art ultimately academic art. By getting into the minutia like this, we want to push today’s perception and valorisation of art into viewing contemporary art applying the same parameters that it uses to perceive and evaluate art from the past, which primarily relate to the authenticity and creativity of each work of art, regardless of its manner or date of creation. This essay and exhibition only cracks open the door of this extensive topic and delicate debate. At the same time, each work of art certainly refers to tradition, whether it regenerates it with individual talent or, in turn, rejects it. The very appropriation of manner (even in the case of the most radical manners, poetics) leads to its opposite, academisation. Reflecting on how the avant-gardes have fundamentally changed their essence, in the introduction to his recently published article Addio avanguardia. Come sta cambiando l'arte (Goodbye Avant-garde. How Art Is Changing), painter, writer and filmmaker Ugo Nespolo (1941) cites Antoine Compagnon’s (1950) indicative sentence, The passage from the negation of tradition to the tradition of negation soon becomes academicism, precisely what the avant-gardes denounce before succumbing to it. Thus, the well-known cry of the Dadaists, that carried with it a lethal attack on the utilitarian and mercantile mentality, and openly fought against the very concept of marketability and for an escape from institutions, “We intend to destroy museums, libraries, academies of every kind!”, eventually turned into its opposite. Not only did their works become part of prestigious public and private collections, but they soon found their place within the mechanisms of industry and bourgeois culture and society. What Nespolo observes regarding the avant-garde is true for art in general, it must be made clear that the central theme of authenticity and value of art does not consist only in fearing and keeping the economic voracity of the market at bay, but in the ability to make the art – life relationship visible and authentic, that is, to exclude the role of art as optional, relegating it to that of a simple commodity, a commodity among commodities. ….What we mean by this is that despite the artistic freedom advocated by the contemporary curricula of art academies today, what they produce, in addition to excellent works, are formalistic works of modest authenticity, which are therefore commercially interesting and desirable. A similar thing occurred with the spark of Impressionism that was soon extinguished by uncreative eclecticism and mannerism, and assumed an important position within the academic varieties as a particularly desirable commodity, even for today’s neophyte private collectors.
Teaching in today’s academies differs from that of fifty or even a hundred years ago, which consequently means that “academic” art itself has undergone a “modernisation” of sorts, thus changing the contemporary substance of the term.
If we accept the terminological definition that “academicism”, in the narrower sense of the term, is a phenomenon that, regardless of style, poetics, etc. … uninventively, but skilfully repeats certain canons, expressions, while applying a schematism of sorts, then we can apply this term to such works irrespective of the epoch. Just as being a traditionalist does not mean being conservative , so being an academic artist does not mean being a supporter of academicism. Academic teaching should be understood in its original sense, therefore, in the sense of knowledge acquisition that helps to fully release the artistic genius given only to those who are truly devoted.

The sixty or so works in this exhibition, mostly from the NMMU holdings, encompass the period from the second half of the 19th century until the present day, and are intended to point out the relevance of the need to (re)evaluate the term that is often used uncritically and in a pejorative sense. In order to try to present the topic of the essay and the exhibition as clearly as possible, the works are grouped in several segments. Without strictly adhering to chronology, we tried to highlight, through the aforementioned segments, the differences and certain, especially methodological, similarities between the terms academic painting and academicism over the course of two centuries. Advancing from the post-war modernism towards contemporary examples, the situation becomes considerably more complicated in terms of the substantial differences between certain teaching methods in the first two years of study and the freer approach in the final years. In order to illustrate academic methods as clearly as possible, we have therefore selected, from that period, only those works that adhere to figuration because they facilitate easier following of academic methods. We thought it would be interesting to also showcase some rarely exhibited academic studies of post-war modernists such as, for example, Ante Kaštelančić, Miroslav Šutej and Josip Vaništa.
From the 19th century onwards, the study of the human figure, whether in the form of a portrait or a nude, is the basis of academic education. The drawings of head studies based on Nikola Mašić’s plaster cast, as well as those based on Jelka Struppi Wolkensperg’s plaster cast, demonstrate the characteristic method of instruction at the nineteenth-century academies. The point of these exercises was to transfer the three-dimensional template into the two-dimensional medium without the addition of individual interventions. It was almost impossible to distinguish the works of individual artists because the goal was only to master the métier. However, working with life models still allowed for a certain degree of creativity. When it comes to the Zagreb Academy of Fine Arts, the courses in Human Anatomy and Animal Anatomy, as well as Nude Drawing have been the basic subjects since the very foundation of the institution until today. The Anatomical Atlas for Artists, created by the Academy founders, Rudolf Valdec and Bela Csikos Sesija , shows the importance that anatomical study had for the artists. As a strict professor who favoured traditional teaching, Csikos would still use a new medium for that time, that is, his own photographs of nudes, in order to portray the human figure as accurately as possible. Even in such strict exercises, talented students would still find opportunities to express their own creativity. Thus, Vlaho Bukovac’s early work Study of the Head of a Black Man, 1877 – 1878, is not only an accurate study of physiognomy, but also a psychological portrait of a young man who assumed, with dignity, the not-so-pleasant role of a sitter. In his studies of a nude child, with a bowed head, absent gaze or closed eyes, Josip Račić will also show tenderness and a dose of sympathy for the young sitter.
A group of portraits by the artists educated at the Munich Academy, including the portraits of Vlaho Bukovac, show the method of work typical of 19th century painting that respects symmetry, in terms of the central position of the portrayed person and earthy hues used for bright parts of the flesh (Menci Clement Crnčić, Old Man Shelling Corn, Nikola Mašić, Portrait of a Little Girl, Ferdo Quiquerez, Portrait of an Old Woman). The brushstroke is visible, the surfaces are no longer completely smooth, and Bukovac will also bring to Zagreb a touch of the impressionist manner (Portrait of the Little Girl Berger, Japanese Woman, Portrait of Mrs. Berger). What is, therefore, evident is the loosening of strict, rigid rules that will persist the longest in religious painting, which, because of the very dogmatic nature of its clients, did not accept a different artistic approach for a long time. It will take a long time for an understanding to take place that those artists who are not declared believers and who use different means of expression, but are able to achieve deeply spiritual and reflexive works, are also capable of depicting religious themes, in contrast to the works of painters such as, for example, Eduard Steinle or Nicola Consoni, whose works are essentially cold, uninventive representations of certain sacred themes only in the service of a mere illustration of Catholic doctrine.
The second generation of Munich students will chart the course of Croatian modern painting for a long time to come, if not forever. Familiarity with the painting of Manet and fascination with the Spanish Golden Age will remain the mainstay of most future painters, from Ljubo Babić (Portrait of Miroslav Krleža,) to Josip Vaništa, even painters of the younger generation (Self-Portrait, Stipan Tadić). As noted previously, the second line will be composed of works influenced by different impulses – engaged art, advocated at the academy by Krsto Hegedušić.
The exhibition concludes with the works that respect the given academic rules, from the motifs (Francesco Hayez, mythological theme; Jaroslav Čermak, Robert Frangeš Mihanović, historical motif; Marcello , religious themes; Franz Xavier Winterhalter, Vlaho Bukovac, Luigi de Amici, portraits) to methods of production, therefore, they respect the strictly prescribed canons. And yet we cannot but acknowledge the perfect mastery of the painting métier exhibited by these artists, that is best manifested in the representation of matter and flesh tones, producing a striking effect. It is regrettable that these excellent master-craftsmen were not encouraged or were not courageous enough to embark on additional creative exploration. We can lament this, but also find justifications – the environment in which they lived and worked was far removed from the centres of new developments, while the cultural public was not yet ready for new challenges, they still celebrated noble realism . Nevertheless, their works, which were clearing the way for those artists waiting in the antechamber of modernism (individual works by the first, and especially the second generation of the Munich painters), will pave the way for those who would eventually move from that antechamber into the new, great hall of modernism.

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