Grand Themes Need Great Art

by James F. Cooper

Graydon Parrish, The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy:  September 11, 2001, 2002–2005 New Britain Museum of Art, New Britain, ConnecticutThere have been several less than favorable reviews published about Graydon Parrish’s commemorative mural The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11, 2001, recently installed at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut. A history painting—particularly a history painting of this size and significance, the first major work commissioned in a century—is not created in a vacuum. It raises issues that cross over from the aesthetic into the political and social. The fallout is revealing. The New York Times, which usually takes a liberal position, compared it to a work by the “hack” William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905).1The New Criterion, which is conservative, reads it as “ideologically driven conceptual art requiring extensive wall labels, meaningful only to the initiated.”2 These same observations could have been written about Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784). Indeed, that famous painting—which helped ignite the fires of the French Revolution in 1789 and has been an inspiration for Parrish—required a printed text twice as comprehensive as that used to explain the iconography of Parrish’s Cycle of Terror. David, however, is the superior artist, and text is no longer important to the uninitiated viewer in determining aesthetic quality. Two hundred years from now, where will Parrish’s painting rank? David’s masterpiece hangs in the Louvre.

There is another aspect to the controversy surrounding Parrish’s painting, a lingering prejudice that taints many cultural discussions today. Earlier this year National Public Radio invited me to its New York studio to discuss Classical Realism and Graydon Parrish’s mural. NPR host Karen Michel explained she had already interviewed Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain Museum, and Graydon Parrish. She was scheduled to interview Gregory Hedburg, director of Hirschl & Adler Galleries and former director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, and James Panero, managing editor and art critic of The New Criterion. Michel made no attempt to disguise her bias against Classical Realism and, at one point, inquired seriously whether there is any real difference between modernism and postmodernism. Nevertheless, I felt reasonably confident that the end result from all these interviews would give the listening audience a fair opportunity to learn something about the issues.

It was disappointing, but not entirely surprising, to discover that only ten minutes—edited from five hours of these taped interviews—were subsequently broadcast over NPR’s hundreds of affiliate radio stations. The discussions originally recorded by Michel and the NPR staff, which covered a variety of topics—public art, aesthetics, censorship, art criticism and history—had been whittled down to a handful of sound bites. Almost no historical background was provided to the NPR audience about Neo-Realism, despite the title of the NPR broadcast “Neo-Realism’s Rising Stars.” Most reprehensible was Michel’s introduction, which began with condescending observations about the artist’s sexual orientation and a preference for painting “buff young men in loincloths.” Such mean-spirited remarks reflect the dismissive attitude many mainstream cultural institutions continue to display toward academic art. “Neo-Realism’s Rising Stars” is only fifteen minutes long. You can listen to the entire broadcast by logging onto the archives of the NPR Website “All Things Considered.” This is not to say that Parrish’s painting is without serious problems.

The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, an epic oil eighteen feet wide and eight feet high, is set on a desolate sandbar in New York harbor where the Twin Towers once stood. There are a dozen figures in the composition, ranging in age from very young to very old. In the background can be seen the ruined silhouette of lower Manhattan at Ground Zero. The composition, seen from a distance, does not make a strong cohesive impression. Figures appear isolated singly or in small clusters, and there is little interaction between them. When you move closer to the surface of the canvas and sit on one of the two handsome black walnut Requiem benches designed by the artist, you are unexpectedly overwhelmed by the craft of the beautifully modeled figures, meticulously rendered in the high academic style favored by the nineteenth-century French Academy from David to Bouguereau.

The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy is loosely composed into four semi-autonomous sections. It can be read chronologically, from the group of innocent blindfolded children on the left to the center, with the figures of Terror and Tragedy attended by the three Fates, and ending on the far right with an old man passing off a new blindfold to a young girl. “The girl represents the return to innocence and the start of the cycle all over again,” the artist’s printed text explains. The point made is a literal one, not a visual one. There seems to be a movement from left to right, as in reading a page of text, but there is no visual incentive to move the eye. Nor is there a circular flow, as in much great visual art. The “cycle” Parrish refers to is an ideological one, not an aesthetic one. Two factors help overcome these compositional shortcomings, although not entirely satisfactorily. The first is the phlegmatic brushwork Parrish employs throughout the entire mural, which helps bind its disparate parts. The greyish clouds of ash and smoke that fill the background are beautifully painted, with brushstrokes that are almost palpable. The second factor is the artist’s temperate use of the color red in many variations throughout the entire canvas. Similarly, but to a smaller degree, he uses several variations of blue. These help bind the loose edges of the composition. What is missing from this enormous enterprise is chiaroscuro, the use of dark and light.

The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy is visually as flat as a board, despite the vast distances of the wrecked city vaguely indicated in the background. The weakest part of the composition is at its center, where the symbolic figures of identical male nude twins dwarf the other figures. Their mirror-like reflections, the identical lighting over so large an area (these figures are almost life-size), the greyish-white background, not to mention the white loincloths, bleach all the potential power from the part of the painting that demands it the most. If the viewer blocks out the screaming open mouths of these six-foot-high painted figures, they resemble dancers frozen in choreographic attitudes. The composition—indeed, the subject—cries out for powerful arrangements of light and dark.

Parrish’s style is heavily indebted to that of Bouguereau. In fact, Parrish collaborated as a research scholar on forthcoming catalogues of Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), two masters of nineteenth-century French academic painting. He also co-curated the important exhibition of figure drawings by Charles Bargue at the Dahesh Museum in 2005. Several years ago Parrish purchased Bouguereau’s Pietà (1876), and the work provides an interesting comparison to the less successful Cycle of Terror. Painted to commemorate Bouguereau’s recently deceased son, Pietà is a powerful depiction of the crucified dead Christ cradled in the lap of a grieving Mary, surrounded by angels. The Madonna’s black robes, silhouetting the body of Christ, covered only in a loincloth, create a beautifully intricate balance of light and dark. The viewer’s eye is led from the center of the painting, clockwise, to the left, climbing along an intricate visual path from angel to angel, returning full circle to the grieving angel on the far right of the canvas, whose arm is touching the extended arm of Christ, then drawn up to the faces of Christ and Mary, sharing overlapping golden halos. The revival of Bouguereau’s reputation in the last thirty years does not rest solely on his remarkable draftsmanship, classical style or even his Christian iconography. These are certainly contributing factors. Bouguereau’s rehabilitation springs primarily from the quality—the formal quality—of his art. I focus on these qualities because beauty conveys a message at a deeper level than mere text-driven symbols. Despite occasional acrimonious disputes, from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, artists had the benefit of a mostly shared religious, historical and moral culture. Their visual language was rich in iconography. Parrish seems awkward using symbols. The first line of the artist’s statement refers to our “ambiguous” times. The powerful tools of draftsmanship and technical skill Parrish has mastered are blunted by the banal images he has selected.

On the left side of the Cycle of Terror, a pearly-grey sky silhouettes three small children, painted in soft pastel pinks and crimsons, holding large metallic-grey models of the airplanes that brought down the World Trade Center. The smallest of these adorable cherubs, who might have been plucked from a canvas by Alexandre Cabanel, has golden-red curls and a sweet face. The children are blindfolded with blue and red sashes to symbolize their innocence. From a distance, they look theatrical, like performers waiting in the wings to join the main dancers at center stage. Observed up close, however, the modeling of even the youngest child is skillfully rendered. All of the dozen figures in the painting are masterfully realized, none more so than the figure of the dying old man at the far right, who has thrown the sash of innocence to the young girl.

The ground on the right side of the painting is littered with multiple shredded copies of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. The foreground and the right side of the painting are filled with beautifully rendered garlands of pink roses. My eye was continually drawn back to the roses in the center foreground of the painting. They provide the most chromatic interplay of the pinks and reds that tint several other objects in the painting. Unfortunately, this normal involuntary attraction to color patterns draws attention to unimportant details—the reddish knees and feet of the old man, the flaming pink cheeks of one of the three Fates and the pink skirt of the child with her index finger next to her lower lip—and away from those symbols which might better serve the theme of the painting. Poussin used the color blue in his compositions to overcome the frozen classical stillness of his allegorical history paintings. But Poussin used blue for large and small objects—togas, robes, capes, banners, tapestries, as well as blue tints in sky and water—to move the eye around the composition. Parrish uses red only in small places, such as hands, feet, roses and sashes. This “dappling” effect merely serves to underscore the problem. It prettifies a composition when the subject cries out for passion and drama.

Parrish’s intent to revitalize the craft and iconography of the academy is commendable, but this is only the first step in regaining control over figurative painting. The grand tradition rested upon a solid foundation of Western thought—religious, historical, mythical, moral, iconographic. The West no longer has a set core of beliefs. Parrish chooses to represent the tragedy of 9/11 with illustrations that have little connection with the symbols and myths of 2,500 years of Western civilization. A thousand years of paganism, a thousand years of Christendom resonate through the works of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Lincoln. To replicate images and objects culled from nineteenth-century masterpieces is technically impressive, but the exercise leaves us unmoved. Parrish, to his credit, has dared venture into the area of history painting. He has assimilated the technical lessons of the past, but his lack of passion is confirmed by the aesthetic flaws of the composition. What is needed is a more convincing iconography and a public willing to embrace it. I hesitate to suggest that the most direct way to raise the level of aesthetic quality in visual art is through content which motivates the artist as well as the audience. But it is time to address this issue, always remembering that the lessons of great twentieth-century masters cannot be forgotten. The compelling power of modernism was never driven by anything as tepid as the idea of art for art’s sake.

A recent survey of art professors and administrators conducted by Art in America3 underscores the challenge artists face today, particularly those, like Parrish, who are determined to revive realism and history painting. Almost every contributor links the present crisis in higher art education, particularly at the Masters and Ph.D. levels, to the dissociation between the art history curriculum and studio practice. In short, art students don’t know what to paint. Bruce Ferguson, former Dean of Art at Columbia University, touches on a common theme when he writes that there is “almost a complete break between art history and the practice of art making.” Dave Hickey, professor of art criticism at the University of Las Vegas, writes that “art students are better off training themselves at home.” Robert Storr, Dean of Art at Yale University, complains about the lack of education in the humanities that art students receive. He is particularly disturbed about the absence of the Great Books. “And while we’re at it,” he continues, “who reads history anymore?” Art schools, he warns, despite the Ph.D. proliferation, are failing to “prepare students for critical thinking or critical doing.” On a positive note, many institutions are at least thinking about how to re-establish links between art-making and cultural literacy.

Parrish avoided the trap of many theory-driven art programs by studying at the private ateliers of Michael Aviano and Richard Lack, the founder of Classical Realism. But these ateliers focus on craft. They do not yet provide the iconography or understanding of history necessary for a painter to develop substantive themes. Ateliers build their curricula primarily on portraits, still lifes and landscapes. Parrish has successfully recovered the subtle technique of glazing, painting in layers, which reached its height during the High Renaissance and continued until the end of the nineteenth century. Glazing is a slow process of building up a series of transparent colors laid over a dried underpainting. Some of the old masters employed as many as sixty layers of paint on certain portions of the human figure, which accounts for the beautiful qualities of works by Raphael. Parrish’s impressive draftsmanship has been previously demonstrated in several drawing exhibitions, most recently at the Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York City.

The cliché view of the French Academy and the École des Beaux Arts is that students spent all their time copying plaster casts of antique masterpieces, later incorporating these figures into history paintings. In reality, much of the Academy was in revolt against the stale iconography of Couture and Cabanel, favorites of the nouveau riche bourgeoisie. The best artists burned with the fires of Romanticism. Artists competed for the supreme Prix de Rome or a medal at the annual Salon by submitting a finished work based on history, mythology or religion. Ingres shocked the jury by proffering a portrait of the Emperor Napoleon as the god Jupiter. Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819) caused a political sensation, because it supported the view that government incompetence was to blame for the loss of the Medusa and its crew. The tradition of history painting was abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century, when it became clear that painters and the public had lost faith in the political structure that had been its primary patron. It is understandable that some of the most talented artists working today hesitate to commit themselves to projects that might attract the type of ridicule displayed by NPR. Fredrick Hart’s Ex Nihilo, on the façade of Washington National Cathedral, was blacklisted for twenty years by every organization from the National Endowment for the Arts to The New York Times, for daring to treat a religious theme seriously. Eric Fischl was criticized for his brilliant 9/11 commemorative sculpture Fallen Woman, after being celebrated by the cognoscenti for ten years for mediocre semi-pornographic paintings. Stephen Gjertson still has problems because he paints serious religious art. Art for art’s sake is not a substantive motive for an artist. Art for art’s sake merely emphasizes the importance of formal excellence.

We are unprepared culturally to respond, to inspire, to rally, to speak to the public about serious subjects. Our memorials and public art too often lack quality and gravitas. Art historian James Elkins complains that arts education has become tied up in solipsism and non-productive research. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of these advanced students researched dissertations on themes for artists to paint and sculpt? I want to encourage Parrish and others. The hardest part is over. Parrish has mastered the technical part of painting and drawing the figure. There are many others similarly trained. Now, they must think more deeply about the iconology. Form will follow content. Composition will improve when the ideas are clearer. What are we really trying to say? the artist must ask. The time is past for figurative artists merely to recycle the art of the past.


1 Grace Glueck, “Art in Review: Graydon Parrish,” The New York Times (September 8, 2006).
2 James Panero, “Graydon Parrish’s ‘Cycle of Terror’” on Armavirumque, commentary page at
3 “Art Schools: A Group Crit,” Art in America (May 2007), pp. 99–113.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2007, Volume 24, Number 3