Deux siècles précurseurs and Mélanges en l’honneur de Bruno Foucart

By : Bruno Foucart and collected authors

A volume of texts selected by Bruno Foucart was expected in early 2008, but now Norma editions has pleasantly surprised its readers, as well as the author himself, by presenting two big volumes instead of one in a boxed set. Besides the fifty-some texts by Bruno Foucart a Mélanges has been added as a gift from his students, his friends and admirers. In leafing through the two books, it is easy to appreciate the considerable work carried out by this well-known professor but also establish his influence over two generations of art historians.

The very useful bibliography of his articles and studies which closes the first volume has no less than 393 entries covering numerous fields of interest and applying the strictest scientific approach. The choice presented today seems to be centered around a precise theme. With the title Deux siècles précurseurs (Two precursory centuries), one finds all kinds of texts (scholarly articles published in scientific journals or lighter papers which appeared in the press) but which have a common preoccupation : defending and illustrating the XIXth and XXth centuries as a whole and, beyond this, a certain concept of art history. Bruno Foucart stands out for his eminent role as a forerunner in rehabilitating XIXth century art. During the last forty years when the mood changed from contempt and vandalism to suspicion and a smile, then from a concession tinged with condescension towards a history “of the XIXth centuries” (the plural barely concealing, beneath a liberal connotation, a smug ranking in value) to an acknowledgement, at last, of “all of the XIXth century”, Bruno Foucart left no stone unturned in fighting for this worthy cause. The selection presented here does an excellent job of recounting this combat which pitted erudition against haughtiness and historical objectivity against pamphleteering.

Was victory guaranteed in this “battle” for an accurate evaluation of everything that constitutes the genius of the XIXth century ? Not necessarily, given the fact that time does not automatically reinstate something that was forgotten, ignored, opposed. More than a victim in purgatory with its predictable outcome of entry into paradise once the cycle of penitence is completed, this century has, more than any other, suffered from the great ideological certainties generated by the XXth century and from which it, in turn suffers. By immediately freeing himself from the prejudices and the dictates of so-called modernism, Bruno Foucart accomplished the honorable task of a true art historian : intellectual honesty. Indeed, as he says in introducing and concluding his statement, and as he repeated in the moving ceremony organized in his honor at the Sorbonne, the driving force should be love, not only “love of art”, in the conventional sense, but just love, the intimate relationship of the subject with the aesthetic object, whether it be painted, sculpted, decorative, architectural or urbanistic. But, a veritable appeal for sensitivity, in the most noble meaning of the term, the volume published today provides the essential link between research, that is scientific methodology on the one hand, and a full-hearted acknowledgement of the heritage that surrounds us on the other. It means basing an analysis on all of the aesthetic objects of a certain period and not on fixed aesthetic theologies that can limit their study : herein lies the true value and the true dignity for which we can never thank Bruno Foucart enough. He is certainly not the only one, but he was no doubt the first and most impassioned.

Throughout the book one finds the visionary curiosity and intellligence of someone who knew how to be scholarly without giving up being an aesthete and the titles of the book sections (Looking at the XIXth century, Some great figures of the XIXth century, Preserving and restoring the XIXth century, etc.) reflect in only an imperfect way his all-encompassing passion. When studying the architecture of prisons, hospitals, train stations, squares and museums, Bruno Foucart very early on insisted on the extraordinary constructive work of previous régimes from the Empire up through the III Republic and the undeniable aesthetic as well as historical value of this neglected architecture. By reconstituting the history of this exceptional heritage, still standing but invisible because it was ignored, he opened the eyes of his contemporaries to its endangerment, both in Paris and in the provinces. Inseparable from the expression of the period, public architecture in the XIXth century reveals all of its different facets, from the modest provincial library to the Palais Garnier. Bruno Foucart was one of those who spoke convincingly of how eclecticism was a style in itself, complex, subtle, creative, and not as has been often said, an art of the pastiche or a sign of barrenness. What today seems so obvious to everyone (or at least to most !) was far from being the case in 1970. By standing up also for the XIXth century’s view of the past (particularly religious architecture), the historian became the indefatigable defender of all those (and not only Viollet-le-Duc) who were able to save many masterpieces while at the same time instilling in them a new, and oftentimes very audacious, vision. The articles on Paul Abadie, restorer “and excellent judge” from Saint-Front de Périgueux, are brilliant demonstrations, forceful and convincing that acknowledge, more than just the loss of some sacrified elements, an intrinsic work : “A restoration by Abadie is as beautiful as reason itself”, Bruno Foucart writes wisely. In all of these texts, besides the scholarly and historical approaches, the professor takes a stand, replaces the work in its context, approves, regrets but, like the architect, also knows how to judge : the XIXth century was not only creative, it knew how to manage masterfully the legacy it inherited. At times, Bruno Foucart gets carried away and finds a subject of debate in current events. How can one criticize Viollet-le-Duc for his work when the Halles de Baltard were razed in the XXth century without batting an eyelash along with so many other monuments that will never be given the chance to survive in even a modified form, no matter how controversial it might be ? His battles against the Pyramid at the Louvre and Buren’s Columns were no less noble for being lost nor, notably, any less just ; the historian’s arguments strike where it hurts the most : they can rarely be dismissed.

In speaking about painting, Bruno Foucart advances with the same freedom. Far from being interested in a type of art history that sets artists against each other, in a kind of war that we have become weary of, he is among the first to insist on the unity of the period, made up of facets, of complex links, of individual traits, that go beyond “isms”, labels and the sectioning of art history that have done so much intellectual harm. Replacing the eye at the heart of any analysis, Bruno Foucart reminds us that a work of art cannot be studied without being looked at, something so obvious that it is often overlooked. The texts devoted to painting known as “historical” constitute of course a fascinating group. The same can be said of the articles on sacred art, a field dominated by the author as everyone knows with a long list of definitive publications. And finally, the texts on the XXth century, painting, sculpture, architecture and decorative arts, are in the same vein as those that deal with the previous century ; although it is considered stylish to look down on the 30’s and 40’s, except for major figures in the avant-garde movements, Bruno Foucart has always been proud to evaluate these decades that were on the whole so rich. The new Trocadéro, the 1937 exhibition, Jean-Michel Franck, Ruhlmann : all of these subjects are treated with equal passion, the same intellectual appetite. His analysis is always thought provoking, going beyond the subject itself, requiring the reader to reexamine his artistic and urban environment. Thus the historian never ceases to be an art lover, the scholarly exercise never deprives him of enjoyment. Bruno Foucart’s avant-propos is correctly entitled “A love story” : the volume here is a kind of personal diary, not embarrassing in any way, but full of pleasure and a very contagious sense of joy. As well as being an introduction to the rest of his work, this collection of texts by Bruno Foucart should be used for educational purposes. Future art historians, but also elected officials and ordinary citizens, can learn here at once passion, curiosity, modesty and caution.

The second volume, Mélanges en l’honneur de Bruno Foucart (Mélanges in honor of Bruno Foucart), in keeping with the spirit of this genre, offers, after an extensive Tabula Gratulatoria, about forty texts assembled by Barthélémy Jobert with the help of Adrien Goetz and Simon Texier. Jean-Philippe Lecat and Jean-Jacques Aillagon, former ministers, recall Bruno Foucart’s brief, but decisive, activity in defense of French heritage when he worked with Michel Guy at the Sécrétariat d’Etat at the Ministry of Culture, making him not only a researcher but also a man of action. Organized in vast sections (XIXth century, Architectures, XXth century), the various contributions illustrate the extent of the knowledge and the fields while also reflecting an aesthetic universe that is for the most part close to that of the professor’s. In looking haphazardly, one of the advantages of such a collection, one might stop at Adrien Goetz’s article on “A taste for César Birotteau’s engravings, perfume merchant, etc.”, extremely appealing for his pluralistic approach, or at Courbet’s links to erotic photography as studied in the archives of the Préfecture de police (Dominique de Font-Réaulx), as well as the pictorial life of “Tama, a dog in art history” (Eric Darragon). We can also find Detaille and Cormon, and rightly so, (in articles signed by François Robichon and Chang Ming Peng). Pierre Vaisse wisely praises “The former Musée du Luxembourg : a model ! ». Pierre Rosenberg and Didier Rykner offer scholarly treatises on preliminary studies for religious paintings and Pauline Prevost-Marcilhacy writes a definitive study on “Charlotte de Rothschild, artist, collector and patron”, the famous “baronne Nathaniel” whose influence lasted until the Symbolist period.

In speaking of the XXth century, Arnaud Pierre wonders about an enigmatic painting by Paul Sérusier produced in 1910 Les origines, Serge Lemoine studies Auguste Herbin and his circle, Elisabeth Foucart-Walter looks at “Marc Chagall, an imitator of nature ?” and Eric de Chassey at “American artists in Paris, 1946-1965”. Historical studies are presented by Alain Mérot with his contribution on “Classicism of 1925” through Vauxcelles and Fontainas whereas Bruno Gaudichon illustrates the history of collections by studying the Selosse donation to the Musée de Roubaix. The section “Architectures” assembles, with an obviously welcome eclecticism, scholarly analyses (“Mérimée” by Françoise Bercé and the “The theory of proportions from Quatremère de Quincy to Viollet-le-Duc” by Jean Nayrolles), memories recalling Bruno Foucart’s career (Jean-Pierre Poussou, François Baratte) and personal reflections such as the very refreshing “Days of Innocence” by the architect Maurice Culot. This volume offers several other texts that are just as fascinating. And as if the model could not be complete without such an example, one also finds an outdated sample of what Bruno Foucart has always fought : close-minded misunderstanding and the certainty, almost the smugness, of “good taste” that limits itself to Louis XV furniture and Impressionist painting. And all of this is written by the most prestigious, if not the most prolific author whom we read gleefully, in a text smelling of mothballs and lace, using words such as “kitsch”, “pompous”, “the assassination of beauty”, “enoooooormous workshop joke” and even “ugliness” speaking of a large portion of XIXth century art. We should be grateful to the author for his bluntness : the two and a half pages, out of the book’s 545, reflect accurately how much has been accomplished in the last forty years by many art historians, the foremost of which has been Bruno Foucart, in correcting such a “vision”.

These two volumes are not only a well deserved tribute to Bruno Foucart, they also pay homage to the fragile and brave discipline of art history itself.

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, samedi 8 mars 2008

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