This painting, The School of Plato, by Jean Delville, hangs at the D’Orsay. The first time I saw it I was going through the rooms on the second floor, just browsing, and there it was. There was a bench in front of it, and I waited for a turn to sit. A German couple wandered by. Schrecklich. Then a French couple. Terríble. If you sit there long enough, you’ll hear the word for dreadful in practically every language.
There is something in this picture to offend almost everyone. Christians? Plato looks like Christ, and the “apostles” aren’t interested in what he is saying. Philosophy majors? Plato wasn’t anything like Christ. People who despise LBGT stereotypes? Duh. People who love pastels? Sure: no one is that color. People with an amateur’s understanding of anatomy? Sure: no one could stand, sit or slouch like that. These guys give new meaning to the word “controposto”, or hipslung. I bet they’re really good at yoga. Botanists? Just look at the trees and bushes. Osias Beert would have burst a gullet laughing.
The last time I saw this, it was hanging next to The Vision by Alphonse Osbert. As astonishing as it may seem, both these works were well-received at the time. Take a look at this discussion of Delville. The ideas are strange, but no more foreign that the inspiration for the Pre-Raphelites. In the same room there is an Edward Bourne-Jones and a couple of other paintings of similar thematic weirdness. Somehow they aren’t as foreign to my eye as the Delville, or as kitschy as the Osbert. Maybe one plausible reason to hang these is as an introduction to a side show in the history of ideas. But as works of art, for my money, these are schrecklich.
There is a lot of bad art in the world. Most of it gets weeded out over time by the discerning eyes of experts and patrons. Sure, some paintings go through ups and downs, some are discovered late, some have qualities or sources that made them invisible to the experts of the day. The paintings of Artemesia Gentileschi came late to fame, women artists were invisible for centuries. A lot of art is collected in second and third rate museums, or held by people who love it, and as people begin to appreciate it, it moves up in the world, and in price. The Delville went straight to a museum, as a gift of the artist.
At least these paintings accomplished one thing: they taught me that it is perfectly all right to reject the taste of the curators even of world-class museums. Delville’s work may have been loved in its day, but it doesn’t stand the test of time, at least for my small sample of museum-goers. And me.