Of all the genres of art we are now familiar with, all but a very few are products of modernism and the bourgeois takeover of the art world in the 20th century. Portraiture, landscape, still life: all of these artistic staples were once considered the low, crass art of those who painted with motives no nobler than wanting to make a daily wage. In the Academic European art world, only one genre was really given much credulity, at least until the more revolutionary currents that would define the industrial world would come to power in later years. This genre was History Painting, the grand, noble task of representing not only human “history,” but philosophy, mythology and allegory. Any painter could reproduce a pretty face or a plate of fruit, but it took a master artist to capture the humanist values that defined European culture. And most of the time that artist was a man.
In 1741, however, a little girl was born to an aristocratic family in Switzerland. Angelica Kauffmann would grow, cultured and refined, to become one of Europe’s most revered history painters. In a life relatively unmatched by any other known female artist, Kauffmann earned the respect of peers and patrons alike, becoming the first woman admitted to England’s Academy. Like most history painters, she left a legacy of grand varnished canvases that aren’t so much in fashion these days, but unlike most of them, she left a uniquely female touch on the way the grand human drama is portrayed.
This painting of Kauffmann’s depicts Cornelia, mother of the Grachi. Taunted by a rich woman who scoffs at Cornelia’s appearance and asks her where her jewels are, Cornelia replies by indicating her two children – the “jewels” and crowning achievements of her life. Depicted by a male artist, the story of the Grachus brothers, who were important Roman statesmen, would probably have overlooked the more touching story of their mother. But Kauffmann brings to history an important female perspective.
Which brings me to BYU in January 2008. I was fortunate enough to finally get a chance to drive down to Utah, and though my trip was hurried, I snuck in an hour at the Museum of Art and made my younger sister, in town for a job interview with EFY, tag along. She wasn’t familiar with Minerva Teichert, and didn’t understand why I was so insistent that we go see the Pageants in Paint exhibition that’s on display until May. We are both grateful we did.
The exhibit is well put-together. The curator uses the theme of pageants – of drama and stage design and murals – to tie together Teichert’s aesthetic that most viewers usually associate with the typically Mormon didactic historical tradition. And this is done well – Teichert was involved in theater and was painting in an era where dramatic art was very influential on the plastic arts. But I read a little more into this, the biggest grouping of Teichert’s works to date. I couldn’t help but see in Teichert’s work a little of the majesty of the European Academies. These are History Paintings in the most academic sense of the word. And yet she goes one step beyond the Delacroix and ads a personal, decidedly female, touch.
Angelica Kauffman often painted friends and acquaintances in her History Paintings. Her good friend Sir Joshua Reynolds appears as a classical character in her version of Et in Arcadia Ego. Teichert also sneaks in friends and family. Her famous portrait of Queen Esther is actually a portrait of her good friend.
Also on display at the MOA is a portrait of Teichert’s daughter Laurie and her fiancÃ©. The accompanying description intimates that when he came home to meet his future bride’s parents, he probably wasn’t expecting to end up posing as Escamillo to complete the portrait that Teichert had been painting of Laurie as Bizet’s Carmen. It is these small, personal touches that remind me of other famous women artists like Kauffmann – artists who conquer a man’s medium but manage to bring a little bit of familiarity, a little bit of female kindness.
Another reason that Teichert is vying in my opinion for Mormonism’s best artist to date is the way she handles the grand Mormon Story. She is a decidedly western artist – Indians and pioneers figure prominently in her work. She paints the people of the Book of Mormon with the same majesty. She makes of what was considered a slightly heretical religious fiction something grand, lustrous and, yes, Historical. Painting in the early 20th century, there is no way Teichert could have known the specifics of PreColumbian civilization that are common knowledge today. But her paintings don’t need them. She creates noble, lively, believable characters who live on the viewer’s plane – the less relevant cultural details fade into her muted backdrops. Especially touching is her treatment of the Lamanite maidens who gather to dance and are captured by the wicked priests of King Noah. I commend them to you – they dance right off the edge of the frame, out of history, and into your heart.
If your find yourself in Provo, please take a moment to go see what I would call the most successful presentation of Mormon art to date. The BYU Museum is no Louvre, but perhaps as future artists follow Teichert’s noble standard, someday it will be.