Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dahesh Museum of Art: CLOSED

It's interesting to me that NYC has 2 branches of the American Folk Art Museum (Folk Art Museum Main and Folk Art Museum Branch), filled with artwork by untrained artists, but it does not even have one museum dedicated to academically trained artists.

The Dahesh Museum of Art is the only institution in the United States devoted to collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting works by Europe's academically trained artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is closed.  Their gift shop is still open at 55 East 52nd Street (between Madison and Park) in the Atrium of Park Avenue Plaza and you can find store hours at Dahesh Museum Shop, but you can't admire what is supposed to be a beautiful collection of classical art there.

When I expressed interest in the museum at the shop, the salesperson gave me a pamphlet (see cover at left) that gave me a quick education about "academic art."  First established in Renaissance Italy, academies prescribed strict and rigorous guidelines for the production of works of art.  Organized training systems or academies in nearly every European country and then later in the U.S., Australia and Latin America set up a heirarchy for paintings by subject matter (e.g., religious and mythological ranking higher than landscapes and portraits) and raised art from a "craft."

The artists' handiwork should look effortless, without any visible brush strokes, to enhance the illusion of life-like exactness, the hallmark of academic art.  This smooth finish (also called "licked" finish or in French fini) contrasts with the contemporaneous artistic style of the now more popular and lauded 19th and 20th century Impressionists and Cubists.  After learning about the competitions to be chosen for years of academic training, so that an academic artist could show at salons at which they could hope to sell their art...well, wow.  I certainly have a new appreciation for academic artists (see the beautiful example of Adolph William Bouguereau's The Water Girl).  Their training sounds as strenuous and arduous as that of surgeons. 

The museum's collection was begun by writer and philosopher Salim Soussa Achi, aka Dr. Dahesh (1901-1984), who lived in Beiruit, Lebanon.  One day soon I hope the Dahesh Museum is able to find a suitable exhibition space and re-open to the public.  In this world of loose, free, and loud living (and with the immediate gratification of digital photos from every camera phone), perhaps academic art is out of style, but its discipline and beauty is also sorely lacking.

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