Narrative art -- painting that tells you a story

Even as recently as 10 years ago, any gallery director bold enough to assemble a show of contemporary narrative paintings would have been accused of taking leave of his senses.

True, the art world was once again beginning to accept that painting need not be abstract, hard-edge, or colorfield, etc., in order to be art. But though it was beginning once again see some good in realism, the notion that storytelling had any place in art was just too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

After all, wasn't narrative painting what the impressionists, post-impressionists, cubists, etc., had fought so hard against? And wouldn't the acceptance of narration in art be the ultimate repudiation of our great modernist heroes?

This attitude dominated our thinking until the early 1970s, when the weakening of modernist dogma opened up the possibility that an artist could as legitimately seek his formal precedents in 19th-century neo-classicism, French realism -- even in the despised official art of the French Salon -- as in the revered art of Cezanne, Mondrian, or Miro.

With this switch in attitude came a gradual change in what could be found in our better galleries. By 1975 realist paintings were once again receiving major critical attention, and by the end of the decade even narrative art was advancing toward a position of respect.

It was in response to this increasing interest in storytelling in art that the Allan Frumkin Gallery here has assembled a small but excellent exhibition of "Narrative Painting." Consisting of only 10 works, but most of these by leaders in the field (Alfred Leslie, Jack Beal, Michael Mazur, etc.), this exhibition does much to bring this recent development into focus, and to clarify both its strengths and weaknesses.

In particular, it makes it very clear that this art form is not as easy as it seems. Cut off as we have been for almost a century from any ongoing tradition or critical standards for such work, we must now once again examine the basic premises of narrative painting -- or risk the danger of producing something closer to illustration than to art.

But how does the contemporary narrative painter avoid this trap? How does he go about making certain that his paintings don't end up resembling Saturday Evening Post illustrations of a few years back or, at best, those dreary history-paintings for which the 19th century was so famous?

It is obvious, judging from the works on display in this (and elsewhere in the galleries), that he hasn't as yet quite found the answer. Now this is not to say that what is being produced along this line today isn't valid and exciting -- even often very good -- only that it still has to answer basic questions about its identity and purpose.

For one thing, it still has to clarify for itself just what the narrative element in painting is -- and how best to portray it. Piling up a succession of static details, for instance, and expecting them to add up to a portrayal of action will not do. And neither will clothing a picture's subjects in up-to-date jeans and sneakers turn an illustration into a work of art.

Alfred Leslie is a painter for whom I have the greatest respect. His large figure and portrait studies are among the very best realist paintings being produced today. But his talent, at least until now, has always been best realized in static images, in paintings in which one or two figures are seen either frontally or frozen in a sort of tableau.

His large and self-consciously titled painting "I Must Either Have Given Up a Friend to the Insult of a Mob or Had My House Pulled Down and Perhaps My Family Murdered" is terribly impressive (who would have thought that anyone today would have tackled such a complex piece of narrative painting!) -- but it is also a bit more rhetoric than art. Take away the fact that it is by Alfred Leslie, forget for the moment that it is being viewed in a major gallery, and it soon becomes apparent that this dramatic depiction of violence is closer to Norman Rockwell's early illustrations that it is to art.

Jack Beal, another one of our major realists, presents us with a huge and complex work entitled "The Painting Lesson." This tour-de-forcem is also terribly impressive --and rather empty. What, after all, are we really left with after appreciating the skill and time that went into its execution? Not much, I'm afraid.

Valeriio's "The Card Trick" takes pride of place. It's a remarkable piece of work in which everything from the activity it depicts to its tiniest detail is kept in perfect balance. It is cooler and more modest than the paintings by Leslie and Beal, and yet contains more concentrated energy and life than the two other pictures combined.

Valerio understands, as Leslie and Beal apparently as yet do not, that genuine narrative art demands that the point of the "story" be locked up within the painting itself --illustration may be disposed of after being viewed once, a work of art may not.

All in all this is one of the most interesting and valuable gallery exhibitions I have seen recently, one which indicates that narrative painting, while still a bit wobbly on its feet, is once again on its way after a hiatus of nearly a century. If I'm especially critical about some of the artists included , it's only because my overall respect for them is so high, and the historical standards against which they must compete are so clear. Unlike those who create totally new forms and so have little to be judged against, these painters enter the art arena to be immediately compared to the likes of Delacroix, David, and Gericault.

This excellent exhibition at the Allan Frumkin Gallery will run through April 30.

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