The front of the State Library of Victoria looks like something out of Dungeons and Dragons. A male warrior attacks a dragon and a female paladin advances; Joseph Edgar Boehm’s St. George and the Dragon and Emmanuel Frémiet’s Jeanne D’Arc.
Many people can’t stand European nineteenth-century academic sculpture. Other people think that it was the last stand of a noble aesthetic tradition. I don’t agree with either; for me, it is like Frank Frazetta or the Brothers Hildebrandt’s fantasy illustrations, it is art about make-believe world. It is about men who wanted their statues of colonial explorers, generals, and other leaders like a boy wants superhero figurines. By making these escapist fantasies figurative art, they were trying to make their meaning more tangible.
The messages in some of these fantasy art can be horrible, racist and sexist (this is not a defence or an apology for these statues). Others make their creators look like an obvious client for future Freudian therapy – man’s eternal struggle with monsters of the deep. They can also be intensely sentimental, or overtly sexy.
There are many examples of this academic fantasy art sculpture in Melbourne from the statues of St. George and Joan of Arc, to the angels by Bertrand Mackennal in the Springthorpe Memorial, or Paul Montford’s The Court Favourite and Water Nymph and, the incredibly racist, (and fortunately rarely on public display in the NGV) Emmanuel Frémiet’s Gorille enlevant une femme (gorilla carrying off a woman).
Not since the Baroque has there been art as theatrical. The theatricality of the academic fantasy art is the same as the CGI imagery of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings. And it was just as popular, with the painter John Martin showing blockbuster exhibitions in London in the late nineteenth century.
The nineteenth-century academic artist was portraying the world, not as it was, or is, but as they thought it should have been; a bucolic, mythic, existence. They used everything as a symbol, retreating from the world in search for a meaning that would justify their beliefs. For the world and its facts were increasingly at odds with the values and ideals springing from European religion, myths and legends. What Europeans were discovering was that they were just another great ape of a common species found around the world and not the chosen ones.
The high art of today is about reality and not fantasy. Today fantasy is rarely shown in state galleries or installed in front of state buildings but widely available in prints and posters. But there is still plenty of fantasy art available, it is just curated for a different market and the statues of dragons and warriors are made in a 25mm scale.
(Some people might note that what I am calling ‘nineteenth-century academic sculpture’ includes works made in the early twentieth century. This is the difference between dates and styles and that some styles will in places continue for generations after their significant period.)