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  • What Was History Painting and What Is It Now? ed. by Mark Salber Phillips and Jordan Bear
  • Alejandra Gimenez-Berger
What Was History Painting and What Is It Now? Edited by mark salber phillips and jordan bear. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019. viii + 311 pp. ISBN 978-0-7735-5896-0. $135.00 (hardcover); $44.95 (paper); $31.69 (ePDF).

History painting, as a mode of visual communication, reigned at the European art academies and set the tastes of elites as the highest form of expression from its inception in the early modern period to the rise [End Page 188] of modernism in the late nineteenth century. As the royal academies were challenged and superseded by modernist individualism, the interest in history painting and its subjects declined. Narrow definitions that reduced the genre to a tool for the powers of church and state, for didacticism turned indoctrination, and for the preservation of the power of authoritarian states contributed to the growing disinterest on the genre. As this volume makes clear, however, these are not the only contributions of the genre to the history of visual expression. In tracing the ways in which artists utilized the mechanics of the genre outside of the constraints set by the European academies, this volume may serve world historians in finding creative ways to decode the visual structures of history painting as they served not only to support, but to critique or subvert ideologies and artistic concepts.

This volume aims to show the ways in which the elements of history painting have persisted, and how, though much changed, the genre not only survives but affords artists means to call attention to "the great moral issues" of our time (p. 158). This argument is predicated on a revision of the definition of history painting as a whole, rejecting a rigid and all-encompassing understanding in favor of a heuristic approach, what Mark Salber Phillips calls "re-distancing." The essays follow the formal, material, and theoretical transformation of history painting chronologically, simultaneously organizing the timeline into three major themes. Appropriately, the first section is devoted to the role of the human as subject and viewer. Stuart Lingo's essay sets the stage as it demonstrates the tensions between visual narratives and the figures that were to enact them—arising as the original Albertian definition met artistic competition for creative figuration—as early as the sixteenth century. Then Susana Caviglia turns to the beholder in a brilliant reception study that challenges saccharine understandings of how the genre operated in the Rococo. Mark Salber Phillips' own essay looks at an important change in subject, from the grand to the mundane and from elevation to satire. Here we begin to see how demand shaped the genre—the theme of Part Two—as patronage shifted from church and state to competitive markets. The studies by Cynthia Ellen Roman, Jordan Bear, and Tim Barringer in this second section share a focus on audiences: their desires for particular imagery and the ways in which paintings mediated their anxieties. Here Jordan Bear deploys the idea of re-distancing most strongly.

The third section traces a greater geographic, thematic, and theoretical variety in the development of the genre. Six essays analyze the ways in which artists, working with some or many of the rudiments of history painting, responded to modernist aesthetics and later to postmodernist critique. James Nisbet and Mary K. Coffey explore the [End Page 189] encounter with, and destabilization of, the salient aesthetics of each period. Coffey's essay is particularly interesting as it analyzes Orozco's work at Darmouth from internally shifting distances: the local, the national, and the international. This section also includes two essays that delve into the appropriation of tropes of history painting in self-critical and strongly subversive ways: Elizabeth Harney's explores the ambiguity of Julie Mehretu's use of the genre for a critique of neoliberalism, while Michael Godby focuses on the explicit ways in which William Kentridge engages in a formalist and historicist critique.

The volume also includes two powerful essays on the evolution of history painting into art forms that, going beyond traditional media and defunct academic hierarchies, address the...


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pp. 188-190
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