Rejects d’ Art

Why won’t the art world embrace the state’s Classical Realist artists?

In Stephen Gjertson’s gray bungalow, a 20-square-foot painting showing the scene of Samson’s undoing—meticulously composed and dramatically lit by the Philistines’ torches—dominates the living room. Many other canvases that Gjertson has painted fill the walls of his north Minneapolis home: portraits of his wife and children, still-life paintings that carry the realism of photographs, and vivid scenes of other episodes from the Bible. But he has given prominence and position to The Folly of Samson, which looks like a 19th-century master could have painted it.

The work tells the story of Samson, the Israelite strongman who falls in love with the beautiful Delilah. The Philistines want to know how to sap Samson’s might, and they bribe Delilah to solve the mystery. At ï¬rst Samson resists Delilah’s questions, but eventually he spills his secret: cutting his hair will drain him of his strength. Soon after, as Samson sleeps, Philistine soldiers shave his head. They take him captive and gouge out his eyes.

The Folly of Samson serves as a metaphor for significant events in Gjertson’s professional life. He has devoted his career to the pursuit of classical realism, a style of painting that a century ago wielded power and reigned supreme in the art world. But like Samson, classical realism fell to a hostile army: the modern art movement that arose in the early 20th century. Gjertson hopes that in his lifetime he will see the return of classical realism to its old prominence, just as the biblical hero ultimately triumphed over his foe.

Gjertson completed The Folly of Samson in 2005. Friends and relatives modeled for the painting. He doubts he will ever sell it; he would feel inadequately compensated for the countless hours he spent creating it. And at any price, few would buy it.

Stephen Gjertson –
Photo by David Bowman

Lean and intense, with a smoldering gaze, Gjertson has felt passionate about painting ever since he was a child growing up in south Minneapolis and saw reproductions of the works of Michelangelo, Wyeth, and Remington. In 1971 he became one of the first students to attend Atelier Lack, a Twin Cities school founded by Richard Lack and devoted to the training principles and artistic ideals identified with 19th-century French academic painters.

Gjertson later spent 16 years teaching at Atelier Lack and has exhibited in more than 50 museums and galleries. His portrait of Governor Arne Carlson hangs in the state capitol. Although devotees of classical realism know his name, major museums and collectors have ignored his work. Star Tribune art critic Mary Abbe once called him “a master of exquisite drawing and modeling,” and then went on to criticize an altar triptych he painted as “simply kitsch, the holy figures resembling B-movie gangsters dressed in biblical robes.”

In 1982, Lack coined the term classical realism to define the interests and goals of a small group of realist painters who rejected abstractionism and other modernist styles. Classical realists create pictures that combine composition, fine drawing, lighting, color, and skilled craftsmanship to express truths about the beauty of everyday life. “It’s not the content of art that makes people interested,” insists Lack, the undisputed elder of the movement, now 78 and living in Glen Lake. “It’s the language. From the Renaissance to the 20th century, paintings spoke a certain kind of language.” A clear language, he maintains. “But since then, the language has changed. I think it is a specious argument to claim that people expect something different from art now than they did in the past.” Modern art, Lack believes, leaves many people confused and intimidated.

Gjertson’s and Lack’s other students claim an artistic lineage that connects them to Jacques-Louis David, Paul Dela­roche, and Jean-Léon Gérôme of France, in addition to Americans William McGregor Paxton, R. H. Ives Gammell, and Gjertson’s mentor Lack. (Lineage is important to classical realists because they believe that the essence of their tradition moves from master to apprentice, from teacher to student.) Gjertson characterizes classical realism as a tradition that reveres the time-tested conventions of Western art and strives to make canvases come to life. Its attraction to beauty and harmony makes it classical; its vocabulary, based on the representation of nature, brands it realism. “The people producing classical realism are serious artists; they’ve all wanted to do it since they were kids,” Gjertson says. “We’re not reactionaries—we’re not reacting against modernism. It’s just that modernism has no appeal to us. It’s not interesting. We try to make a living as best as we can, and our work is very good when judged against the work of the past…. We have one foot in this world and one in the past.”

Many 20th-century artists made it their mission to overturn the grand old legacy that classical realists venerate, and in the process they marginalized the painters and training system that had once dominated Western art. Barbizon, impressionist, and Ashcan painters all got in their licks, and finally the ascent of abstract painting elbowed the academic tradition into obscurity. Artists took on the mission of shocking and outraging their audiences as their work reflected more overt social and political meaning. A near-complete overthrow of representational art occurred in universities, museums, and galleries during the 1940s and ’50s. “You didn’t have to be good, but it mattered whether you followed the right socio-political agenda,” Gjertson says. “What we create was not even considered worth thinking about.”

Nobody could look at one of Gjertson’s canvases and deny his skills as an artist. You could almost eat the fruit in his still-life paintings; the hair of his portrait subjects looks strokable. At times you have to strain to find a brush mark. Yet he and his classical realist peers have won little acclaim. “Modernist art has been established in power since the 1930s and ’40s,” he explains. “They’re running the show and calling the shots. Their point of view is that this kind of art is no longer new and valid. We can’t get in shows and can’t break into periodicals, except those for avocational artists.”

Some members of the artistic establishment regard such claims as mere conspiracy theorizing. “The art world is so big and inclusive; to be left out, you have to want to be left out,” says Vince Leo, vice president of academic affairs at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an admirer of some classical-realist artists. He points out that many great abstract painters—Kandinsky, Miró, and Mondrian among them—drew inspiration from academic classicism, demonstrating that traditions can influence artists in varying ways. “Art is expansive and diverse, and brings together a lot of people who don’t necessarily agree on everything,” Leo explains. “That’s the whole point. For us, classical realists are a part of our culture. They belong there, like other groups. It’s not as if we don’t subscribe to any forms of classical training, but we have a broader idea of our culture. You can argue whether that’s good or bad, but we’ve already been through that, and we’ve decided it is good.”

To Leo, the survival of the classical realists proves that artistic diversity is thriving. “What’s interesting is that they’re still here, in spite of everything; in spite of iPods,” he says. “They do something that nobody else does. They provide a sense of community and a sense of cultural unity that is difficult to come by nowadays because our culture is so diverse. But it’s not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be for everyone.”

In Minnesota, few art collectors seem to await the reincarnation of Rubens or Rembrandt.

But in 1986, Rachael and Kraig Lungstrom of Plymouth bought a landscape by Mike Coyle—a student of Richard Lack—followed by a fairy-tale interior by Gjertson. The works of many other classical realist artists now fill their walls. “I collect them because they’re phenomenal, and I happen to love them,” says Rachael, who holds an undergraduate degree in fine-arts illustration from the University of Texas. “They were very affordable. If you’re an artist, it helps to really study them. It’s an honor to collect them.” But her taste in art does not generate much comment from her friends. “We’ve rarely had anyone say anything about them.” The most attention they get from others, she says, is when “our son tells his friends not to throw balls against the paintings.”

Lungstrom opens her mouth as well as her wallet in support of classical realism. In 2004, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) announced plans to sell The Bohemian girl—a painting that had turned into a popular draw during more than 30 years in the permanent collection, and had generated healthy sales of postcards and posters. Its creator was classical realist idol William-Adolphe Bouguereau, perhaps the most revered painter that nobody hears about in art-history class. When she learned the news, Lungstrom jumped to protest and was soon leading demonstrations past the museum’s classical columns. Hers was often the loudest voice, chanting, “Hey-hey, ho-ho, please don’t sell our Bouguereau” and “One, two, three, four, they’re sending our Bouguereau out the door! Five, six, seven, eight, save it now before it’s too late!”

The career of Bouguereau, a French academic painter who lived from 1825 to 1905, activates the hot buttons of many of today’s classical realists. His 826 paintings capture moving moments of genuine emotion with subtlety and astounding craftsmanship. Many contemporaries considered him the leading painter of the 19th century, and a generation of wealthy Europeans and Americans collected his work. But by opposing impressionism and any movement away from the academic tradition, he drew the scorn of some younger artists. Starting around 1920 his reputation plunged into a free fall from which it is only beginning to recover. Classical realists prize Bouguereau’s work and denounce the apathetic treatment he received from modern-art historians.

Atelier founder Richard Lack –
Photo by David Bowman

The chants of Lungstrom and her fellow protesters ultimately had little effect. The Bohemian sold at auction to a private collector for $650,000. The sum represented a nice profit on the painting’s original purchase price of $3,500 from the Minneapolis Public Library, but fell considerably short of what the museum hoped to realize. (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts still owns another choice Bouguereau: the frequently exhibited Temptation.)

An earlier controversy had preceded the Bouguereau debate at the MIA. In November 1989, a brawl erupted in an auditorium in the museum during the annual meeting of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), an artist-run department of the museum that showcases the work of Minnesotans. Several hundred people had gathered to elect the panelists who would pick the themes and artists for future exhibitions. Classical realist painters, feeling marginalized and ill-treated by the MAEP in previous years, had packed the crowd.

Advocates of contemporary art of all kinds aligned against the classical realists. Perhaps never had local supporters of abstractionism, expressionism, primitive art, and cubism found so much to agree to oppose. The result was a highly contentious meeting and a fiery display of artistic invective. Shouts and catcalls filled the auditorium. Artists in attendance were called hacks, dinosaurs, reactionaries, censors, snobs, oppressors, and bigots. Everyone present felt the raw hostility. The classical realists were voted down in their bid for seats on the MAEP curatorial panel, but later won approval to mount an exhibition showcasing the work of 15 painters.

The intensity of the Bouguereau and MAEP conflicts must have surprised MIA officials. Representational art showing interiors, human figures, or landscapes are “comprehensible to a society that doesn’t view itself as an artistic elite,” says Brad Shinkle, president and director of the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, which owns and frequently exhibits realist paintings. People who like realist art “look at it as a disciplined approach to art, lighting, and painting. But academic art has acquired a negative connotation, and you’d have to ask why,” he adds.

Many scholars have long held those same negative perceptions. For years, art historians neglected Bouguereau and his peers—not to mention contemporary Minnesota artists and others trying to reinvigorate the old traditions. “Few of us in the field have been interested in trying to understand the academic tradition in painting—most have been more interested in impressionism,” says Gabriel Weisberg, a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota who studies 19th-century art. But gradually classical realists are receiving more attention from art historians. Weisberg, who focuses his research on some of these artists, says he finds modern classical realist painters intriguing for the connection they maintain with the old ways of teaching that emphasize working from a model, capturing what they see, keeping in mind the approaches of past masters, and upholding high standards of craftsmanship. So if classical realism is to have a future in Minnesota and elsewhere, the essence of the tradition—training—needs to thrive.

At the Atelier (a French term for an artist’s workshop or studio, where students learn from a master) in northeast Minneapolis, four students work on charcoal sketches of plaster-cast faces using cylinders of charcoal, wooden easels, and cream-colored paper. The teacher consults with each apprentice—asking questions, pointing out shadows and features on the plaster faces, and suggesting changes. In another room, students sketch a nude model. There is no computer on the premises except in the small administrative office. Bouguereau would have found the scene very familiar.

The school, a warren of classrooms and small spaces for advanced students in an old warehouse, is the direct descendant of the groundbreaking Atelier Lack, established in 1969, where such prominent classical realists as Gjertson, Peter Bougie, James Childs, and Charles Cecil learned their craft. Richard Lack, the dean of Minnesota classical realists, retired from teaching in 1992. Cyd Wicker and Dale Redpath, both former students, now run the operation. (There are several similar schools in the region, some of them also managed by such former Lackites as Annette LeSueur and James Ostlund.)

Wicker and Redpath, established classical realist painters with active careers, both felt a sense of urgency to take over the school when Lack stepped down. “It only takes a generational hiccup to lose a tradition,” Redpath says. Their 18 full-time students (dozens of part-timers also take classes) study at the Atelier seven hours a day, nine months a year, for four years. Admitted on the basis of portfolios, they range in age from 18 to 60 and come from around the country. Students start by working in charcoal and black-and-white painting, then they move to pastels and color oil painting. Along the way they learn about composition, color, lighting, symmetry, and artistic focal points. They study masters of centuries past and today. “Within six months we know what their artistic strengths and weaknesses are,” Wicker says of her students.

While many other institutions, including the studio art departments of colleges and universities and specialized schools such as the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, offer art instruction within a curriculum that embraces many traditions and artistic styles, Atelier Lack focuses exclusively on teaching representational drawing and painting. Students who want to paint like Jasper Johns or Jackson Pollock must go elsewhere. Those who aspire to paint like Rembrandt are in luck. “We teach students that language, and then it’s up to them to decide what to do with it,” says Wicker.

The point, Wicker and Redpath maintain, is to establish a master-apprentice relationship with students building careers that honor the 19th-century values of beauty, accomplished technique, and the representation of everyday life. “Realism is coming back in vogue,” Redpath says. “We know there’s horrible realism out there, paintings that have poor drawing and poor values. We tell our students when their [artistic] goals are or aren’t being met. We want to show them how to put a good, solid picture together. As more things are mass-produced, painting has become even more precious. It can satisfy the heart.”

All roads in classical realism today seem to lead back to Lack: founder, teacher, creator, and agitator. For decades Lack and his Hungarian-born wife, Katherine, have lived in Glen Lake in a secluded cottage surrounded by oak trees. A gallery of his favorite pictures—paintings of friends, family members, fantasy scenes, and serene landscapes—climb the two-story-high walls of the living room. Above is a walkway that leads to his studio. Lack, who no longer paints, uses a walker and a stairway chairlift to move about the house. He speaks in a gravelly voice, slowed by age, and radiates an unruffled, kingly manner.

“I’m the kind of painter who won’t have recognition until I’m dead, maybe 50 years from now,” he says. “Like Vermeer. As time goes by, things will clear and people will say, ‘Lack—he was kind of eccentric.’ But in the future, Lack will have a place.”

Lack places his hopes for glory in the future because he believes his artistic aspirations have been treated unkindly in the past. Born in Minneapolis, he developed an interest in art as a young child and first showed promise working with pen and ink. He attended the Minneapolis School of Art where, he remembers, “I was a radical spokesman of a group of rebels who wanted to paint in an old-fashioned sense. I’d look at an old painting and think, ‘how did the artist do this?’ My teachers said that was all dead. So I left school.”

The 20-year-old announced to his parents that he was moving to the art capital of America to make his name. Lack discovered, however, that the teachers at the Art Students League of New York regarded his goals just as unfavorably as their Minneapolis counterparts. Deflated, he resolved to return to Minnesota to study chemistry. But before he left, he took his easel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to copy a painting by the 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez.

There, in the Met’s quiet galleries, the course of Lack’s life changed. “A young man came up and said, ‘I like your copy,’” he remembers. “He told me he was studying with an artist named Ives Gammell in Boston. We went out and had a beer.”

A former student of American painter William McGregor Paxton, Gammell was an outspoken critic of the downward path he believed American art had followed since the 1920s. Independently wealthy, he had the means and the determination to fight back. He published a book, The Twilight of Painting, and established a studio school for academic realists that remained the only such center of training for painters during the years of modernism’s rise. On the last day of 1949, Lack took a bus to Boston and found a place under Gammell’s wing.

The five-year-long master-apprentice relationship Lack formed with Gammell permanently influenced the young painter. Lack went on to travel and study in Europe, rent a studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and meet and marry Katherine. In 1957 they moved to Minnesota. Lack built his studio and began a succession of paintings exemplifying the principles of craft and beauty that he later braided into the tradition he called classical realism.

Private collectors sought his work—and Lack, like Gjertson, contributed to the governors gallery at the Minnesota State Capitol—but museums spurned his paintings. “I often had doubts because I was so isolated in my thinking,” he says. “I was like someone speaking Dutch in Somalia. But then I’d go back to my studio and look at old masters, and I knew that what I was doing was right for me. I stuck to my guns and took on students.” Of the 90 students he guided at Atelier Lack, to whom he passed his knowledge of technique, color, lighting, and composition, about a dozen have succeeded in establishing careers as professional artists. His influence lives on in their work and in the students many of them have taught.

Once a firebrand who tirelessly taught, debated, and engaged with other artists, Lack now leaves his home only rarely. He believes classical realism has a future, even in its home territory of Minnesota, where artists and collectors often strive to out-do the avant-garde of the East Coast. “The ateliers are like an underground. They’re like an avant-garde,” he says. “I can’t say classical realism will burst open, but I don’t know if it needs to. Holland is a small country, and it created great art in the past with just a hundred painters involved. It didn’t take many people. All it took was knowledge and the sharing of knowledge.”

Lack sits on his sofa and looks at the private gallery of paintings that surrounds him. He coughs, then clears his throat and sips water. “As long as people love to paint and draw, and love beauty, all this will go on,” he says.

But 25 miles away in north Minneapolis, Gjertson is not always as confident. He had the distinction of serving as the last-ever president of the American Society of Classical Realism, an organization founded by several local artists in 1989. The society had big ambitions at first: the establishment of a museum and studio-school, symposia and educational projects around the country, and a variety of handsomely produced publications, including the Classical Realism Journal. Low membership and financial constraints eventually curtailed those plans, although the society maintained an office in Minneapolis and sponsored several exhibitions over the years. When membership dropped to fewer than 400 in 2005, the organization went out of business.

Many trendsetting Twin Cities collectors continue to focus on Asian and modernist art. “They won’t look at classical realism until museums legitimize it. That’s why I live in a neighborhood where my children aren’t safe,” Gjertson says, hinting at his dim economic prospects. It’s also why only visitors to Gjertson’s diminutive living room can take in the spectacle of The Folly of Samson.

Jack El-Hai is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Monthly.