Thursday, January 17, 2008

L'Art Pompier

The French language, which has the richest vocabulary for art, has a wonderful word: “pompier.” Literally it means “fireman.” It is used as an affectionate put-down to describe a certain kind of painting.

I first ran across the term in the book Artistes Pompiers by James Harding (Rizzoli, 1979). Mr. Harding associates “pompier” with the excesses of academic painting.

Art that is “pompier” is like a noisy parade of firemen. It is brash, tacky, gaudy, extravagant, melodramatic, and overblown. Hey! That’s everything I love!

I asked Odile S. Chilton, Visiting Professor of French at Bard College, to explain the sources and connotations of the word further.

She wrote:
“One possible origin of the expression might come from the poet T. de Banville as he described some of David's paintings depicting scenes from Antiquity (perhaps, the battle of Thermopilae). Those scenes were full of characters wearing shiny helmets, hence the (unkind) reference to firemen: "Look they are naked! No, actually they are taking their helmets off, perhaps they are firemen going to bed..." Another origin might also be linguistic, ie a pun on the words: pompe, pompeux = pomposity, pompous.
"It is interesting to me since when I show biblical art to children, they invariably prefer that type of painting to others. For example “The Finding of Moses” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a huge hit!"

Thank you, Dr. Chilton. Artists, in order of appearance: Makart, Cabanel, Solomon, David, Alma-Tadema. Professor Chilton’s references come from Le Trésor de la langue française informatisé, an online version of the French equivalent of the OED.

Tomorrow: Painting as Magic


sylvia said...

Hi James

wonderful, i too so love l' art pompier and the pré-raphelites....
though very interesting writings by Dr Chilton, though she doesn' t explain at wall what is the secret of those naked warriors....

What about asking me ?


Erik Bongers said...

Ah ! Another post that explores the differences in taste !
Obviously I cannot but reply !

Firstly, I really LOVE the following comment you make : "Art that is “pompier” is [...] melodramatic, and overblown. Hey! That’s everything I love!"

It's not so much that I have the same taste, but it's the attitude towards taste in general that this comment expresses that I really like. With this comment you don't deny that pompier art has these over-the-top qualities, yet you have no problem with stating that you nevertheless like it and thirdly, all of this is said in a jokingly fascion.

Hmmm...perhaps I should put it more simply : the comment has a undertone of "Hey, it's just my taste ! No big deal !"

When my father (a painter himself) first saw a book about the pre-raphaelites at my home, he questioned my taste with the remark : "Pre-raphaelites !? Do you really like that !?"
My sister on the other hand would have remarked something like "Yek !" wich also expresses her taste, but much more directly.
While my father's remark tends to judge me, my sister's remark simply expresses her taste, nothing more.

Obviously I like the latter.

A second thing is the observation of children you mention.
One HUGE advantage of children's point of view on art is that their taste has not yet been obscured by the need to 'position' themselves socially. Children always express their personal taste without worrying about their social status/position. (Ok, not entirely true, I know. Children tend to 'hype' things faster than grown-ups.)

But still, if you look at grown-ups...
I really dislike it when people ask me a rethorical question of the form "That is really a great painting isn't it?"
Am I even allowed to answer ?
Well...even though I may happen to agree on the matter, I might not be able to resist to reply with a blunt "No."

My taste is mine. It's not better or worse that anyone elses, but it's part of my personality and therefor untouchable. I thus have the right to ridicule my own taste, but no-one else has.

Now, about pompier art...I'm afraid, very afraid, that I do like it as well.

Patrick Dizon said...

The drama! The tension! LOVE IT!!!

from ms. bluehour... said...

The term 'pompier' refers to the helmets worn by the firemen of the era, and the resembelance they bore to the grandiose helmets worn in the often historically-themed salon paintings. It refers specifically to the red 'coxcomb' on top of the helmet.

ms. bluehour

MKstl1 said...

Merci beaucoup pour votre site. Vraiment très intéressant et riche à tous les niveaux
Je compte l'utiliser, si vous êtes d'accord, pour mes étudiants en arts.
bien à vous,