“George Dureau: The Modern Heroic Figure”, New Orleans Art Review

George Dureau: The Modern Heroic Figure


To Those Who Sweetly Surrender

NO ONE WHO has seen — not merely noticed — great Mannerist or Baroque painting, can be unmoved by the sly and brilliant allusions to them in George Dureau’s new work (recently at the Arthur Roger Gallery). The allusions are perhaps unwitting, but they are there nonetheless. Also—and this makes them slightly imperceptible—these are broad and conceptual allusions, far from the tiresome “appropriations” of cultural icons that plague the art of the 1980s. Dureau appropriates nothing. Instead, he submits the human figure with a mythic, rhetorical heroicism that conjures the vaulted saints and sinners of late Renaissance art. What’s more, his figures occupy the sort of waveringly lighted, spectral, and dramatic space that was an earmark of the Baroque.

These two elements fit Dureau’s acknowledged subject: performance, humans on stage. A more propitious setting and pictorial approach could scarcely be found. But there is more in these paintings than gymnasts in the limelight or wrestlers in the ring. It seems that his performance-as-subject only designates a vehicle; a denser content, I believe, is being sought through it. Dureau has never been a painter of ordinary ambition, and the elevated heroic sense that he essays—and usually masters—in these new canvases, is a testament to a sheer greatness of vision.

I say this because, here, the heroic is a protracted concept, one that embraces nuances and vicissitudes of a culture far more complex than those of classical periods: nuances and vicissitudes of our own time. Despite its classical mien, Dureau’s new work is, at center, modernist—profoundly swayed by the psychological and mystical verities that modern art has been moved to confront.

Not until the modern age, with its audit of the subconscious and its abandonment of the individual, do we find art so psychologically engaged. This engagement could actually be seen, to some measure, in early modernism, in the perplexed glare of Manet’s self-conciously modern Parisians. And, since then, it has been a recurring fixation for the few, and necessary, artists who grapple with the impact that progressive culture bears upon human beings. A topic like this today, in an era of tragic political suppression of human dignity, is not simply appropriate; it is urgent.

In the exhibition at Arthur Roger, Dureau’s anxious dwarf wrestlers master a stage designed expressly for them, a stage where their nobility is intact, is triumphant. They are rendered and seen from a vantage point of awe; their flesh is idealized, golden. But their hands and haunted faces disclose something distant from the contrived performance in the ring; it is, perhaps the dire reality of their existence in society. This possibility is equally poignant in the canvas where two dwarves—one black, one white—strike confrontational, but august, poses before a U.S. flag. Its title: Constitutional Melee. In works like these, Dureau conjoins, with varying degrees of subtlety, the perdurable visage of the heroic figure and a societal disquiet that few artists have been able to express without bathos.

THE NOBILITY OF the figure is undiminished in other paintings from the show, but to somewhat different effect. In one instance, Allegorical Portrait with Satiric Figures, a deified young male model kneels in the foreground and is flanked by fantasy figures painted in gauzy, greyish color. Among the figures is a likeness Dureau himself as a satyr, an image both devilish and delightful. We have seen such fascinating combinations before in Dureau’s work, and they sometimes evoke, initially, the uncanny symbolism of Gustave Moreau. But, sometimes too, they seem even more mystical and, somehow, more real. Where artists like Moreau and Odilon Redon were absorbed in the notion of blind enigma, Dureau is specific, direct to the point of autobiographical. Paintings like this one are less enigmas than intriguing, poetized narratives.

IN A SERIES of single-figure studies, Dureau makes his most exquisite salute to classical painting. Crouching Gynmast and a dyptich comprised of Kneeling Female and Kneeling Male reveal his technical skills as we have not seen them in years. No artist today can surpass the painterly agility of these pictures, or the controlled and minded bravura. And seldom have paintings of one or two colors ever seemed so radiant. The extraordinary fleshtones contribute to this: Dureau manages to give them a sense of flushed saturated color, even while retaining the convincing look of flesh. For once, without the inordinate artifice of an expressionist approach, a painting can be called luxuriantly colorful merely by virtue of painted flesh.

But these studies, beyond their display of technique, act out a sort of homage to the human form as the highest possible subject. And, for an artist like Dureau, that is precisely what it is. He persuades us of this by the weight of simple, emblematic depictions that nearly become archetypes, but are certainly too corporeal to be true archetypes. The figure is glorified in these studies, but it is also erotic. The faces are turned from us, and yet not for a moment is there the feeling of detachment. Here, as much as in the proud dwarves, the figure is continuously embraced.