Diderot burst into criticism at Pushkin

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“His color is false, and the colors are too bright … but the Mother of God is indescribably beautiful, touching and full of love,” the famous Denis Diderot scolded and immediately admired Francois Boucher’s painting “Nativity” with these words. At the large-scale exhibition “Salons” of Diderot, which contains more than 200 works from various museums in Russia, the main thing is just the texts of the writer of the Enlightenment. It was then that art criticism was born as a genre. And what is important for Russian culture: Diderot’s articles were read by Catherine II and her entourage, who, guided by his advice, bought paintings from French salons, which now make up the “golden fund” of Russian museums.

The exhibition begins with sketches of the vernissages, which show how popular the Paris Salons were – exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. The first of them took place in 1667 in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal Palace on the initiative of King Louis XIV and his “right hand” Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Each exhibition was vigorously discussed by secular society, but more and more orally. And in the middle of the 17th century, thanks to Denis Diderot, artistic discussions reached a different level. By the time he started writing about the Salons in Literary Correspondence magazine, exhibitions were already an important cultural and social phenomenon that were on the social agenda from the opening to the last day of the exhibition (and it began at the end of August and went on for more than a month) . Vernissages were held at several points in Paris, one of the main ones was the Louvre. Actually, thanks to these regular vernissages, the royal residence will eventually turn into a museum, which today holds the palm in terms of attendance in the world.

Here is one of the engravings – the work of Pietro Antonio Martini – painting the atmosphere that prevailed in the Louvre in the days when the Salon was held there. All the walls are hung with paintings from top to bottom so that there is no gap between them. At the same time, in the top row – works on historical, mythological and biblical subjects, below – portraits, everyday genre, landscapes and still lifes. The exposition presented to the public the structure and ideology of the Academy, based on the principle of the hierarchy of genres, which were formulated by its honorary secretary André Félibien in 1667. The first hall of the exhibition in the Pushkin Museum immerses the viewer into the atmosphere of the Salons of that time – we have an example of such a dense trellis hanging. The next room tells how the salon tradition that had developed by the 17th century blossoms with new colors thanks to the biting pen of Denis Diderot.

Tapestry hanging

In 1759, his friend Friedrich Melchior Grimm invited Diderot to write for the handwritten journal Literary Correspondence, which was sent by subscription to dozens of European monarchs, including Catherine II. In total, Diderot reviewed 9 exhibitions at the Louvre – from 1759 to 1781, with the exception of a few years when he was absent (for example, in 1773 he visited Holland and Russia). Diderot’s notes are emotional, and the assessments are not consistent. One and the same artist he could admire and immediately strongly criticize – as often happened with regard to Vernet and Chardin. By the way, modern criticism uses Diderot’s “carrot and stick” method with enviable constancy.

“The death of Virginie Doyen is a huge canvas, where there is a lot of good. Its disadvantage is that the main figures are small, and the minor details are large. Virginia failed. Attractive is not Appius Claudius, not a father, not a daughter, but people from the people, warriors and others; they are magnificent,” wrote Diderot. Or here’s another telling example – a review of the painting by Francois Bernard Lepissier: “I have never heard of any painting being praised as much as this vile “Family Portrait”. This unworthy daub evoked the approval of the audience, I heard their enthusiastic exclamations every now and then. Sometimes Diderot, it would seem, simply describes the picture, but in such a way that he places accents behind which the assessment is read: “A baby squeezed between the old man and his son-in-law and offers the sick goldfinch. How does he hold the bird! With what movement he hands it over! He describes some Salons by citing his conversation with someone. Other descriptions are so accurate that they were able to restore works that have not survived to this day, among them, for example, the allegorical sculpture “Melancholia” by Etienne Maurice Falcone.

Diderot’s cabinet

In a word, the exhibition, which will later be shown in the Hermitage, is more about the art of the word than about fine art. The word that immortalized the image. Here, using texts written in a language accessible to the viewer of any era, we can look at the moment of the birth of the art of criticism. And it is not encrypted in complex passages of art history, but written easily, intelligently and with humor. The point of attraction at the exhibition was the space where the atmosphere of Diderot’s conditional office is created. In front of us is a table, a chair, books and writer’s manuals, and on the contrary – works that were or could be in that office. And here the word again comes to the fore – Diderot’s text is cited in the description, where he ironically compares his old office with an old dressing gown, which is dearer to him than a new one, donated by one wealthy admirer. This metaphor largely reflected the era when academic traditions were slowly breaking down from the sharp statements of the writer, and freedom of speech and thought were gaining strength in order to later result in the turbulent events of the Great French Revolution under the motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.

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