Tuesday, November 14, 2006

One Word: 'No'

[posted by Callimachus]

No, no, a thousand times No.

Or, as Andy Wyeth puts it, "never, never, never." As in "never" should Thomas Eakins' "The Gross Clinic" leave Philadelphia.

Especially for an Arkansas museum built by Wal-Mart heirs at their corporate headquarters out in East Bugtussle or whatever red-dirt ditchtown Wal-Mart was spawned in.

I'll leave the art experts to debate whether it really is the greatest American painting of the 19th century, as some say. I don't care about that. But I've seen it, and it is one of the most awesome sights you'll meet in a museum. It's enormous, and so pregnant with raw power you feel yourself literally blasted back by it, in a physical way, like facing a seawind. I think I must have looked like Fuseli's sketch of the woman encountering the Laocoon:

What I do know is, Eakins belongs in Philadelphia. This is the only place he ever lived. And though the city's art elite initially did not take to Eakins, the people did. We embraced him soon enough, and he was ours before the rest of the world decided to elevate him into the pantheon.

Furthermore, this painting, of all his, is "about" the city.

Painted when the artist was 31, The Gross Clinic was intended by Eakins to portray the extraordinary scientific and cultural achievements of Philadelphia. The eight-foot-high canvas depicts Dr. Samuel Gross, a renowned surgeon and educator at Jefferson, demonstrating the bloody removal of diseased bone from a patient's thigh. The dark amphitheater, packed with Jefferson students, including Eakins himself, the anguished figure of the patient's mother, the monumental figure of Gross, bloodied fingers clasping a scalpel and poised in mid-gesture - all combine to create an unforgettable image.

As one expert puts it, "It's not a generic painting that can be hung anywhere. It is all about his life, the life of the city, and the life of one of the city's greatest heroes, Dr. Gross. It is about the connections between the science, education and art of the place where it was made."

It would be one thing to lose it to a national museum. But to simply have it spirited away to the Ozarks on the whim of inherited millions is criminal. One of the lessons of European history is the civilizing power of art, of the creative masterpiece as the rallying-pole of local identity. Go into any small city on the continent (in the parts where Russians and Germans never met in battle) and you'll find some masterpiece painted or carved in the local church. If you want to see Tilman Riemenschneider altars, you have to make your way to little towns in southern Franconia. And in getting to them you see so much more than a woodcarving masterpiece. So it should be here.

Local forces have until Dec. 26 to put together a counter-offer. It's going to be a long shot. But if they can't pull it off, if the painting becomes "a memory haunting a depleted cultural landscape," you might as well pull up the tent stakes on this city and admit we're nothing but the joke W.C. Fields always made.