The reading Voulkos' Dilemma: Toward a Ceramic Canon reminded me of the problems I found when I was researching for a paper on William Bouguereau. Bouguereau was an extremely successful French Academic artist during the second half of the nineteenth century. He received many awards, was an officer in the Academy, he painted over 700 paintings during his career, and his work sold very well. He was also an influential teacher. He was a contemporary of the Impressionists, and is often cast as the face of the Academy that rejected and repressed Impressionism.
After his death in 1905 many historians swept Bouguereau aside as insignificant and installed the Impressionists as the progenitors of modern painting. Many museums put his paintings in storage, or sold the work. As a group, French Academic painters fell from public favor and their paintings sold for cheap.
In the 1980's and again as recently as 2007 there has been a renewed interest by art historians, curators, and the public in Bouguereau's work. The topic of Bougeureau' rehabilitation is the subject of many passionate arguments both for and against. My personal conclusion after reading several books, a dozen academic essays, and viewing and analyzing his work in person at the Appleton Museum was this: Bouguereau's work is a significant window into the culture in which he lived and he should be studied and celebrated in that context. I just can't bring myself to say I love the paintings or I think they are a source of influence for today's artists.
It might sound blasphemous to compare the avant-garde ceramics of Voulkos to the conservative Academic art of Bouguereau. Both enjoyed commercial success during their lifetimes, but similarities seem to stop there. In the end, both will be judged by subsequent generations of critics and historians.
One hundred years after his death, and one hundred and fifty years after he began producing significant artworks, Bouguereau's importance is still the being debated. Only fifty-plus years have passed since Voulkos began making significant ceramic artworks, and only eight years have passed since his death. After everyone who was awed or charmed in person by the charisma of Peter Voulkos the man has passed, what will be the consensus on Voulkos' work when it is judged by what it is in the context of the time it was produced? Will the work exert continuing influence in the field of ceramics? Art history takes lifetimes to unfold and we may not live to see the final verdict.