Each of us can think back to a teacher that has had a profound, unforgettable influence on our lives. As a freshman, the teachers I can name come from my high school. I know, however, that names of Yale professors will soon earn a place on my list.
I also know, thanks to an exhibit currently mounted at the Yale School of Art, that legendary art professor Bernard Chaet is on the list of many who walked New Haven’s streets before me.
On Oct. 16, Chaet passed away at the age of 88. In his honor, the School promptly put together a show composed of work done by his students through the years. When I visited the tribute earlier this week, I found that it truly lived up to Chaet’s memory.
I walked in and saw that a portrait of Chaet sat next to a booklet of the professor’s work. Beside it stood a written memorial for Chaet by Robert Storr, the current dean of the School of Art, who told the News earlier this month that Chaet’s time at the helm of the School “coincided with the years when Yale became one of the top art schools in the country.” Although none of Chaet’s original work is displayed here, the hand of the teacher is made more than clear by the art of his students.
Walking into Green Hall’s Middle Gallery, I found walls lined with a series of paintings, drawings and sketches created in Chaet’s classes between 1950 and 1990. All done in muted colors, mostly black and white, with a few in sepia, the works combine each artist’s individual flair with the curving gentle lines and soft focus one quickly learns is characteristic of the instructor’s style.
Perhaps my favorite pieces on display were the fuzzy representations of famous paintings. Particularly notable were the versions of Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Children,” Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” and El Greco’s “The Resurrection.” While these paintings were, in many ways, only out of focus, black-and-white versions of the originals, they still managed to convey something completely new. The facelessness of the figures causes any familiarity with the paintings’ original depictions to fade. All that remains is the beauty of the figures themselves, the power of the students’ own interpretations.
Equally striking were several pen and ink drawings of everyday objects. I particularly liked one representing a garden glove. Using only a series of curving lines, the artist managed to fully emulate the texture and appearance of a leather glove, right down to the tiny hole in the pointer finger.
Indeed, everything in the exhibit speaks of carefully cultivated mastery. The sketches of female nudes on the right side of the room are as precise as they are beautiful. The female body and its curves are displayed in all their glory without a tinge of idealism or shame. The figures convey a simple and graceful beauty -— and a sense of artistic purpose. Each student-made piece bears the mark of Chaet’s truly transformative teaching.
I cannot think of a more wonderful tribute to a brilliant teacher than this show. Although I knew nothing about professor Chaet before I walked in, I walked out feeling his influence. He took talented, if green, young artists and, year in and year out, helped them produce work of immense quality that retains its power decades on. I walked away from the exhibit feeling as though I too had the privilege of being taught, if only briefly, by professor Chaet.