Friday, 24 February 2017

Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France

A new exhibition showcases the experimentation and forward-thinking techniques of artists working in France

Written by Sandra Smith

Between the French revolution and Second World War, Paris’s reputation as a centre of visual arts in Europe simultaneously developed alongside artists’ evolving subjects and techniques. Subjective and abstract styles replaced naturalistic with modern themes, such as urban life challenging hitherto accepted assumptions about representing human experiences two-dimensionally.

Along with poets and members of the avant-garde, artists, lured by the salons and dealers entrenched in the French capital, began to nurture a creative exchange. Bohemian quarters such as Montmartre became breeding grounds for the advancement of new thinking, materials and practices. Sandra-Smith-colour-176

In this spring exhibition, the Ashmolean brings together a huge number of illustrations, paintings and sketches reflecting the ground-breaking and productive period, starting in 1789, when the way for artists to gain recognition and sell their work revolved around the annual exhibition of the French Academy.

Eventually, a group of artists, unable to make a living or have their work seen in public through this accepted channel, organised independent shows. Their journey, and more, is presented chronologically with displays of experimental works, such as the early stages of abstractionism and cubism.

Included is lithography – making prints from an image drawn on a limestone block, invented during the late 1790s. The process linked drawing with printmaking, while manmade coloured chalks provided an instantaneous alternative to watercolours – though from the 1880s the latter were recognised as art in their own right rather than mere preparatory works.

This visual feast demands time to appreciate the progress of thinking by some of the world’s finest artists. From Degas’ colourful studies of bathing nudes to portraits by Manet and Millet’s detailed charcoal scene – shepherdess seated on a rock – the first gallery focuses on traditional 19th-century styles.

The heart of the exhibition, however, celebrates those artists drawn to cubism, including Gleizes. Although less familiar, his work remains intriguing. In particular, his Portrait of Igor Stravinsky is a wonderful metaphor. By fragmenting the subject, he recreates a symbiosis between art and music.

The number of Picasso images reflects both his influence and diversity with inks, graphites, gouache, crayon and drypoint – testament to a desire to stretch boundaries, while one of the most colourful and engaging works is Léger’s Mother and Child, a timeless subject projected in a simple and accessible way.

Degas to Picaso draws on the family collection of Ursula and R Stanley Johnson who, while studying in Paris during the ’50s and ’60s, began accumulating works on paper. Their private enthusiasm has now culminated in this prolific public exhibition.

Until 7 May at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street, Oxford: 01865-278000, 

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