jueves, 20 de abril de 2017


by: Jackie Wullschlager

“I found my lessons in the city itself, among the small traders, the waiters in cafés. Around them hovered that astonishing light of freedom which I had seen nowhere else. And this light, reborn in art, passed easily on to the canvases of the great French masters.”

 Albert Gleizes, ‘Portrait of Igor Stravinsky’ (1914).

            This was Marc Chagall, just arrived in Paris from St Petersburg in 1911. Daring to enter the grand galleries, he noted “the almost insurmountable differences which separated French painting from the painting of other lands. Everything showed a more definite feeling for order, clarity, an accurate sense of form, of a more painterly type of painting, even in the works of the lesser artists.”
Fifty years later, Stanley Johnson, from Chicago, and his wife Ursula settled in the Latin Quarter and were as struck by “profound affinities, the result of... shared cultural experiences of artists working in Paris across centuries. They started a collection, mostly of drawings and watercolours, demonstrating not just arts break points Manets radical flatness, Cubism — but continuities of classical grace, fluent line and airy light in Parisian painting. 

Fernand Léger, ‘Mother and Child’ (c.1949) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

The Ashmolean’s Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France is a connoisseur’s dream exhibition presenting that collection. Spontaneous and informal, works on paper reveal ways of thinking, and a delightful current shows newcomers experimenting with how to assimilate into the École de Paris. A cubist face built around fragments of books by Louis Marcoussis (né Ludwik Markus) portrays fleshy, double-chinned fellow Pole Guillaume Apollinaire. František Kupka’s abstract lines exploding like fireworks in “Localising Graphic Modules” play with ideas of musical composition. Chagall’s gouache in splashing slippery strokes “The Little Fish and the Fisherman” illustrates La Fontaine’s Fables, the 17th-century comédie humaine foundational to French literature.

Marc Chagall, 'The Little Fish and the Fisherman' (1927) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016
       The Ashmolean’s title is misleading; the show’s glory is rapports spanning such distant epochs. In Matisse’s woodcut “Nude in Profile on a Chaise Longue”, an unmodulated silhouette of a sleeping girl is set among rough, swirling incisions cut with carpenters’ tools; refined though primitivist, it echoes in its rushing elegance a bravura black chalk rococo drawing by Fragonard, depicting the hasty departure from his lover by boat, pennant fluttering in the breeze, of Ariosto’s hero Bireno.
Johnson discovered Jacques-Louis David’s acute, melancholy “An Old Man and a Young Woman”, rigorous contours and chiselled volumes recalling antique models, in the elderly Henry Moore’s bedroom. It hangs here alongside statuesque figures, including an impossibly elongated hyper-real “Odalisque” by Ingres, David’s pupil, and opposite some dozen works by Ingres’s fervent admirer, Degas. These, ranging from a youthful charcoal “Self-portrait in a Top Hat”, with engagingly awkward countenance, to pastels in sprinkled colour — “After the Bath”, of ungainly nudes in contorted postures — express deep connections with past masters: Degas’s insistence on “the probity of drawing”, his solidly sculptural balance.

Late in his career, Renoir was also a neoclassicist, as in the plump “Bather Drying Herself”, folds of stomach flesh luxuriantly described, in a warm charcoal drawing on pink paper here. Such majestic, curvaceous nudes in turn shaped Picasso’s generation. Léger’s smooth, rounded figures — “Mother and Child”, bold black contours overpainted with coloured blocks, is the show’s poster image — look to Renoir. André Lhote, whose “Harvest” is a Cubist-pastoral hybrid, wrote that thanks to 20th-century Renoir “painters’ intellectual space is reconquered”.

Pablo Picasso, 'Study for Three Musicians' (1920) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

He meant conceptual, cubist space, subject of the latter part of this exhibition. Sketches for “Les Demoiselles” and inky puzzles “The Fan” and “Still Life with Bottle of Marc”, suggesting Picasso’s thought processes, are highlights; the weakness is over-concentration on forgotten, clunky Cubist-followers — Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger — whom Picasso called “horribles serre-files” (awful stragglers). The Ashmolean does not admit that the Johnsons are dealers; seeking works for the US market, they befriended sources including widowed Madame Metzinger, then living with 22 cats, while also battling with Cubism’s impresario, nearly 90-year-old Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.

From him came the Picasso standout, “Cockerel, Woman and Young Man”, a monumental 1967 drawing animated by Cubism’s multiple viewpoints. He delineates the alert bird in scratchy blue crayon, against mother and son, whose hard outlines, lack of shading and the woman’s Greek profile all derive from neoclassical tradition. This marriage of old and new is suffused with a brilliant yellow wash, casting a sunbeam across a happy, rich, rare show.


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