Caro­line Bu­gler is charmed by an ex­hi­bi­tion that tells the story of Mod­ern French art through prints and draw­ings

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Mod­ern Franch prints and draw­ings charm Caro­line Bu­gler

Pi­casso is such a house­hold name that it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary to re­alise just how long ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his work and that of his French con­tem­po­raries took to ar­rive in Bri­tain. Tate didn’t ac­quire its first Pi­casso—a con­ser­va­tive early flower paint­ing, not a rad­i­cal cu­bist can­vas—un­til 1933, two decades af­ter the artist had es­tab­lished him­self as a leader of the Euro­pean avant-garde.

‘Some are pri­vate draw­ings, which pro­vide an in­sight into the work­ings of the cre­ative mind’

Even now, rep­re­sen­ta­tion of early-20th-cen­tury French art in Bri­tish gal­leries is patchy, be­cause, by the time the UK art es­tab­lish­ment had wo­ken to its im­por­tance, it had be­come ex­tremely ex­pen­sive. Many of the pic­tures on dis­play in our mu­se­ums have been given by gen­er­ous donors rather than be­ing funded by the pub­lic purse.

How­ever, back in the late 1950s and 1960s, when stan­ley and Ur­sula Johnson were study­ing art his­tory in Paris, it was pos­si­ble to buy French draw­ings, wa­ter­colours, pas­tels and prints of that era on a fairly mod­est bud­get if you knew where to look. The young amer­i­can/ger­man cou­ple bought and sold art to make a liv­ing, but were re­luc­tant to part with some of their favourite works or those they felt were sig­nif­i­cant. con­tin­u­ing to ac­quire long af­ter their stu­dent days were over, they built a re­mark­able pri­vate col­lec­tion.

They have now lent more than 100 works by 40 artists to the ash­molean Mu­seum for a thought­ful ex­hi­bi­tion that traces Mod­ern art from its roots in the Ro­man­tic era through the rad­i­cal ex­per­i­ments of the early 20th cen­tury and up to the sec­ond World War. The nar­ra­tive of Modernism— a re­jec­tion of past styles in favour of in­no­va­tion and ex­per­i­ment that res­onated with the mod­ern world—is fa­mil­iar enough from books, but the works on show are not.

some are in­ves­tiga­tive, pri­vate draw­ings, which pro­vide an in­sight into the work­ings of the cre­ative mind. oth­ers are so closely linked to fin­ished works that the dis­tinc­tion be­tween draw­ing and paint­ing feels ar­ti­fi­cial.

The pic­tures are hung broadly chrono­log­i­cally and the aca- demic draughts­man­ship that tra­di­tion­ally formed the ba­sis of an artist’s train­ing in France is easy to see in the first room, with its assem­bly of works on pa­per by artists such as Delacroix and in­gres. a group of pic­tures by De­gas shows how that tra­di­tion con­tin­ued, but also how draw­ing be­came in­creas­ingly ex­per­i­men­tal as the 19th cen­tury pro­gressed. a finely worked early

por­trait of the artist’s fa­ther is an ac­com­plished, de­tailed like­ness that could have been pro­duced half a cen­tury ear­lier; in a later group of lith­o­graphs and draw­ings of bathers he made for his own pri­vate pur­poses, the lines are fluid and bold, ex­ploit­ing the soft­ness of char­coal and crayon.

The largest group of works in the ex­hi­bi­tion re­lates to Cu­bism, its pre­de­ces­sors and its im­pact. A min­i­mal study of Provençal pine trees by Cézanne hangs near slightly later works by

Pi­casso and Braque that push the no­tion of sim­pli­fied and dis­sected form fur­ther into ab­strac­tion. A later Pi­casso gouache poses a co­nun­drum: the John­sons had al­ways as­sumed it rep­re­sented a white cof­fee ta­ble, but, following a visit to the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York, they be­gan to won­der whether it was ac­tu­ally a study for one of the fig­ures in the artist’s Three Mu­si­cians.

Some of the most in­ter­est­ing pic­tures are those by lesser­known Cu­bists, Al­bert Gleizes, Jean Met­zinger and Jac­ques Vil­lon. One of these, Gleizes’ Cu­bist Por­trait of Igor Stravin­sky, shows the com­poser re­duced to a kite shape, the black and white of his shirt, but­tons and jacket still recog­nis­able, a few lines of mu­si­cal no­ta­tion hint­ing at his pro­fes­sion. What is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing here is the colour and colour also seems to break forth in joy­ful ex­u­ber­ance in a hand­ful of pic­tures by Léger and Dufy.

The John­sons have al­ways tried to se­lect their ac­qui­si­tions ac­cord­ing to the kind of ra­tio­nal cri­te­ria that gov­ern mu­seum pur­chases—the need to fill a gap in the col­lec­tion or whether or not a piece is an im­por­tant ex­am­ple of an artist’s work—but they have of­ten found them­selves buy­ing some­thing sim­ply for its beauty or quirk­i­ness. Ul­ti­mately, they say, ‘the most deeply felt re­ac­tions are led by the heart, not the head’. ‘De­gas to Pi­casso; Cre­at­ing Modernism in France’ is at the Ash­molean Mu­seum, Ox­ford, un­til May 7 (01865 278000; www.ash­molean.org) Next week: The Bruegels at the Hol­burne Mu­seum, Bath

One of a se­ries of stud­ies made by Gleizes for his Por­trait of Igor Stravin­sky, painted in 1914 af­ter the com­poser had re­turned to Paris for the open­ing of Le Ros­sig­nol at the Paris Opera

In The Lit­tle Fish and the Fish­er­man (1927), Cha­gall brings one of La Fon­taine’s Fa­bles to life

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