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