Review of “Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France” at the Ashmolean


Modernism has a habit of returning, of seeming pertinent as a bearer of explanations, long after its paradigms have been eclipsed.

Changes in artistic epoch are like the processing speed of computers: they are likely to increase in pace over time, pushing older models aside as defunct. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century there were perhaps three or four movements (Renaissance, Baroque, Roccoco, Noeclassical). From 1870 to the present there have been nearly forty.

Art history divides the field of activity into portions: how and where the markers are placed is, in a certain sense, arbitrary. Artistic periods are just words. When Giorgio Vasari eulogised his artistic peer group with the word “Renaissance” (rinascita) he could scarcely have imagined the magnitude of the umbrella he would open up.

So what of Modernism? It is a word to treat precisely (like Suprematism or Fluxus?) or a feint approximation of something far too large and slippery to grasp? If we are now in the postmodern era, or pseudo-modern, or maybe post-truth, then whatever came before should have been understood by now. But there is reason to think that Modernism has never been fully digested, or never quite diagnosed for what it really was. Many voices have had their say, and yet a Manet portrait still manages to illicit fresh reflections, just as a Picasso contortion still has the power to confound.

Art produced in France in the 19th Century has achieved the distinction of being some of the most looked at and written about art in European history. The storyline is superbly redolent: Romanticism spreading the continent, Napoleon on the march, David and Ingres as his enthusiastic hagiographers, Géricault and Delecroix adding new potency, and then came Manet, Baudelaire and the painters of modern life, the demise of the Salon, freedom for artists, the Impressionists and the dawn of a new century. All this juiciness makes for a challenging history. Does the Ashmolean shed any new light?

Drawn from the private collection of Ursula and Stanley R Johnson, art history students in Paris during the 1950s who began collecting as their interest in modern European art deepened, the tale of Modernism is represented here by a series of (mostly) small scale works on paper, encompassing prints by Fragonard and Géricault, some Manet lithographs, lightweight sketches and watercolours by the likes of Monet and Degas, a single Cezanne, followed by more works on paper by Braque, Gleizes, Metzinger, Matisse, Leger, and Picasso. With names like that, you tend to expect a plot thicker than oil and a touch of the show-stoppers. But that isn’t quite what the Ashmolean delivers.

Judged on the level of a private collection, it is a rare and preeminent thrill to wonder through the gallery rooms and be surrounded by so many names in such close-quarters. Apparently, the works here are just a fraction of the Johnson’s collection, and when one thinks of the personal, human drive that must have gone into this collection, the array and extent of pieces is impressive.

These are the movers and the shakers we are all familiar with. On one side of the first room hangs a charcoal study by David; on the opposite wall a line of Degas drawings. Moving into the next room, a Cezanne study precedes the revolution of Cubism. Round the corner, a row of four pictures by Jacque Villon in which he explores the free-play of a stylised Cubist mode is truly exciting. In room 3, a hoard of Picasso drawings all the way up to the 1960s. That’s a pretty big sweep. And yet, because of the sharper story the Ashmolean is trying to tell, something is missing.

Determined to underline the importance of the historical revolution, the exhibition text dwells on the precepts of the standard story of Modernism: an overturning of order, an artistic call to arms, a facing up to a changing world.

At the fundamental level, Modernism was always about the industrialisation and urbanisation of European society during the nineteenth century society. The set of experiences associated with the diminishing realm of agrarian living gave way to a new set of encounters, defined most sharply by the patterns of the burgeoning cities. Thus Modernism is seen as a response to a more transient, crowded, diverse, mechanised and commercialised landscape. The effect was sufficiently captured in 1903 by Georg Simmel in his The Metropolis and Mental Life: ‘The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli.’

Whether in celebration of it, or in reaction to it, the art of the Modernism is about change. Formal portraiture gives way intimate, captured moments. Composition become less a matter of pre-defined rules and more about assembling disparate parts, as the fleeting glimpses of modern life suggest.

Yet there are obvious paradoxes, since whilst it is easy to assemble a lineage of painters, from Manet to Cezanne to Braque to Mondrian, whose work seems lead inexorably to non-representation (as if non-representation were a pinnacle everyone was trying to reach; the metaphor of the mountaineers invoked by Picasso and Braque in their cubist partnership is pertinent here), it is not always obvious how to square this trend with Modernisms’ other core trope, that of a preference for realism and topicality in its subject matter. There is not necessarily a conflict between realism and abstraction, but the synergy contains a complexity that this exhibition doesn’t try to explore. Besides which, the true emergence of abstraction is not an easily plotted story, since the parameters of influence change from city to city and from artist to artist.

Ultimately, in its literature the Ashmolean exhibition speaks the language of a catch-all show, and yet the works themselves are too insubstantial to adequately back up a full creation-narrative. These feel like the pictures made in the moments prior to or in between the real works: a hasty sketch, a preparatory experiment, a private study. Considered as intimate pieces collected by enthusiastic art historians, the works are insightful and exciting. Yet on the level of the seismic story of Modernism, the works are not representative. I was reminded of the essay by Foucault What is an Author? in which he asks what we should count as an author’s work: ‘His marginal notations and corrections [...], a reminder of an appointment, an address, a laundry bill?’

A meaningful exhibition doesn’t (or shouldn’t) need the large works in order to be engaging. But if it is going to attempt to capture the ebb and flow of 19th century art in France, it needs to be able to reference at least some of the beacons that waymarked the journey. Would this exhibition have been so well visited had it aimed its sights lower, say by concentrating the story of the acquisition of the collection itself, or on the lesser-known artists of whom the best works in the show belong (such as those by the so-called Section d’Or, a group of lesser-known cubists, including Jacques Villon, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes)? Probably not. But would it have made for a more satisfying experience? Almost certainly yes.

Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France
Ashmolean Musuem, Oxford, 10 February – 7 May 2017


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