Civilisation michael prodger n April 1874, a group of young French artists shunned by the art establishment held an exhibition in the former studio of the photographer Nadar on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The 165 pictures on display caused a furore, the artists were derisively labelled the “Impressionists” and the exhibition became the most famous show in the history of art.
The first Impressionist exhibition has subsequently been heralded as marking the birth of modern art. It is a view that still holds sway though, of course, things are not that straightforward. Modern art as we now understand it is a 20th-century invention: the art of the 19th century was an organic creature, always growing out of what came before. For all their radicalism, that is true of Monet, Cézanne, Degas et al too.
Making an impression A new exhibition in Madrid casts a rich new light on the 19th-century French masters Art
Nevertheless, the Impressionists have come to be defined for what they were not— smooth, classically-inspired Salon painters—as much as what they were. It is, however, an alternative view that is put forward in Impressionism: A Modern Renaissance (January 14-April 22), at the handsome new galleries of the Fundación Mapfre in Madrid’s museum heartland. This exhibition suggests that the work of the Impressionists had more in common with that of their contemporaries than has usually been acknowledged, indeed that they were just one of many interlinked currents in late 19th-century art.
Domestic harmony: Madame Manet at the pianoI
Among the 90 paintings on show are ten Manets, nine Monets and a clutch of pictures by Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Pissarro and Courbet—an extraordinarily rich crop, the cream of the Musée d’Orsay in fact, on loan while that museum is being refurbished.
In order to make its case, the official end of the artistic spectrum is also on display in the form of once-celebrated Salon favourites such as Bouguereau and Meissonier (in the 1870s, the richest painter in France and the man Delacroix called “the incontestable master of our epoch”). Other outsider strands are present too, such as the Realists Courbet and Millet and the Symbolists Redon and Moreau. It’s a neat way of demonstrating that the us-against-them model of Impressionism is too reductionist by far.
Many of these clusters of artists shared similar themes and inspirations. There are, for instance, examples of women in domestic settings painted by Manet (Madame Manet au piano, 1868), Whistler (Arrangement in grey and black—“Whistler’s Mother”, 1871), Fantin-Latour (Victoria Dubourg, 1873): one subject and three diverse styles. Meissonier’s Siege of Paris, 1884, and Doré’s L’énigme, 1871, are two different interpretations of the disgrace of the Franco-Prussian war. Sunlight, clouds and fields were the stuff not just of Monet, Pissarro and Renoir but of Jean François Millet too. And so on.
Indeed, the real pleasure of the exhibition is twofold. First, in giving some of the less-heralded works of the period a brief place in the sun and, second, in demonstrating what imaginative curating can do. In finding new themes—the depiction of women, the influence of Spanish art, views of modern life among them—the organisers have shaken up the pot in a persuasive way. After all, the bulk of the works here are well known and have been exhaustively discussed but they emerge from this exhibition with a credible new historical role. It is curious that it has taken a holiday to Spain to do this.
Another fresh look at a familiar artistic movement, Abstract Expressionism, is on offer at Tate Modern: Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective (February 10-May 3). Gorky was born in Armenia in 1904 before fleeing the
1915 massacres and ending up in America in 1920. Once there, he set about creating an extraordinarily varied and influential body of work.
Because he was largely self-taught his paintings contain a wide range of references, from Ingres, Cézanne and Picasso through Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. What links them is an intense lyricism that permeates both his figurative and abstract paintings. Given his personal history it is tempting to see in them both nostalgia and tragedy too. Not only had the young Gorky been abandoned by his father, watched his mother die of starvation and been forced into exile, but his later life was unlucky, too. He suffered from cancer, had his neck broken in a car crash and his wife left him, taking their children with her. Small wonder he hanged himself at the age of 44.
About 150 works will be on display in this, the first major European retrospective for 20 years, including many of the pieces that helped shape the American avant-garde. There might have been even more, but in yet another slice of malign luck he lost a large slice of his work in a studio fire in 1946.
That same year also marked the death of the English Surrealist and landscapist Paul Nash. His work is the subject of a choice exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery: Paul Nash: The Elements (February 10-May 9). This overview of his career has been prompted by the recent cataloguing of the Gallery’s British collection and offers the chance to see some rarely-exhibited paintings, drawings and photographs. Nash made his name with the war paintings he made on being invalided home after falling into a trench near Ypres—paintings he hoped would convey the futility of the conflict to those directing affairs: “Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls,” he wrote. In paintings such as Totes Meer, he portrayed war as an elemental battle and he later infused his landscapes, especially those of the Downs, with a sweeter version of the same overarching nature mysticism.
Nash has always been an undervalued artist—too distinctively English to achieve international status perhaps—but here is an opportunity to prove that he deserves a place among his showier European peers.
January/February 2010 Civilisation
The art of bad habitsAlan Bennett’s play about Auden and Britten works. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s about Degas doesn’t
eal artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.” So wrote W. H. Auden, and Alan Bennett quotes him in the introduction to the text of his new play at the National Theatre, The Habit of Art. That is true, very often (with honourable exceptions, such as Chekhov), and it seems to be the problem both with this play and with another one about art, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Line.
The artists at the centre of The Habit of Art are Auden and Benjamin Britten. They are now old and ill, but were intimate friends and collaborators—and perhaps lovers— when they were young. In real life, after 1942, they were permanently estranged. In Bennett’s play, they meet again in 1972 in a slovenly artist’s grace-and-favour flat at the back of Christ Church, Oxford, where Auden is the college’s guest. Britten is visiting Oxford and comes after so long to see Auden, to discuss the difficulties of writing what will be his last opera, Death in Venice. They discuss much more. All this is a play within a play: around the drama of Auden, Britten and a visiting rent boy is another drama set at the National Theatre, among the cast performing the play.
The result is a wonderfully entertaining evening. Anyone who is tired of Bennett must be tired of life. He writes plays that are full of wit and witticisms. Habit is often very funny and sometimes extremely moving, even if it does lack the scope and the perfection of The History Boys. The actors, particularly Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, are so accomplished and exquisitely sensitive to the nuances of comedy and of pain that it is hard to imagine how the play could have been better performed, or indeed better directed or produced.
There are many subtle jokes and reflections in both the inner and the outer play. But even the less subtle are irresistible. “You aren’t being asked to do anything,” Auden tells a newly arrived young man, who is (unknown to the poet) an earnest interviewer. “You’re being paid. This is a transaction. I am going to suck you off.” “But I’m with the BBC,” protests the young man. “Really?” says Auden. “Well, that can’t be helped. Ideally, I would have preferred someone who was more a son of the soil, but it takes all sorts. In New York, one of the rent boys worked at the Pierpont Morgan Library.” To which the young man replies indignantly, “I am not a rent boy. I was at Keble.”
Funny, socially acute and deceptively gentle, these are part of the many sides of Bennett’s humour that the British public loves, not least the Daily Telegraph readers whom he claims to despise so much, but who appreciate his sensibility so well. All the same, nothing can remove from the centre of the play the problem that both Auden and Bennett identified: that the lives of artists are often very much less “nice” than their work. Whatever one may think of Auden and Britten as artists, as people they were both distinctly unpleasant. Their lives were far from admirable.
That can be made funny and outrageous. But one of the central themes of Bennett’s play within a play—Britten’s anguished obsession with very young boys and the way he dropped those who ceased to interest him— is not something that can be transformed into one-liners. That somehow sanitises it. Charming jokes between and about gay men are funny and touching. Joking about the age of desirable boys makes me feel uneasy. This obsession informed Britten’s work, as The Habit of Art makes clear, but I am not sure this is the place or the way to consider such a difficult subject. It is tempting to agree with the line Bennett himself gives to Auden, complaining that artists should not be interviewed. Their private lives should be of no concern to anyone except those close to them: “The rest is impertinence.” Bennett surely cannot mean that himself—
impertinence is the stuff of art. All the same, there is something troublingly impertinent about the treatment of latent paedophilia in this play.
The painter Edgar Degas was also far from a “nice” person. The problem with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Line is that he seems far from interesting as well, which both in life and in theatre is almost worse. I found myself wondering why the author had chosen to write about him at all, if she did not find, or could not make, him more worthy of attention. He is presented as a dull bully, who does and says little of much note. His lines are sententious and wordy and even Henry Goodman cannot rescue them. The way that Degas took sides against the Jewish officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus in the anti-Semitic scandal of late 19th-century France could have been turned into powerful theatre, but in this production it has little resonance. Timberlake Wertenbaker even manages to make Degas’ young protégée Suzanne Valadon somewhat boring, though in fact Valadon’s life was sensationally interesting: outstandingly gifted woman painter, circus girl, small-time prostitute, lover of some of the most talented men of the era, single mother and temporary member of the haute bourgeoisie, she ought to have been a gift to a writer.
In Degas’ case, at least on the showing of this play, Auden was right. Degas’ art is the thing. His life is residue, especially as he was so determined, with his extreme selfdiscipline, to sacrifice it to his art. It may not be impertinent to try to turn it into theatrical biography, but it does seem rather unnecessary. Anything that Bennett writes, however, no matter how nasty or dull the subject matter, can never be unnecessary.
Intimate: Richard Griffiths (left) and Alex Jennings as W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten