Sunday, 10 April 2016

'Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art' at the National Gallery

I finally made it to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery. It's one of those 'here's a painting by the named subject and here are some painters he influenced' type of exhibitions that have become so popular in recent years. This one works better than most. I really wanted to see the painting used for the poster - the lion with a dangerous-looking spear poised to stab him. I am, of course, on the lion's side in whatever's going on here. I'm very much in the 'gerrof, you deserve to be savaged' camp.

Anyway, Delacroix. I don't know much about him at all. I know he's painted some iconic paintings and was held in great reverence by people like Baudelaire but that's really about it. He sits in the latter part of that period when my art knowledge is sketchiest, i.e. between the Renaissance and the start of the modern period around 1850-ish so this was a good opportunity to learn about him and his work. And that's sort of what the exhibition doesn't really do so I still don't feel that I know much about him. The exhibition is about his influence rather than being about himself so that's reasonable.

The first room is a collection of his more ordinary paintings and portraits, including a self-portrait. This is his world of people and places, ordinary but brought to life.

I much preferred the next room with paintings from when he visited North Africa and painted scenes and subjects far more exotic compared to his safe Parisian world. These still look exotic today, largely because they're historic and the same scene wouldn't happen today - he's captured a lost world that was novel back when he painted as well as today. I got a bit puzzled by seeing a cliff-top Tangier when it's built at the top of a beach, but what's detail between friends? The compositions and colours are really good, capturing the dramatic and telling a strange narrative behind them.

We then go into a room of floral paintings since he seems to have been responsible for  reinvigorating the art of the flower still-life. That's all fine and good, but I have to say that I preferred Gaugin's flowers to Delacroix's vase of flowers and fruit.

The paintings that really impressed were in the later rooms and they weren't by Delacroix. They were by Cezanne, by Monet, Matisse, Gaugin, Van Gogh and by Kandinsky, all of whom acknowledged the influence of Delacroix.

I loved the 'Pieta (after Delacroix)' and 'Olive Trees' by Van Gogh, both dated 1889. Such marvellous and expressive paintings and neither of which I've seen before. The 'Pieta' was the poster painting for an exhibition in Florence last year that I dearly wanted to see but I left the day before the exhibition opened but I remember it well beaming down from hoardings all over town, rubbing my nose in my bad timing. And I've finally seen it, with it's hundreds of blues, lemon yellow and Vincent's face and ginger hair on the Christ figure. There are approximately 2,596 shades of blue in Mary's frock, and I gazed and gazed at the swirling colours... and then went back to gaze again.

As ever, these reproductions don't do the colours or the intense brush strokes justice but they at least give you an idea of what the paintings look like. Such as the glorious colours in Van Gogh's 'Olive Trees' that even the merchandise in the National Gallery itself didn't do justice to.  The gorgeous sun and sky, bright lemon yellow helping the trees to put forth their offering of olives, the trees with their purple shadows in that scorching sun. The only green in that parched landscape is the silver-green of the olive tree leaves. Wow. I want to go to that land.

One of the last paintings was by Wassily Kandinsky (who also features in the 'Modern Gardens' exhibition at the Royal Academy up the road) and it was really quite stunning in its visual intensity. It has the odd title of 'Study for Improvisation V' with a woman kneeling before a man who's in a gale with two horse-riders in the background and goodness knows what else. I remember the exhibition of his works at the Tate Modern 10 years ago and seeing more of his paintings in the 'Russia' exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. More recently I remember his flower painting at the 'Modern Garden's exhibition and the large photo of him in shorts in his garden.

The colours are so much more dramatic than in this reproduction. I can't help but keep looking at the horse-riders and wonder where they're heading? They're obviously in a rush so it must be important.

All in all, it's a good exhibition and I intend going back again in the next few weeks to see if M. Delacroix speaks to me more loudly. And to enjoy the paintings I liked again, of course. O, and if you're interested, here's the full painting that the poster is drawn from. In my world, the lions are protecting their pride from ruthless hunters and savage everyone in sight and then stroll off leaving the bodies to vultures...

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