Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

The last decade of the 19th century is famous for its fin-de-siecle, decadent, dark imagery. In Imperial Britain this was epitomised by the decadent sexuality associated with the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book magazine and the pornographic prints of Aubrey Beardsley. In France there was a reaction against Impressionism which took many forms including the urban posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swarthy nudes of Paul Gauguin down in the South Seas. All were well-known and public artists, working in cosmopolitan cities which were the capitals of far-flung empires – London, Paris. They were famous and playing on large stages.

In the other countries of northern Europe, however, one of the most powerful artistic currents was Symbolism.

As the exhibition notes:

Symbolism was a literary and artistic movement that rejected representations of the external world for those of imagination and myth. Symbolists looked inwards in order to represent emotions and ideas.

In Belgium, north Germany and the Scandinavian countries, artists developed a wide range of techniques and styles, but tended to fixate on a handful of themes, namely sex and death. Death awaits with his scythe. Empty boats arrive at forbidding islands. Youths waste away from frustrated love. Beautiful young women turn out to be vampires.

Sex and death and anguish and despair, these are all much more personal, introverted, emotions. Wilde was a flamboyant public personality, Beardsley’s art was defiantly clear and elegant, both were immensely sophisticated and urban and cosmopolitan, confident doyens of the largest, richest city in the world.

Whereas much of the fin-de-siecle art from Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia was much darker, more personal. Of course they produced urban and sophisticated art as well – the 1890s is characterised by an explosion of diverse art movements – but there was also a big strand of empty lakes and immense dark pine forests and brooding skies and agonised artist-heroes.

Edvard Munch

Munch is slap bang in the middle of this social and cultural movement. His most famous work is The Scream, which was first made as a painting in 1893 and then turned into a lithograph in 1895 which was reproduced in French and British and American magazines and made his reputation.

The Scream is probably among the top ten most famous images produced by any artist anywhere, and has been parodied and lampooned and reproduced in every medium imaginable (pillow slips and duvet covers, posters, bags, t-shirts). It featured in an episode of The Simpsons, clinching its status as one of the world’s best known art icons. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa.

The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch. Private Collection, Norway. Photo by Thomas Widerberg

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

  1. It is highly stylised and simplified – it barely looks like a human being at all, more like some kind of ghost or spirit of the woods.
  2. The rest of the landscape is drawn with harsh single lines, whose waviness seems to echo the long O of the protagonist’s mouth.
  3. Thus ‘primitiveness’ of the technique of wood carving – with its thick, heavy ‘crude’ lines – somehow echoes the primalness of the emotional state being described.

The exhibition

This exhibition brings together nearly 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum, making this the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints seen in the UK for 45 years.

It also includes sketches, photos and a few oil paintings, not least a big haunting portrait – The Sick Child – of his favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when she was just 13. These are set alongside works by French and German contemporaries, to present a powerful overview of Munch’s troubled personality, the artistic milieu he moved in, and his extraordinary ability to turn it into powerful images conveying intense, primal, human emotions.

Vampire II (1896) by Edvard Munch. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

Claustrophobic

The exhibition is up in the top gallery in the Rotunda, a relatively small space, which was divided into smallish sections or rooms, the prints hung quite close together on the walls, and the place was packed, rammed, with silver-haired old ladies and gentleman. It was hard to move around. More than once I went to move on from studying a print and found I couldn’t move, with people studying the next-door prints blocking me to left and right and a shuffle of pedestrians blocking any backward movement. Imagine the Tube at rush hour. It was like that.

Possibly, in fact, a good atmosphere to savour Munch’s work. Trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical. it forced me to look up at the quotes from his letters or diaries which have been liberally printed up on the exhibition walls. Just reading these immediately gives you a sense of where Munch was coming from, his personality and the motivation for his art.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. (1908)

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted – and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there, trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (22 January 1892)

The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.

All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood. (1890)

I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe it.

We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

Sexual anxiety

There’s plenty more where this came from. The exhibition gives a lot of biographical detail about his early life, describing the Norwegian capital of Kristiana, how it was connected to the rest of Europe by sea routes, how it was a small provincial town whose every aspect was dominated by the stiflingly respectable Lutheran church, but how young Edvard was attracted to its small bohemian, artistic set of poets and writers and artists, how he conceived a massive sequence of works about love and sex and death which he titled The Frieze of Life –

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death. (1918)

How he travelled to Paris and to Berlin and scandalised respectable opinion with the exhibitions he held there, but created a stir and won admirers for the stark, elemental quality of his woodcuts and prints. (The exhibition includes a map of Europe showing Munch’s extensive travels during the 1890s and 1900s, along with a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps.)

We are told Munch was born and brought up in a fiercely religious and conservative bourgeois family which was horrified when he fell in with Kristiania’s bohemian layabouts. These bohos practiced sexual promiscuousness, had numerous affairs, and so were plagued by jealousy and infidelity and fights – all exacerbated by the way they drank too much, far too much.

It seemed obvious to me that Munch’s anxiety was caused by the crashing conflict between his extremely repressed bourgeois upbringing and the chaotic and promiscuous circles he moved in as a young man. On the one hand was a young man’s desire and lust, on the other were all the authority figures in his culture (and inside his head) saying even looking at a woman with lust in his heart would lead to instant damnation.

The scores of images he made of women as vampires and weird gothic presences and looming succubi emerging from the shadows, represent a repeated attempt to confront the epicentre of that clash – sex, embodied – for a heterosexual young man – by sexualised young women. They attracted him like a drug, like heroin – but all these compulsive thoughts about them triggered the terror of physical disease – the appalling ravages of syphilis for which there was no cure – along with the certainty of eternal damnation – and all these led to anxious, almost hysterical thoughts, about the only way out, the only way to resolve the endless nightmare of anxiety – and that was release and escape into death, the death which he had seen at such close quarters in the deaths of his beloved mother and sister from tuberculosis.

The obsessiveness of his sexual thoughts, and their violent clash with orthodox Christianity, is most evident in the hugely controversial Madonna, an obviously erotic image to which he blasphemously misapplies the title of the chaste Mother of God. And, when you look closely, you realise that those are sperm swimming round the outside of the frame, and a miserable looking foetus squatting at the bottom left. Sex versus Religion! It’s amazing he wasn’t arrested for blasphemy and public indecency. In fact his 1892 exhibition in Berlin so scandalised respectable opinion that it was shut down after just a week.

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

So Munch’s vampire women aren’t real women, of course they’re not. They are depictions of male anxiety about women, namely the irreconcilable conflict between the demanding, drug-addiction-level lust many young, testosterone-fueled men experience, whether they want to or not – and the multiplicity of feelings of shame about having such strong pornographic feelings and experiences, and regret at handling relationships with women badly, and anxiety that you are a failure, as a man and as a decent human being, and terror that – if there is a God – you are going straight to hell for all eternity.

Plus, as the wall labels indicate, there really was a lot of heavy drinking in his circle and by him personally, which led to chaotic lifestyles among the bohemian set, and Munch became a clinical alcoholic. And this addiction – to alcohol – will, of course, have exacerbated all the psychological problems described above.

Exposure to so many of Munch’s prints – alongside detailed explanations of how he made them, the Norwegian and north European tradition they stem from, and so on – really rubs in the fact that he was a great master of the form. It’s not just the Scream. Lots of the other prints have the same archetypal, primitive power, and the exhibition brings it out by setting Munch’s work beside prime examples by other leading printmakers of the time, in France and Germany (many of which are themselves worth paying the price of admission to see).

The subtle prints

It tends to be the extreme images we are attracted to – the Scream, the Madonna, the numerous vampire women, the worrying image of a pubescent girl sitting on a bed. But some decades ago we crossed a threshold into being able to accept all kinds of erotic and extreme images, so these no longer scandalise and thrill us in the same way they did their initial viewers, although they still provide powerful visual experiences.

But having had a first go around the exhibition taking in these greatest hits, I slowly came to realise there was another layer or area of his work, which is – in a word – more subtle. If the most obvious and impactful of his images are about stress and anxiety mounting to open hysteria – there were also plenty of images which were far more restrained. In which – to point out an obvious difference – the women are wearing clothes.

Instead of vampire women whose kisses are turning into bites, these tend to be of fully dressed, utterly ‘respectable’ late-nineteenth century types, set outdoors, in open air situations where… somehow, through the placing and composition of the figures, a more subtle sense of aloneness and isolation is conveyed. They capture the mood of a couple who are, for some reason, not communicating, each isolated in their brooding thoughts.

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Like the complex ways relationships between the sexes fail, become blocked and painful in the plays of Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. (Munch, as a leading artist of the day, was acquainted with both Ibsen and the younger playwright, Strindberg. It crosses my mind that if Munch’s more hysterical images can be compared to the highly strung characters in a Strindberg play, the more subdued and unhappy images in some way parallel Ibsen’s couples.)

Having processed the extreme images of vampire women, sex and death in my first go round, on this second pass I warmed to these less blatant images.

I noticed that the naked women images are almost always indoors (as, I suppose, naked women mostly had to be, in his day). But that the more ‘respectable’ and subtle images were all set outside, and often by primal landscapes – namely The Lake and the Forest – the kind of primeval landscape we all associate with Scandinavia and which really was available right on Kristiana’s doorstep.

The exhibition ends with a set of prints which perform variations on his characteristically hunched, half-abstract human figures – characteristically, showing one man and one woman – but in this series hauntingly isolated, leaning on each other – or against each other – in something which doesn’t look at all sensual but more like the survival techniques of characters from a play by Samuel Becket.

Towards the Forest II (1897/1915) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Less striking than the vampires and naked women and girls, I thought these strange, half-abstract, ‘lost souls in the landscape’ images had a kind of purity and haunting quality all their own.

Breakdown and rebirth

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1908 Munch had a nervous breakdown. His anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and sometimes fighting, had become acute, and he was experiencing hallucinations and persecution mania. He entered a clinic and underwent a comprehensive detoxification which lasted nearly eight months.

When he left, he was a new man. Well, new-ish. His work became more colourful and less pessimistic and the wider public of Kristiania for the first time began to appreciate his work. Critics were supportive. His paintings sold. Museums started to buy his back catalogue. His life improved in all measurable ways. But in a textbook case of the artist who needs his anxieties and neuroses to produce great works, everything he carved and painted from then on – portraits of rich friends, of the farm he bought, murals for factories – lacked the intensity and archetypal power of his early years.

Years later all that storm and stress and hysteria seemed so distant as almost to be inexplicable.It is typical that, decades later, he told the story of how his famous painting, Vampire II, got its title. He himself had simply titled it Love and Pain. Pretty boring, eh? But Munch’s friend, the critic Stanisław Przybyszewski, and clearly a man with a flair for publicity, described it as ‘a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.’ And, looking back, Munch comments:

It was the time of Ibsen, and if people were really bent on revelling in symbolist eeriness and calling the idyll ‘Vampire’ – why not?

A man in remission from alcoholism and mental illness, the older Munch can be forgiven for not wanting to revive unhappy memories, and for wanting to palm off the idea for lurid titles onto his friends. But the prints themselves, and all his early writings, don’t lie. The later work is interesting and decorative – but it is the unhappy period covered by this exhibition which produced the intense and troubled works which seem to take you right into the heart of the tortured human condition.

Older, wiser and sober – Munch among his paintings at the end of his life

The promotional video


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Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne @ the National Gallery

Samuel Courtauld (1876 – 1947) was rich. He was born into the Courtauld family, which, over several generations, had built up a successful fabric company based in Essex. After a good education and trips abroad to study the business, Courtauld took over as general manager in 1908, and then served as chairman from 1921 to 1946. Under his guidance the firm developed and marketed rayon, an artificial fibre and inexpensive silk substitute, growing into a major international company.

Courtauld became interested in art after seeing the Hugh Lane collection on exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1917. However, his career as a collector only started in 1922 following an exhibition of French art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. He was particularly taken with the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which were still viewed with suspicion in Britain, even in the art establishment. On seeing a Cézanne, he said:

At that moment I felt the magic, and I have felt it in Cézanne’s work ever since.

He decided to become a full time collector and, during the 1920s Courtauld created two collections in parallel:

  1. in 1923 he created a fund, the Courtauld Fund, of £50,000 to acquire modern French paintings for the National Gallery, which worked through a board of trustees and a network of dealers
  2. at the same time, he also bought works for his own private collection which eventually grew to more than seventy works

This latter set, he displayed at the London house he rented for the purpose, Home House, 20 Portman Square.

Courtauld had always shared his passion with his wife, Elizabeth and when she died in 1931, his interest in collecting waned. However, the experience had shown him that there was a need for sophisticated modern art scholarship, and so he worked with other sponsors and partners to found the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1932.

The Courtauld, as it is generally referred to, went from strength to strength. It is now among the most prestigious institutions in the world for the study of the history of art and conservation, and well known for the disproportionate number of directors of major museums drawn from its small body of alumni.

The Institute houses the Courtauld Gallery which is like a miniature version of the National Gallery, showcasing masterpieces of Western art from medieval times until the turn of the 20th century. Ever since its inception the Gallery has been renowned for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings which Samuel Courtauld gave to it 85 years ago.

In autumn 2018 the Courtauld Gallery closed for a major refurbishment. What to do with its priceless art works? It occurred to someone to reunite the French paintings Courtauld gave to his Institute, with the works by the same masters which his trust acquired for the National Gallery back in the 1920s.

Hence this exhibition. Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne brings together the 26 French masterpieces from the Courtauld Gallery and reunites them with the paintings acquired for the National Trust by the Courtauld Trust back in the 1920s.

The result is three large gallery rooms displaying forty three paintings by twelve master of the period in straightforward chronological order. The artists are:

  1. Daumier
  2. Manet
  3. Monet
  4. Renoir
  5. Pissarro
  6. Seurat
  7. Cézanne
  8. Bonnard
  9. Toulouse-Lautrec
  10. Gauguin
  11. Van Gogh

The exhibition tells two stories at the same time. On the surface this is yet another excuse (or opportunity) to trace the epoch-defining development of French painting from the 1860s to the 1900s, with lengthy wall labels about each of the twelve artists, and how they contributed to Impressionism and what became known, rather unsatisfactorily, as post-Impressionism – and then a wall label for each painting, telling us about the subject matter and treatment.

But each of the wall labels, and the audioguide, also give the stories behind Courtauld’s purchases of each of the paintings. These are sometimes convoluted, often expensive, and sometimes funny. It was intriguing to learn that Vollard, the famous art collector and dealer, who had had his portrait done by Renoir, Pissarro and others, actively wished a representation of himself to be displayed in Britain and so encouraged Courtauld to buy Renoir’s portrait of him. It cost Courtauld a whopping 800,000 francs.

Other anecdotes include the fact that the sketch of Manet’s famous Dejeuner sur l’herbe set him back £10,000, and that Courtauld bought van Gogh’s searing painting of a wheatfield for a mere £3,300, a lot of money at the time – but think what it would fetch now!

Money and philistinism

Although the curators prefer to think of this as a story about Cortauld’s ‘visionary and extraordinarily generous’ approach to art, it is also a story about money. The power of money, the necessity of money, the unavoidable imbrecation of art and money.

And peeping through the chinks in this mostly positive account of one man’s taste, drive and generosity – there is another story about the staggering philistinism of the British. It really is worth reflecting that, in the 1920s and into the 1930s, major British art institutes chose not to buy Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art because they didn’t think it was proper painting.

What barbarism! What philistinism! (That, in case you didn’t realise it, is why so much Modern French art ended up in America; rich Yanks snapped up works which the hoity-toity Brits turned their noses up at).

It is shaming to learn that the National Gallery refused, twice, to buy Degas’s masterpiece Young Spartans Exercising. Courtauld bought it and only 15 years later was it bequested to the National who had, at last, grasped its importance.

Similarly, it is appalling to learn that when the Cézanne self-portrait which Courtauld had acquired was first publicly displayed, in 1934, it had to be glazed to protect it from any attempts to deface and vandalise it!

Greatest hits

The exhibition includes some of the absolute all-time high points of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including La Loge by Renoir, Young Spartans Exercising by Degas, Seurat’s immense Bathers at Asnières, Cézanne’s Card PlayersTe Rerioa by Paul Gauguin

Personal favourites

From this treasury, I emerged liking four paintings in particular. This Degas painting of a woman at a window has always been tucked away in a corner when I’ve seen it at the Courtauld Gallery. This has added to its sense of mystery. But what I mainly like about it is the unfinished, dark obscurity of the image. In general, like strong defining black lines, disegno, outlines – and here you can feel Degas’s draughtsmanship performing an piece of magic – caught in the act of making a woman of flesh appear from a sequence of lines and dark colours. Next to it is a classic painting of two ballet dancers on stage, prettier, more finished. But for me, Woman at a window has always had atmosphere.

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Talking of pairs, take the corner of the room where the Manet section ends and the Monet section begins. The Monets include a wonderfully light luminescent view of the River Seine titled Autumn Effect at Argenteuil. (Like most Monets it looks far better seen from across the room; the further away the more luminous it becomes.)

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Famous though they are, I didn’t like the handful of other Manets on show here. They confirmed my feeling that I don’t like Manet that much, I really do find his paintings scrappy and unfinished, often with errors of draughtsmanship and perspective which annoy me.

Except for this view of the Seine which he painted around the time he got to know Monet and had gone to stay with him at his Seine-side house. Here you can see Manet copying Monet’s use of broken brushstrokes and light, airy palette. But what I like Manet’s river study, why I prefer it to Monet’s, is the intensity of the black – in the ribbon round the woman’s hat, in the shadow of the boats – and the deepness and richness of the blue tone he’s used for the river water, darker, fuller, richer than the light frolicsome Monet. For me, this makes the picture much more biting, punchy, virile.

Which one do you prefer?

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Having established that I like strong blacks, it was no surprise to me that I kept returning to Renoir’s La Loge i.e. the box at the theatre.

In reviews of other Impressionist exhibitions, and books, I’ve already pointed out that it seems to me Renoir established a ‘look’, a style, a brand, early on and stuck to it for most of his career (until, admittedly, he drastically changed in the last decade of his life).

The commentary gives a sophisticated analysis of the picture. It explains that a Paris theatre box was a place to see and be seen. It explains that the woman is on show, knows she is on show, is looking straight at us, putting us right there, maybe in a box opposite, an effect subtly reinforced by the way a) her male companion is busy scanning the crowd with opera glasses, maybe looking for another beautiful woman to ogle at (as we, it is implied, as observing this one) and b) the way the details at the periphery (her hands, the edge of the box) are blurred as if we are looking at her through opera glasses, which blur the edge of vision.

All this is true, but I just like the pattern of her dress, the strong black and white lines – and above all, the porcelain beauty of the woman’s face, pale and perfect. It took me a while to realise that this is because her face is the only part of the composition which is painted smoothly and with great finish – everything else is blurred and unsettling to look at. Whichever detail you zero in on, you end up being pushed back to her perfect face as a point of rest. I find it hypnotic.

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The three Gauguin paintings on display are important but don’t quite do it for me. I like Gauguin but, for all the talk of the exotic South Seas, the selection here was surprisingly drab, dominated by a worn out brown colour. (Poor Bonnard had a little section next to Gauguin and van Gogh; his two works were knocked completely into the shade by them).

No, the masterpiece of the final room is A Wheatfield, with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh. Whereas reproductions tend to improve Monet’s Impressionist works (often a bit scrappy when seen close-up), no reproduction can convey the extraordinary turmoil and rhythm and energy of this van Gogh.

It is a revelation, a masterpiece which, for me, towers above all the other masterpieces on show. Being able to go right up to the surface and investigate the complex technique of whirls and splashes of thick oil van Gogh used to create the impression of tumult and dynamism is worth the price of admission by itself. It really is. The closer you get, the more you can see the gaps in the swirling brushstrokes and the raw canvas beneath, can see the way the red blodges at the bottom have been added to the already thick layers of paint to convey poppies. But the extravagance of the impasto, the thick layers of paint used, only adds to the tremendous emotionality of the picture. Viewed in a smoother-out reproduction (as below) it is great, but viewed in the flesh, close-up, it is like being struck by lightning.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923 © The National Gallery, London

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923
© The National Gallery, London

A mystery

You exit the three big gallery rooms which contain these masterpieces into the shop (fridge magnets, books, tote bags etc) and then into room 41, another big National gallery room. This one follows on naturally from the subject matter of the previous exhibition with works by Monet and van Gogh among other turn of the century French artists and then….

You notice that no fewer than eight of the paintings in this room have a label next to them indicating that they, too, were collected by the Courtauld Trust and donated to the National Gallery. They should, in other words, be included in the exhibition. Why aren’t they?

Lack of space? But surely the existing 40 or so paintings could have been shuffled up a bit… or display panels could have been erected in the middle of the rooms, as I’ve seen done at countless exhibitions.

The paintings which are part of the Courtauld bequest but are not included in the Courtauld exhibition include a Monet waterlilies, a view of the St Lazare station in Paris, and van Gogh’s Sunflowers (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924) and van Gogh’s chair (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924).

If the exhibition aims to bring together all the Courtauld’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in one place… these should without doubt have been included in the exhibition.

Maybe… maybe they’re too famous. Over six million people visit the National Gallery every year. These paintings are among the most popular attractions. Maybe the National Gallery is forbidden to make people pay to see them. Or maybe it was just discretion on the part of the curators, knowing that many people might make the pilgrimage down to London, or from abroad, many to see these treasures… and then be pretty disgruntled to discover they had to pay to see them.

Maybe displaying eight painting which Courtauld bought for the nation outside an exhibition about paintings which Courtauld bought for the nation, was the only solution.

Van Gogh's chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see at the National gallery

Van Gogh’s chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see anytime at the National Gallery

Video

Exhibition curator Anne Robbins talks us through two pivotal works bought by Courtauld, including Manet’s last great masterpiece, ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’.


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The Post-Impressionists by Belinda Thompson (2nd edition 1990)

Impressionist artists paint what they see; post-Impressionist artists paint what they feel

Post-Impressionism

The most important thing about ‘post-Impressionism’ is that the expression was coined in 1910, by an English art critic (Roger Fry), well after the painters it referred to were all dead. It is generally used to describe the principal French painters of the 1880s and 1890s, specifically Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, along with lesser artists of the period – but is an entirely invented, post hoc expression.

This large format book (30 cm tall x 23 cm wide) includes 180 illustrations (80 in dazzling full colour) so that, even without reading the text, just flicking through it is a good introduction to the visual world of the era.

The Impressionist legacy

Essentially, the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s had broken with the constraints of the style of academic painting which was required to gain entry to the annual exhibitions at the official Paris Art Salon – thus also breaking with the traditional career path to establishing a professional livelihood through sales to traditional ‘bourgeois’ patrons.

The Impressionists saw themselves as a group of ‘independents’ or ‘intransigents’ who broke various rules of traditional painting, such as:

  • the requirement that a painting depict grand historical or mythological subjects – the Impressionists preferred to depict subjects and scenes from everyday life
  • the requirement for each painting to be as realistic as possible a window onto an imagined scene by concealing brushstrokes – whereas the Impressionists foregrounded highly visible dabs and brushstrokes
  • the requirement to bring each painting to a peak of completion, with a high finish – whereas the Impressionists often let raw canvas show through, deliberately creating an air of rapid improvisation in pursuit of their stated aim to capture ‘the fleeting moment’

The Impressionists also established the idea of organising group exhibitions independent of the Salon, a new and provocative idea which placed them very firmly outside the official establishment. The history of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, held between 1874 and 1886, is complex and multi-layered.

Meanwhile, their great patron, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, developed the idea of holding one-artist shows organised in such a way as to show each artist’s evolving style and subject matter, itself a novel idea at the time.

And lastly, the Impressionists garnered from their various writerly supporters a range of manifestos, pamphlets and articles defending them and explaining their artistic principles.

These, then, were the achievements and strategies which the post-Impressionists inherited and took full use of.

The weakness of post-Impressionism as an art history term

Thompson’s book from start to finish shows the problematic nature of the term ‘post-Impressionism’ almost as soon as you try to apply it. Sure, many of the ‘post-Impressionists’ exhibited together at a series of exhibitions in the 1880s and 90s – but they were never a self-conscious group, never had manifestos like the Impressionists.

Far from it, during the 1880s Gauguin, who developed into a ‘leader’ of many of the younger artists, expressed a violent dislike of the so-called ‘neo-Impressionist’ group which developed in the 1890s and which was virulently reciprocated. Yet, despite hating each other, they are both now usually gathered under the one umbrella term, post-Impressionism.

The new young artists of the 1880s and 1890s worked amid a great swirl of artistic movements, which included Symbolism (Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau) and the would-be scientific neo-Impressionism (often identified with Pointillism) of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, as well as the influence of non-French artists such as Ferdinand Holder (Swiss) or James Ensor (Belgian) and, of course, of the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh. All of these came from different traditions and weren’t so in thrall to the essentially French Impressionist legacy.

Again and again consideration of the term post-Impressionism breaks down into the task of tracking the individual careers and visions of distinct artists – with the dominating personalities being Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, but with lesser contemporaries including Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Eduard Vuillard also contributing.

If you can make any generalisations about the ‘post-Impressionists’ it is around their use of very bright, harsh garish colours (compared with the Impressionists’ more muted tones) and their departure from, their flying free from, the constraints of a ‘naturalistic’ ideology of painting ‘reality’.

In summary

Thompson’s book is an excellent and thought-provoking account of the complex of commercial pressures, individual initiatives and shifting allegiances, characters, theories, mutual competition, individual entrepreneurship and changing loyalties which undermine any notion of a clear discernible pattern or movement in the period – but which makes for an absorbing read.


Four key exhibitions

The first half of the book gives a detailed account of a series of key exhibitions, which she uses to bring out:

a) the differences between so many of the artists
b) their changing ideas and allegiances

The Eighth Impressionist Exhibition (1886)

Of the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition we learn that only Degas, Pissarro, Guillamin and Berthe Morisot of the original group exhibited, Renoir and Monet having cried off, partly hoping still to exhibit at the Salon. Degas created a lot of ructions by insisting that the show take place during the same weeks as the official Salon’s big annual exhibition – a deliberately provocative gesture – and insisting that a number of his figure-painting friends take part, though they had little real affinity with Impressionism (namely Mary Cassatt, Forain, Zandomeneghi and the completely unrelated Odilon Redon).

It is useful to learn that the pointillists Seurat and Signac, along with the old-timer Pissarro and his son Lucien (who were both experimenting with pointillism), were given a room of their own. This explains why they gave such a strong vibe of being a new and distinct movement and so prompted the critic Félix Fénéon to give them the name ‘Neo-Impressionists’.

As mentioned above, Gauguin had a falling-out with Signac which led the followers of both to crystallise into opposing camps.

The Volpini Exhibition (1889) – ‘Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste’

To mark the centenary of the Great Revolution of 1789, the French government sponsored a huge Universal Exhibition, to be held in buildings erected in the grounds around the newly opened Eiffel Tower.

As part of the Exhibition the Salon/Academie of Beaux-Arts staged a big show designed to tell the story of French painting over the previous century, which included some but not many of the Impressionists, and then only of their early works.

Gauguin organised a rival show at the Cafe Volpini in the nearby Champs de Mars made up of artists he had met painting in Brittany, including Émile Bernard, Émile Schuffenecker, Charles Laval, Léon Fauché and Louis Roy. Later historians credit this show with the launch of a ‘Pont-Aven’ school (named after the French town where Gauguin had developed his style) but Thompson shows how varied in look and style these artists were, which tends to undermine that claim.

Notable were the absentees: Toulouse-Lautrec was considered for the Volpini show but eventually debarred because he’d been exhibiting at a private club, and van Gogh, who desperately wanted to be included, was prevented from doing so by his art dealer brother, Theo, who thought it was a tacky alternative to the official Exhibition.

To the untrained eye the pieces shown here:

  • have gone completely beyond the Impressionist concern for the delicate depiction of light and shadow into a completely new world of vibrant colours and stylised forms – The Buckwheat Harvest by Émile Bernard
  • and, if they are depicting ‘modern life’, they do so with – instead of dashes and daubs of light – very strong black outlines and sinewy lines, very much in line with Lautrec’s work and the feel of Art NouveauAvenue de Clichy, Five O’Clock in the Evening by Louis Anquetin

The word ‘synthétiste’ appeared, applied to Anquetin’s work, and meaning the combination of heavy dark outlines with areas of flat, unshadowed, uninflected colour.

The art critic Fénéon wrote an insightful review of the exhibition in which he singled out Gauguin as having found a new route past Impressionism which was also completely opposite to the pseudo-scientific approach of the pointillists, a style in which Gauguin:

rejects all illusionistic effects, even atmospheric ones, simplifies and exaggerates lines

giving the areas created by the outlines vibrant, often non-naturalistic colouring. – Breton Calvary, the Green Christ (1889).

During the late 1880s a young painter named Paul Sérusier, studying at the Academie Julian, had gathered a number of devotees who called themselves the ‘Nabis’ or prophets, and they decided that Gauguin was the vanguard of a new painting and set off to Brittany to meet and copy the Master.

Gauguin was also at the core of an essay written by the painter and critic Maurice Denis – ‘Definition of Neo-Traditionism’ – which claimed that:

  • Gauguin was a master of a new style which emphasised that a painting is first and foremost an arrangement of colour on a flat surface
  • therefore, it is futile trying to achieve illusionistic naturalism
  • and that the neo-traditionists (as he called them), having realised this, were returning to the function of art before the High Renaissance misled it, namely to create an art which is essentially decorative – which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is

The Fourth Le Barc de Boutteville Exhibition of Impressionists and Symbolists (1893)

This exhibition featured 146 works by 24 artists and displayed a bewildering variety, including as it did Impressionists like Pissarro, neo-Impressionists like Signac, the independent Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘school of Pont-Aven’ followers of Gauguin, and ‘Nabis’ like Bonnard and Vuillard. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is confusing.

The explanation for it being such a rag-tag of different artists and styles is that it was one of a series put together by the thrusting new art dealer, Le Barc de Boutteville. The main beneficiaries were the ‘Nabis’ who fitted in well with the contemporary literary movement of symbolism. – Nabi landscape by Paul Ranson (1890).

Thompson brings out the political differences between the pointillists – generally left-wing anarchists – and the Nabis – from generally well-off background and quickly popular with established symbolist poets and critics.

The Cézanne One-Man Show (1895)

Cézanne acquired the reputation of being a difficult curmudgeon. In the early 1880s he abandoned the Paris art world and went back to self-imposed exile in his home town of Aix-en-Provence. When his rich father died in 1886, Cézanne married his long-standing partner, Hortense, moving into his father’s large house and estate. To young artists back in Paris he became a legendary figure, a demanding perfectionist who never exhibited his work.

The 1895 show was the first ever devoted to Cézanne, organised by the up-and-coming gallery owner and dealer, Ambroise Vollard. The 150 works on display highlighted Cézanne’s mature technique of:

  • creating a painting by deploying blocks of heavily hatched colour built up with numerous parallel brushstrokes
  • his experiments with perspective i.e. incorporating multiple perspectives, messing with the picture plane
  • his obsessive reworkings of the same subject (countless still lives of apples and oranges or the view of nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire)

The one-man show marked a major revaluation of Cézanne’s entire career and even prompted some critics to rethink Gauguin’s previously dominant position, demoting him as leader of the post-Impressionists and repositioning him as the heir to a ‘tradition’ of Cézanne, placing the latter now as a kind of source of the new style.

You can certainly see in this Vollard portrait something of the mask-like faces of early Matisse, and the angular browns of Cubism (Picasso was to paint Vollard’s portrait in cubist style just 11 years later), even (maybe) the angularities of Futurism. It all seems to be here in embryonic form.

Thompson’s analysis of these four exhibitions (chosen from many) provides snapshots of the changing tastes of the period, but also underlines the sheer diversity of artists working in the 1880s and 1890s, and even the way ‘traditions’ and allegiances kept shifting and being redefined (she quotes several artists – Bernard, Denis – who started the 1890s revering Gauguin and ended it claiming that Cézanne had always been their master).

Themes and topics

In the second half of the book Thompson looks in more detail at specific themes and ideas of the two decades in question.

From Naturalism to Symbolism

If one overarching trend marks the shifting aesthetic outlooks from 1880 to 1900 it is a move from Naturalism to Symbolism. In 1880 artists and critics alike still spoke about capturing the natural world. Symbolism was launched as a formal movement in 1886 with its emphasis on the mysterious and obscure. By the end of the 1880s and the early 1890s artists and critics were talking about capturing ‘hidden meanings’, ‘subtle harmonies’, ‘penetrating the veils of nature’ to something more meaningful beneath.

Thus although Monet and Cézanne continued in their different ways to investigate the human perception of nature, the way their works were interpreted – by critics and fellow artists – shifted around them, influenced by the rise of an increasing flock of new art movements.

Thompson vividly demonstrates this shift – the evolution in worldviews from Naturalism to Symbolism – by the juxtaposition of Women Gleaning (1889)  by Camille Pissarro and Avril (1892) by Maurice Denis just a few years later.

The difference is obviously one of vision, style and technique, but it is also not unconnected with their political differences. Pissarro was a life-long left-winger with a strong feel for working people: his oeuvre from start to finish has a rugged ‘honesty’ of subject and technique. Denis, by contrast, was a committed Catholic mystic who spent his career working out a private system of religious symbols, a personal way of depicting the great ‘mysteries’ of the Catholic religion.

Politically, thematically, stylistically, they epitomise the shifting currents, especially of the 1890s.

‘Synthesis’

Synthesis/synthetism was a common buzzword of the Symbolists. It means the conscious simplification of drawing, of composition and the harmonisation of colour. Included in this general trend were the taste for Japanese art (liked by everyone from the 1870s onwards), the symbolist fashion for ancient art e.g. from Egypt, and for ‘primitive’ European art i.e. the Italian 14th century.

(This growing taste for exotica and the non-European obviously sets the scene for the taste for Oceanic and African art which was to come in in the early years of the 20th century.)

Interestingly, Thompson shows how this same line of interpretation – simplification, strong outline, unmediated colour – can be applied both to Seurat’s highly academic pointillist paintings and, in a different way, to the violently subjective works of Gauguin. On the face of it completely different, they can be interpreted as following the same, very basic, movement in perception.

Portraiture

Cézanne’s portrait of Achille Emperaire (1868) was contemptuously rejected by the judges at the Salon. 20 years later, hung at the back of the collector Père Tanguy’s shop, it was a subject of pilgrimage and inspiration to the new generation – to the likes of Gauguin, van Gogh, Bernard and Denis.

Thompson explores the differing approach to portraits of more marginal figures like Redon, van Rysselberghe and Laval, but the centre of the chapter compares and contrasts Gauguin’s virile ‘synthetic’ self-portraits with van Gogh’s quite stunning self-portraits.

The examples Thompson chooses show both artists as head and shoulders above their peers, with van Gogh achieving a kind of god-like transcendence.

Gay Paree

Thompson makes the interesting point that ‘Gay Paree’ was largely a PR, press and tourist office invention of the last decades of the 19th century, capitalising on the proliferation of bars, circuses and cabarets, epitomised by the Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889, and marketed through the expanding medium of posters and adverts in new, large-format newspapers and magazines.

Yet by the 1890s this had become a darker vision, a night-time vision. Thompson compares the lovely sun-dappled idylls of Renoir, who painted working class revellers at the Moulin de Galette cafe in Montmartre in the 1870s – with the much darker, sometimes elegant-sometimes grotesque visions of the dwarfish aristocrat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec – At the Moulin Rouge (1892). The 1890s were a darker decade.

Politics

In the last few chapters Thompson brings in an increasing amount of politics. The chapter on Gay Paree had already brought out how life for the average working class Parisian, despite the tourist posters, still involved harsh, long hours at poor pay (and she throws emphasis in particular on the exploitation of women – as laundry women, washerwomen, shop assistants, and the huge army of prostitutes).

This is all set against the increasing political turmoil in Paris, which saw a number of anarchist bombings in the 1880s and 1890s leading up to the assassination of President Carnot in 1894, who was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist. In the backlash, some art critics were arrested for their left-wing sympathies and left-wing artists (Pissarro and most of the pointillists) kept their heads down.

Later the same year – 1894 – saw the beginning of the long, scandalous Dreyfus Affair, which started with the arrest of a Jewish army captain for supposedly leaking military secrets to the Germans. He was tried and found guilty on very shaky evidence then, after a long campaign to free him, another trial was held, which found him guilty again and sentenced him to hard labour on Devil’s Island.

(Although it’s a fiction book, Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy gives the most detailed account of the evidence and the successive trials which I’ve read.)

The affair dragged on for over a decade, driving a great wedge between supporters of the Establishment, of the law and justice system, of la patrie and of Catholicism – and liberal and left-wing politicians and sympathisers, who saw the whole thing as an embarrassing stitch-up, as the symbol of a fossilised reactionary order which needed to be overthrown.

The Affair also brought out a virulent strain of anti-Semiticism among anti-Dreyfusards, who used his supposed guilt to implicate the whole world of cosmopolitan culture, corruption, decadent art, sexual perversion and all the usual suspects for right-wing ire.

And the Affair divided the art world. Degas, in particular, comes off very badly. As a conservative anti-Dreyfusard, he severed ties with all Jews of his acquaintance (including his old Impressionist colleague, Pissarro). Shameful.

The Dreyfus Affair brought into focus a movement on the right, known as le Ralliement, which attempted to bring all the forces of ‘order’ into one unified movement in order to combat the perceived growth of working class and socialist movements.

Suffice to say that the artistic developments of the 1890s took place against a darker, more intense social background than that of the 1880s.

Thompson shows how this shifting political backdrop can be read into the art of the 1890s, with Catholic artists like Denis producing works full of Christian imagery, while the perfectly balanced and idealised visions of the neo-Impressionists (given that most of them were well-known left-wingers) can be interpreted as the depiction of a perfect socialist world of justice and equality.

In this more heavily politicised setting, the apparently carefree caricatures of Toulouse-Lautrec gain a harsher significance, gain force as biting satire against a polarised society. (Certainly, the grotesqueness of some of the faces in some of the examples given here reminded me of the bitter satirical paintings of post-war Weimar Germany, found in Otto Dix and George Grosz.)

Meanwhile, many other artists ‘took refuge in’ or were seeking, more personal and individual kinds of spirituality.

This is the sense in which to understand Thompson’s notion that if there is one overarching movement or direction of travel in the art of the period it is out of Naturalism and into Symbolism.

At its simplest Symbolism can be defined as a search for the idea and the ideal beneath appearances. Appearances alone made up more than enough of a subject for the Impressionists. But the post-Impressionists were searching for something more, some kind of meaning.

In their wildly different ways, this sense of a personal quest – which generated all kinds of personal symbols and imagery – can be used to describe Cézanne (with his obsessive visions of Mont Sainte-Victoire), Gauguin’s odyssey to the South Seas where he found a treasure trove of imagery, Van Gogh’s development of a very personal symbolism (sunflowers, stars) and even use of colours (his favourite colour was yellow, colour of the sun and of life), as well as the journeys of other fin-de-siecle artists such as the deeply symbolic Edvard Munch from Norway – who Thompson brings in towards the end of the book.

Landscape

In the chapter on landscapes Thompson is led (once again) back to the masterpieces by those two very different artists, van Gogh and Gauguin. Deploying the new, politicised frame of reference which she has explained so well, Thompson judges the success or failure of various artists of the day to get back to nature, specifically to live with peasants and express peasant life.

Judged from this point of view, Gauguin comes in for criticism as a poseur, who didn’t really share the peasant superstitions of the people he lived among in Brittany any more than he really assimilated the non-European beliefs of the peoples of Tahiti where he went to live in 1895.

He is contrasted with the more modest lifestyle of Pissarro, who lived in relative poverty among farmers outside Paris more or less as one of them, keeping his own village plot, growing vegetables, keeping chickens.

Or with van Gogh, who had a self-appointed mission to convey, and so somehow redeem, the life of the poor.

Conclusion

This is an excellent introduction to a complicated and potentially confusing period of art history. Not only does it give a good chronological feel for events, but the chapters on themes and topics then explore in some detail the way the various movements, artists, styles and approaches played out across a range of subjects and themes.

Paradoxically, the book is given strength by what Thompson leaves out. She doesn’t mention the Vienna Secession of 1897, doesn’t really explore the Decadence (the deliberately corrupt and elitist art of drugs and sexual perversion which flourished in the boudoirs and private editions of the rich), she mentions Art Nouveau (named after an art gallery founded in 1895) once or twice, but doesn’t explore it in any detail.

Mention of these other movements makes you realise that post-Impressionism, narrowly defined as the reaction of leading French artists of the 1880s and 1890s to the Impressionist legacy, was itself only part of a great swirl and explosion of new styles and looks in the 1890s.

It may be pretty dubious as an art history phrase, but ‘post-Impressionism’ will probably endure, in all its unsatisfactoriness, because it helps mark out the three or four main lines of descent from Impressionism in France – neo-Impressionism, neo-Traditionism, and specifically the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Seurat – from the host of other, related but distinct, movements of the day.

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin


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