Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Post-Impressionists Visit Canberra

I went to Our Nation's Capital to see the collection of 112 Post-Impressionist works kindly lent to us by the good folks at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, while their gaff is undergoing renovations.

Very often loans from foreign art museums consist of lesser works by famous artists, but this time they sent us the Good Stuff. Everything you've seen on posters and coasters. No runners-up.

An enthralling exhibition, well worth a visit.
The first Impressionist exhibition was held in 1874, ten years after the famous Salon des Refuses … the paintings in this exhibition date from the mid-1880s, when a new generation of artists broke away from Impressionism, creating the various Post-Impressionist styles which became the foundation of Modern Art.

The seven Van Goghs on show were painted between 1887 and 1889, and clearly show his progression from the subdued colour and impressionistic style of his Restaurant at Asniéres and Caravans at the Gypsy Camp near Arles, to the vibrant colours and unique style of his later work.

I particularly liked Imperial Crown Fritillaries in a Copper Vase: an exuberant swirl of colour, texture and light. One tends to forget that Vincent didn't only paint sunflowers!

Members will fondly remember Starry Night, which was a highlight of the NGV's blockbuster exhibition of 2004. I even spotted a few more works that were paying us an encore visit: Still Life With Fan by Gauguin, a small study for the Bathers at Asniéres by Seurat and Georges Lecombe's dramatic Purple Wave.

The Monets on show are the larger and more decorative ones he started painting in the late 1880s, when he also took to painting series. They include the iconic bridge over the lily pond and one of his many famous views of the Italian village of Bordighera. He painted fifty or more views of the town and surrounding area during a protracted stay in 1884: our members will be familiar with them.

My favourite among the Monets, however, was his view of the sun through fog on the Thames, with the Houses of Parliament in the background. I was fortunate enough to have seen this picture as part of the exhibition "Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions" at the Tate Britian in 2004 and I got the Whitehorse/Manningham Libraries to buy the catalogue.

Members might like to borrow the book from the library: these three great artists repeatedly painted the same spectacular views of the Thames, the Seine and the Venetian lagoon, depicting the effects of the light through mists and fog at various times of the day: it is interesting to see the similarities as well as the differences in their approach.

Meanwhile, back in Canberra, there was a row of five still lifes that caught my attention: two Cézannes, a Gauguin, a Sérusier and a Picasso. All centred round the same basic motif of apples on a table. It was interesting to see how the other artists had taken cues from Cézanne: the almost geometric shapes, cropped compostion and tilted planes.

I noticed how Picasso had used the same hatched brush strokes Cézanne does and how he reconfigured the elements of the picture into shapes that already foreshadowed his Cubist phase. It always amazes me how much great painters influence each other's work.

There were a number of Cézannes on display, including the famous Bathers and two lovely landscapes. The one I found most striking was his portrait of the art critic Gustave Geffroy, who had been fulsome in his praise of Cézanne's work. Cézanne disliked him personally, but painted his portrait as a "thank-you" for his support.

The figure of Geffroy forms a strong triangle in the centre of the painting. Both Picasso and Braque were fascinated by the structure of the bookcase and the space on the table surface: geometric and yet with unusual perspectives.

Perhaps because of his antipathy to the man, Cézanne left the face and hands incomplete, creating a mysterious and vaguely menacing image.

Pointillism, spearheaded by Georges Seurat, developed as a reaction against the free impressionist style—it was based on scientific colour theories using dots of colour from opposite sides of the spectrum, which blend when viewed from a distance.

It was too much to hope that they would part, even temporarily, with Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, but they did send a couple of studies for that and for the Bathers at Asniéres.

I was charmed by an early Seurat experiment with pointillism: Landscape with 'The poor fisherman' by Puvis de Chavannes, which he inscribed on the back: "Hommage à Pierre Puvisse de Chavannes".

The very painting by Puvis de Chavanne is also included in the exhibition, among the Symbolist works. Its bleak ambience and subdued palette is very similar to "Winter" by the same artist, in the NGV's collection. Our members will have seen it there.

The next room was dominated by Gauguin: his iconic Tahitian Women had pride of place, but most of the other works dated from his stay at Pont-Aven in rural France, where he led a group of young painters who developed Synthetism, a style inspired by the pious rural community of the region.

These paintings have a tranquil, almost spiritual air about them. I was particularly taken by the works of Emile Bernard, who uses large blocks of colour, often with black outlines.

There are also some Touluse-Lautrecs in the room: his cabaret and brothel scenes in total contrast with the Synthetists' rural tranquillity.

There is just not enough space to mention all the pictures I would like to talk about, but I can't go past Edouard Vuillard's In Bed (Au Lit). It caught my eye because I have always been fascinated by Vuillard's equally enigmatic The Doors, in the NGV's collection. Both have a neutral, almost monochromatic palette and planes of flat colour.

The pale green bar across the top of In Bed makes it seem as if the sleeper is under water - and what is the significance if the T-shape that floats over the sleeper's head? Is it a crucifix cropped by a green blind or is it the symbol of a dream?

Skipping right along to the last room in this marvellous exhibition, there are some beautiful, large decorative panels, cleary influenced by Art Nouveau. I particularly liked Public Gardens, a five-panel ensemble by Vuillard and two panels for a girl's bedroom, by Maurice Denis.

The NGA has a gallery of pictures from the exhibition on their website at www.nga.com.au where you can get a bit of a preview of what is on offer.

The exhibition is still on until 5th April 2010.

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