Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean Museum review ****

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Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 20th April 2017

So a day trip to the Ashmolean to take in this exhibition and a bit of the mighty Ashmolean’s permanent collection, (favourites include the Sickert room, the Medieval English collection and the Chinese ceramics and art). Well worth it since you ask.

So this loosely, and not entirely accurately, titled exhibition takes in highlights from the very fine collection of Ursula and R Stanley Johnson, from the Romantics and Neo Classicists of the early C19, through Impressionism and Post Impressionism,  and into the myriad of movements through the early C20, notably Cubism. It does a grand job in showing just how complex and exciting the evolution of Modernism was in France (largely Paris obviously) during those heady days. The collection, I gather,  was initially centred around drawings which feature especially in the first half of the exhibition, but in the second half we do get some lovely paint. Just goes to show what you can do if you send years studying art history, inherit a gallery from your dad and then deal your way to this.

There are plenty of examples of drawings from the top notch greats of the canon but what I found most interesting was the showcasing of many works from those who might not be considered household names, notably Juan Gris (three works here), Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger and Jacques Villon. Talking of Juan Gris if you quickly tire of the crush of schoolkids and tourists ticking off of Guernica in the Reina Sofia wander off to Room 208 – a collection of stunners by Gris.

Now I can take or leave all the Romantic and Neo Classicist stuff, actually no I can leave it, with Ingres and Gericault in particular a complete mystery to me. There is however a fine JL David drawing (Old Man and Young Woman) once owned by a Mr Henry Moore apparently. So I only really started to pay attention at the Manets, in particular the lithograph here taken from the Berthe Morisot portrait in the Musee D’Orsay and the delicious watercolour of a Mirabelle Plum. Degas drawings are then given an extensive workout (I am sorry I just can’t get too excited about these) before we get to some wonderful Cezanne drawings with the Study of Pine Trees the most remarkable to my eyes. Manet and Cezanne – to this day I wonder why it took me so long to get it. There is also a Portrait of Doctor Gachet which apparently is Van Gogh’s only etching – great stuff.

From here it is the Picassos and Legers which I guess will wow the punters but I was drawn to Jacques Villon, the brother oF Marcel Duchamp and Raymond Duchamp Villon, and his contemporaries, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes. All three were part of the Puteaux group whose key exhibition was in 1912, the Salon of the Golden Section. In particular I would point to to Villon’s watercolour study Soldiers Marching, and the oil portrait and drawing of his father, to Jean Metzinger’s oils, The Yellow Feather and Landscape, and to Albert Gleizes’s Still Life, his landscapes and the Stravinsky portrait. For any of you, like me, who often finds themselves more admiring, rather than really enjoying, the cubism of Picasso and Braque, I think you will get a lot of aesthetic pleasure out of these particular works. I guess some might say they veer a little towards the decorative, (and some poncey critics won’t countenance them next to big Pablo), but there is an easy immediacy here and lots of lovely colour, so I am smitten. I had seen a smattering of works elsewhere by these three but paid insufficient attention. They are now firmly on the “actively seek out’ list. Apparently the Johnsons have a truckload of Golden Section artists. I would pay good money to see those.

So there you are. A wonderful collection, easy to take in, in a top notch institution. It was a bit busy when I went (same as the Fitzwilliam when I go) and it doesn’t have any late opening as far as I know but well worth a visit. Mind you only a week left – sorry.

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