Les Impressionnistes en Normandie, Musée Jacquemart-André, until 25 July
Chefs-d’oeuvre de Budapest, Musée du Luxembourg, until 10 July
The Musée Jacquemart-André is one of the few art museums in Europe that have kept the old exhibiting principle known as the Petersburg method: almost every available space is thoughtfully used up to exhibit all of the museum’s greatest treasures. The result is not clutter but cornucopian abundance. You get to savour paintings, frescoes and sculptures executed by Renaissance masters on the top floor; Joshua Reynolds and François Boucher grace the walls of the ground floor alongside many other eighteenth-century works, exotic palm trees and yucca trees in the Winter garden. If you have a soft spot for architecture, you’ll be taken by the elegance of winding marble staircases and the breath-taking gallerias plunging down through the floors.
Viewing the current exhibition housed by the Musée Jacquemart-André really reignited my interest in the Impressionists. Although the focus is hardly narrow – nearly all the Impressionists painted in Normandy – the exhibition offers captivating insights into the connections between English and French painters in the period. The exhibition documents William Turner’s trips to Normandy in the 1820s and the sensation that John Constable’s The Hay Wain caused when it was exhibited in Paris. Thankfully, the painting isn’t exhibited here as it might have dwarfed some of the more small-scale beauties on display.
The delicacy of the curating choices prepares the viewer to appreciate fully the gorgeous subtlety of a painting by Richard Parkes Bonington, the English artist who might have rivalled Turner more resoundingly had he lived past the age of twenty-six. Bonington emigrated to France at the age of fifteen. He was friends with Eugène Delacroix, Eugène Isabey and other lesser-known artists who would become the avant-guard landscape painters of the day. As a group, they made field-trips to England and Normandy. The warmth of Bonington’s palette – absent in Turner’s less memorable, paler depictions of the northern French coast – makes Normandy glow like paradise viewed through peach-tinted glasses. Although Bonington’s brushstrokes don’t anticipate Impressionist impasto, there is a soft, shining blurriness at work that foreshadows Impressionist out-of-focus glimmering.
While the eighteenth-century phenomenon of the Grand Tour with its inevitable stopover in Rome was still very much in fashion in the early nineteenth century, a number of artists were beginning to tour their own countries or take more local trips to neighbouring countries. William Hogarth was one of the first to take a tour of Britain instead of the usual tour of the classical highlights of Europe. Although Turner did become enamoured of Italy like most painters before him, he paid five visits to Normandy too. Among French artists, Géricault and Delacroix pioneered going to London instead of heading for Rome. Géricault’s exhibition of The Raft of the Medusa at the Royal Academy in London caused a stir comparable to the excitement generated by The Hay Wain in Paris.
The exhibition is also instrumental in blurring the lines between Impressionism, Romanticism and Realism. Gustave Courbet, the high-priest of Realism in France, painted the same beachscapes side-by-side with Claude Monet who was to become the impresario of Impressionism. Delacroix is usually recorded in art history books for his exotic, densely-packed depictions of mythic Oriental conflicts but his 1852 oil painting (borrowed here from the Louvre collections) La mer vue des hauteurs de Dieppe makes him look like a wave-thirsty, sky-crazed Impressionist: each sail, each wave-shadow is brought to life by what seems to be no more than a single, dashed-on brushstroke.
While landscape painting started to become a significant (if initially unpopular) feature of painting in England thanks to Thomas Gainsborough’s passion for nature and Dutch art, it took non-classical landscapes and seascapes longer to emerge in France. Although the so-called hierarchy of genres still held sway in Holland too, the Dutch were the first to introduce genres that eventually rivalled historical and religious painting. England’s stronger geographical and cultural proximity to Holland accounts in some measure for the earlier emergence of landscape painting as a culturally-sanctioned genre.
In France, it was not before the pre-Impressionist painters like Camille Corot, Eugène Isabey and other ‘School of Nature’ painters in the 1830s, coupled to the English-inspired vogue for bathing, that landscape painting began its slow debunking of history painting as the most valued genre. It’s easy to see how French Realism morphed into Impressionism when you realize that the master of frothy cloudscapes Eugène Boudin mentored Claude Monet and that Boudin himself was taught by Jean-François Millet. Realism as it was conceived by painters like Millet and Constant Troyon had more to do with soft-edged atmospherics than strict, photo-perfect draughtsmanship.
The exhibition showcases a number of less well-known Impressionists that it’s a delight to discover. Included are some delicate pastel seascapes by women. Berthe Morisot is featured, but so is Eva Gonzalès, Manet’s only pupil. Gonzalès was a maverick sidelined by art history not just because she was a woman but because like her tutor she did not exhibit with the other Impressionists. Other little-known treasures include Edgar Degas’s ‘Petites Paysannes se lavant à la mer, vers le soir’ from a private collection. It’s like a harmonious collision between an Impressionist beachscape and an Expressionistic celebration of primitivism. Charles Angrand’s Le Pont de Pierre à Rouen is one of the few nocturnes painted by a member of the Impressionist school. It ranks effortlessly beside Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Another exciting exhibition on in Paris at the moment showcases masterpieces selected from the Budapest national gallery. While all the exhibits may not be masterpieces, there is much to praise in this show. The exhibition begins with late medieval art, offering depictions of holy figures like a wooden statue of Saint Dorothy with her basket full of roses and apples culled from the garden of her celestial bridegroom. Nearby, an ink painting shows Saint Marguerite proudly displaying the crucifix she is said to have used to carve her way out of Satan’s belly when he assailed her in the prison to which she had been consigned for being a Christian. Another ink painting of the Madonna and Child flanked by Saint Paul surprisingly reveals to the viewer that the technique of Pointillism was actually an early fifteenth-century German invention: the faces of the holy figures are covered in shading dots.
The transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance is captivatingly illustrated by Albrecht Altdorfer’s Crucifixion. Altdorfer is one of the first painters who made landscape painting a genre in its own right. In his Crucifixion, however, the landscape has been entirely blotted out by a goldleaf backdrop. There is speculation that this surprising throwback to medieval convention may have been requested by the patron who commissioned the painting. Whatever the case may be, it’s intriguing to view this combination of medieval aesthetics and Renaissance rounding and perspective (depth of field is provided by the high angle that shows figures getting smaller in the distance).
The Renaissance section of the exhibition has its share of severed heads. Lucas Cranach’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist can be read as part of a late fifteenth-century vogue for the depiction of the fatal wom¬an. The German moralistic tradition known as Weibermacht illustrated the perceived threat posed by powerful women who made you lose your head. It has been claimed that within the Lutheran Reformation, the theme of the strong woman also took on an allegorical function. Salome stood for arbitrary power, Judith was made to embody Lutheran resistance to Catholicism and Lucretia represented the Protestant longing to make Rome bend its knees.
Whatever the religious politics of the decapitation motif may be, it’s interesting to be able to measure the difference between Cranach’s non-narrative, strong but static Salome, and Johann Liss’s theatrical, choreographic Judith as she beheads Holofernes in his tent with balletic grace and baroque sensuality. Next to Liss’s Judith in the exhibition hangs Artemisia Gentileschi’s baroque rendition of the Old Testament story of Yael and Sisera, a Biblical story very like Judith and Holofernes which repeats the idea of a resourceful woman delivering Israel from oppression, this time by hammering a tent peg into the oppressor’s head while he sleeps. As with Gentileschi’s renderings of Judith, her propensity to depict brutal women probably had more to do with pictorially avenging her rape at the hands of her teacher Agostino Tassi than with any allegorical Counter-Reformation activism.
A more obvious illustration of the Counter-Reformation’s zeal to convert those who had strayed towards Protestantism can be felt in El Greco’s Annunciation. After the Council of Trent, artists were actively encouraged to sway Christians through the representation of the supernatural, the ecstatic, the emotional in a generally sensational, spectacular manner. The Annunciations El Greco painted in Spain tend to gradually ease out narration and architectural detail in favour of intensity and mystical splendour. You can practically hear the clap of thunder, feel the fork of lightning enter your bones, in front of the Annunciation exhibited at the Luxembourg show. Veronese’s adjacent Christ on the Cross is, to my mind, less successful in manifesting the supernatural. Veronese had been accused by the Church of portraying religious subjects in a way that was too mundane. To make amends, the spread of custard-yellow light behind Christ looks like a poorly-integrated after-thought when compared with El Greco’s holistic merging of natural and supernatural luminescence.
The exhibition’s modern section also contains some memorable pieces that highlight Hungarian artists more centrally. Symbolist masters such as Pal Szinyei Merse are represented by the profoundly appeasing Skylark (1882), an iconic painting which was slammed at the time in Hungary for displaying nudity without the excuse of a literary or mythological context. Another masterful Hungarian painting is Jozsef Rippl-Ronai’s Woman with a Bird Cage. It heightens the mundane like a Manet while remaining as mysterious as the most inspiring Symbolist paintings. It’s also well worth going to Paris to experience Janos Vaszary’s The Golden Age.
Erik Martiny has taught Anglophone literature, art and film in Cork, Aix-en-Provence, Saint- Germain-en-Laye and Paris. He currently teaches literature and translation to Khâgne students in the Lycée Molière. He has published articles on poetry and fiction in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Etudes Anglaises, The Cambridge Quarterly and other periodicals. His articles on contemporary art, literature and fashion have appeared in the The London Magazine, Times Literary Supplement, The Cambridge Quarterly, Poetry Review, World Literature in English, Fjords Review, The Iowa Review, Aesthetica Magazine, Frieze Magazine and Whitewall Magazine.