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From rococo to revolution - French art from Lille.

THE present exhibition at the National Gallery in London is on loan from the Musee des Beaux Arts in Lille. Its seemingly simple title 'Tradition and Revolution in French Art 1700-1880' is one I find challenging. Voltaire remarked that history was a pack of tricks played upon the dead. One sees how at every age, every society differs in its habits and values from every other, but surely the swings and changes during almost two hundred years spanned by this exhibition were particularly volatile. It encompassed the downfall of various kings, the despotic rule of Robespierre, the omnipotent rise of Napoleon; it covers a Revolution unique in human history, if only because it attempted a total reversal of an entire form of life in the West; it included the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Commune of 1871 when, from the end of March to the end of May, Frenchmen did unspeakable things to other Frenchmen.

According to the feminist Professor Griselda Pollock 'Social historians pay infinitely more attention to art than traditional art historians'. They should have a field day here. The average visitor will see an uneven miscellany -- a few undoubted masterpieces, several works of irredeemable awfulness and two exquisite gems. The exhibition provides a rich opportunity to see work by unfamiliar artists, and to speculate on one who may become the new darling of the art trade.

This might well be Louis-Leopold Boilly (1761-1845), born in Lille, to whose work a whole room is devoted. Many years ago I contributed a modest bi-monthly column for the 'Arts Review' called 'Around St. James's'. Many of the galleries in those sleek streets displayed the scintillating little genre scenes painted by Boilly. Fragonard was his prototype, and he could match the extraordinary delicacy of surface texture, especially of silk materials, of his master. As manifestations of a certain privileged social milieu their value was considerable.

Such inconsequential work did not suit the pre-revolutionary mood. 'Hasn't the brush been too much and for too long devoted to debauchery and vice?' stormed Diderot. And Boilly was denounced for frivolity by a lesser Lille artist, Jean Baptiste Wicar. To atone he painted 'The Triumph of Marat' seen here. While politically correct this animated street scene includes some slyly ironic and grotesque references. A pair of portraits of about 1800 of a droll looking husband and wife display this artist's meticulous clarity of draughtsmanship, as much to her bonnet ribbons as to the carpenter's tools her husband has laid aside.

'The Combat between Minerva and Mars' by Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) provides a rare chance to see this artist's bravura rococo style, learned from Boucher, his distant relative, before he became the high priest of the neo-classical style that typified the austerity of the revolutionary ideal. That began when he went to Rome in 1776 and plunged into Antiquity. The archeological discoveries at Herculaneum in 1755, Winckelmann's vast tome on Greek works of art and Piranesi's 'Le Antichita Romane' all fuelled this interest. On David's return to France in 1781 his 'Belisarius' had a triumphant reception. This early masterpiece, seen here, shows the noble but wronged Roman general, now blind and impoverished, arousing the pity of a noblewoman and her child to his plea for alms. David's concern with linking space in geometrical patterns in order to pinpoint the action is perfectly displayed.

The 'Belisarius' cannot compare in power to his 'The Oath of the Horatii' nor to his depiction of the death of Marat which raised portraiture into the domain of universal tragedy. Indeed his 'Belisarius' comes dangerously close to the affecting sentimentality that suffuses the work of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). Hypocritical piety played an important part in setting the neo-classical trend and 'The Punished Son' and 'The Ungrateful Son' in this exhibition are fairly typical examples.

It has always amazed me that Greuze invariably depicted females, young and old, as visions of sweetness and light. Diderot described Greuze's wife as 'doll-like, white and upright as a lily and pink as a rose'. She turned into a nagging virago, abandoned her children and cuckolded her husband so shamelessly he took her to court to be rid of her. Thereafter Greuze was hugely prolific, feted and favoured by the king as peintre du roi, but the Revolution ruined him, his work was locked away as too embarrassing, and when he died only two people followed his bier. His works were always beautifully painted. At the turn of the present century they were so eagerly collected by both Americans and British that in his memoirs the French art dealer, Rene Gimpel, twice mentions in 1919 his discovery of fake Greuze paintings.

The reaction against the order of neo-classicism was the emotional intensity of the Romantic Movement. Two major practitioners emerged -- Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and Theodore Gericault (1791-1824). Gericault embodied romanticism in his personality. A passionate horseman, he met his early death as the result of a riding accident. In 1819 he painted his masterpiece, the enormous, turbulent, powerful 'The Raft of the Medusa'. It created a success de scandale since it was based on the most shocking news story of the time, a macabre shipwreck ascribed in part to government incompetence. Two of Gericault's sketches for the painting are in the present exhibition. They join an extraordinarily virile oil sketch 'The Race of the Riderless Horses' of violent action and swirling paint as men struggle to control the thundering animals.

Delacroix's glowing flower painting 'Bouquet Champetre' is in unexpected contrast to his 'Medea' -- the grim image of a distraught mother, knife in hand, about to murder her two clasped infants to avenge the desertion of their father, Jason.

Few painters have been more alive to the social conditions of their period than Gustave Courbet (1819-77). Hugely vain, self-confident, and with a hatred of all authority, his works can deliver an almost physical shock to the observer. He delighted in indulging his preference for heroically built female nudes, one of which, 'Baigneuse' of 1853, so enraged Napoleon III that he struck at her with his riding crop.

Courbet's provocative anti-intellectualism is amply demonstrated here. 'Une Apres-dinee a Ornans' is a seemingly simple image of four countrymen, the artist among them, seated round a table in a rustic cottage having finished their meal. It is the enormous size of the canvas that underscores Courbet's politically charged Realism. Courbet was involved in the 1848 revolution and the Commune of 1871. For his role in the destruction of the column in the Place Vendome commemorating Napoleon, he was imprisoned and fined. Unable to pay, he fled to Switzerland where he died -- rebellious to the end.

It is impossible to avoid seeing the vast, truly awful nude painting 'The Birth of Venus' by Eugene Amaury Duval. It is an example of the falsely idealized figure painting so abhorred by Courbet. Profiting not one jot from being a pupil of Ingres, Amaury Duval's Venus has a mannerist unnatural length of limb, an impossible slenderness of body, a self-conscious bearing and seems about nine feet tall. She is the exact antithesis of Delacroix's 'Medea', let alone Picasso's beautiful, large lumbering ladies of the early 1920s which were in fact based on classical themes.

Bastien-Lepage's ambitious 'Achilles and Priam' is the most awful disaster in this exhibition. Taken from a story in the Iliad, Book 24, the aged king is humbling himself before the over-sized, over-muscled body of Achilles, naked except for an awkward-looking G-string. It is an example of ridiculously sentimental camp.

The two gems I mentioned could not be in greater contrast. A still-life by Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779) simply confirms him as one of the greatest masters of all time. The apparent simplicity of the objects he paints, a silver goblet, a bottle of wine, a pewter plate and a loaf of bread with a knife stuck through it is a magical deception. The eye is fooled by their tremendous realism for the moral behind all Chardin's works is their absolute honesty, the importance of truth.

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). 'The great poet of the eighteenth century is Watteau. A world, an entire world of poetry and fantasy issuing from his mind, filled his art with the elegance of a supernatural life. An enchantment, a thousand enchantments arose, upon wings...from the absolute originality of his genius...Watteau renewed the quality of grace.' Thus wrote the brothers, Jules and Edmond Goncourt, and their words apply to the delightful small work, painted in Lille, 'Une fete au Colisee which we see here. The white pavilion flamboyantly hung about with blue taffetas, the little boys scrambling up grassy slopes, the harmonious colours and gentle animation all make for an exquisite vignette of village life, as only Watteau could paint it.

This exhibition is a journey through dramatically changing artistic tastes, and if history does not teach one about art, here art certainly teaches one some history.

The exhibition continues at the National Gallery until July 11th, 1993.
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Title Annotation:exhibit at the National Gallery in London, England displays art from Lille, France
Author:Julius, Muriel
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1493
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