The new exhibition at the National Gallery in London is entitled ‘Delacroix – And the Rise of Modern Art’. In other words, Delacroix, one of the most important artists of te first half of the 19th century, is presented as being important, not so much for what he actually did as an individual creator, but because he in so many ways foreshadowed the kind of art that was made immediately after his demise – in particular by artists linked to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and even Fauvism. Only about a third of the pictures included are actually by the artist who gives the exhibition its title.
This is a trend that is making itself increasingly apparent in major exhibitions devoted to great names in art history. Sometimes the results are forgivable. London will very soon be treated to a show devoted to Giorgione and his influence. Everyone knows that there are only a handful of paintings that are securely attributed to the 16th century Venetian master, and that, of these, fewer still are likely to be lent. It will be interesting to see one or two of this rare handful, and to consider the influence of Giorgione’s magically ambiguous creative personality on his contemporaries and immediate successors.
Sometimes the outcome is dismal. ‘Rubens and His Legacy’, a huge show held in the sprint of last year in the main galleries of the Royal Academy, contained so many rather inferior works that were not by Rubens that the personality of the main protagonist was swamped.
The reasons for the tendency are clearly twofold. One, obviously, is that the key paintings by major masters are becoming harder and harder to borrow from the places where they usually hang. Delacroix is now remembered as a painter who made major public statements. The works that come to the mind’s eye when his name is mentioned are The Massacre at Chios (1824) and Liberty Leading the People (1830). The first of these hangs in the Louvre. The second is currently a key exhibit in the branch of the Louvre museum recently opened in the industrial city of Lens. Neither painting is ever likely to be loaned abroad. They are an important part of the political history of France, in addition to being part of its artistic history.
The other reason is that, as historical perspectives shorten, rather than lengthen, the exhibition going public increasing likes to see the masters of the past as being each of them ‘one of us’, as people who thought and acted almost exactly as they do themselves. Curators, though generally better informed, tend to go along with this rather shaky premise, in the hopes of creating a fuller engagement with the audience they are trying to address.
The National Gallery’s show doesn’t sell out in quite this crude way. It makes it clear that Delacroix did indeed exercise a major influence over a number of other major artists, among them Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne. Worthy examples of all these artists are included.
It does, however, raise a number of questions that are not answered within the framework offered. On the whole, they are not even addressed. The first question is fairly basic. How did Delacroix make a living, as a reasonably celebrated and successful artist in his own lifetime? He did not suffer the fate of Van Gogh, who hardly made any sales at all. The answer to this – the question about ensuring supply of bread-and-butter – seems to have been twofold. Delacroix did indeed receive public commissions. It helped that he was well connected. His presumed father, Charles Delacroix, rose to be a general in Napoleon’s armies, but the likelihood is that he was in fact the illegitimate son of Talleyrand, who protected him. Later, he was helped by his close relationship to Talleyrand’s grandson, the duc de Mornay, half-brother to the Emperor Napoleon III. As the catalogue of the National Gallery makes plain, however (especially if you bother to read the small print), one of his ways of keeping himself afloat was nevertheless to make smaller versions, for appreciative private patrons, of successful pictures that had gone into public possession. A number of the paintings on show at the NG are not in fact the first or ‘prime’ versions of a given composition.
This sounds pretty much like the mode of operating that we see now, in the career patterns of a number of celebrated contemporary artists. The public commissions sell the goodies to perhaps previously hesitant private buyers, though in our own day big, but of course impermanent, events in official spaces – installations and such – count for more than any artistic statement designed to last. Damien Hirst has travelled much the same route to celebrity and financial success as Delacroix did before him.
The immediate successors of Delacroix, though now often even more celebrated than he is, belonged to a different world. After the disaster of the Franco-Prussian war shattered French society, artists tended to retreat from politics, into a parallel universe that had different social rules. It pays to make a mental comparison between Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People and Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81). The Renoir, also absent from the N.G. show, “reflects the changing character of French society. The restaurant [Maison Fournaise in Chatou beside the Seine] welcomed customers of many classes, including businessmen, society women, artists, actresses, writers, critics and shop girls. This diverse group embodied a new, modern Parisian society.”
I quote this description from the official web site of the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, to which the painting by Renoir now belongs. The paradox is that the painters presented here as Delacroix’s heirs rejected, in social terms at least, almost everything he stood for – political interventionism, a dialogue with the ruling Establishment conducting from within the bosom of that Establishment.
There was one thing, however, that Delacroix and Renoir had very much in common, and which is well documented in the NG show. This is their fascination with the mysterious world of ‘Oriental’ – i.e. Islamic – culture. This began through sympathy with the Greeks, in their rebellion against the crumbling Ottoman Empire (for which see the Massacre at Chios, which was Delacroix’s first great artistic success), and also through fascination with the Turkish Tales of the English poet Lord Byron. Later it became associated with French colonization in North Africa. When the duc de Mornay was chosen, in 1831, to lead a diplomatic mission to Morocco, it was Delacroix who accompanied him, to record his mission, and thus their friendship began.
It is, however, striking that, for Delacroix, the world of Arabs and Jews in North Africa presented itself as dreamlike, detached from everyday reality. As the NG catalogue notes, in a section devoted to ‘Orientalism’:
“Nor did he [Delacroix] view the Arabs and Jews of North Africa as primitives to be civilized or savages to be suppressed; rather, he envisioned there a ‘living antiquity’ with inhabitants like ‘Roman senators or Greeks at the Panathenaic festival’ enrobed in the simplest attire that nevertheless projected their character of ‘nobility’.”
Does this make him a forerunner of our own contemporary artistic attitudes towards what we perceive as alien and exotic? No, I think not. Though it may serve as a forecast, in a slightly twisted way, of the young Picasso’s fascination with the tribal art of sub-Saharan Africa. It will be remembered that Picasso said, rather condescendingly, of his fellow Cubist Georges Braque, that “he did not understand l’art nègre because he was not superstitious.” To rephrase this: “Don’t tell me anything about tribal art – I like to look at it, but I don’t want to know. It gets in the way of my own fantasies about it.” In the world we have now, this kind of self-protective refusal, locked into our own cultural traditions, refusing to look outside them, is no longer possible.
‘Delacroix – And the Rise of Modern Art’ is in many ways an exemplary exhibition, in that it presents a lot of high quality paintings, many of them unfamiliar, and groups them together in an interesting fashion. The thesis it offers is, however, pretty rickety. On occasions it gets things exactly right, as when, for example, the catalogue quotes the Symbolist Odilon Redon on Delacroix’s ability to “express the life of beautiful things more by the reflection of exterior nature in his memory than by the observation and immediate analysis of the model.” Is this, however, characteristic of what we see now, right this moment, in the significant art of our own day? The answer, once again has got to be ‘no’. In fact the quality Redon describes is typical, not only of Delacroix himself, but also of a much older master he adored, Peter Paul Rubens. There is a fine copy by Delacroix after Rubens included in the exhibition to prove it.