“It is often said that true collectors have somewhat deranged minds,” writes Louis-Antoine Prat, in a magisterial essay for the catalogue of David to Cézanne: Master Drawings from the Prat Collection. The 101 works on display at the Art Gallery of NSW form an impressive testament to the obsessions of the collector and a source of pure pleasure for the viewer. This is primarily due to the quality of this selection, which includes works by French artists from the late mannerist period to the beginning of the twentieth century. The pieces have been chosen by a dedicated connoisseur and purchased with his own money.
I can’t over-emphasise the importance of the final point, because this is one of the cardinal differences between public and private collections. The private collector, often with limited funds at his disposal, must make astute decisions as to the works he most fervently wishes to acquire. Museums are more encyclopaedic in their interests, and perhaps less driven by the passion for ownership.
The pleasure of this show is greatly enhanced by an installation that preserves the intimacy of the medium. This stands in contrast with the banality of some previous presentations held in the upstairs space – the recent survey of contemporary art called Wilderness being a prime example. David to Cézanne shows what can be achieved by a curator – in this case, Peter Raissis – who approaches his material with intelligence and understanding.
Rarely has the AGNSW held an exhibition with such a perfect harmony of subject and presentation. For while there have been other drawings shows, maybe shows where the overall quality of the inclusions was greater, it is hard to think of another collection that was so consistently engaging.
Louis Prat’s catalogue essay is a personal credo, a philosophy of collecting, a model art history lesson, and an anthology of small anecdotes relating to the acquisition of works. It is beautifully written, and adds another dimension to this event.
It is one of the hallmarks of the collector’s mind that where a visitor sees a bewildering array of items, he or she knows the reason and purpose behind every piece. Where the visitor sees a profusion, the collector sees a system. Looking at their own holdings, collectors are more likely to focus on the gaps that still need to be filled, or to reflect on the pieces that got away.
Louis Prat is a self-conscious distillation of all the characteristics of the breed. In his essay he writes about the strenuous efforts required to obtain certain drawings, about pieces of good and bad luck, about the research needed to establish authenticity or provenance. He is opinionated in an erudite way, telling us that he has never sought a work by Impressionists such as Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, because they are poor draughtsmen. He admits to a lack of enthusiasm for artists such as Daumier, and perhaps an excessive love of Delacroix.
The collector makes informed but subjective judgements as to how many works are required by a particular artist to give a ‘complete’ overview of their qualities and achievements. Delacroix, for instance, required twelve drawings, while Seurat may be appraised in a hard-won suite of four. He introduces us to more obscure artists such as Rodolphe Bresdin, and to those cast into the shadows by the triumph of Impressionism, such as Léon Lhermitte and Albert Lebourg.
It is seductive but simplistic to divide the nineteenth century into heroes and villains, into those who welcomed or opposed the spread of Modernism. Yet such black-and-white distinctions do no justice to the complexity of the French art scene or the connections between artists. Manet, for instance, was a pupil of Thomas Couture, now seen as a textbook Salon artist. Cézanne, despite the fractured nature of his own drawings, was a fervent admirer of Ingres. Few artists can be clearly categorised as academics, pompiers, or representatives of le juste milieu. The lines of demarcation are often blurred, especially if we look only at drawings.
In their studies and preparatory sketches some artists are barely recognisable. Baron Gros, the neo-classical apologist for Napoleon Bonaparte, made sketches with a rapidity and vigour we might normally associate with an artist such as Picasso. His brown ink drawing, The plague-stricken people of Jaffa before 1804, is a masterly compositional study. The painting that grew out of this work, which may be seen in the Louvre, is a piece of propaganda art that portrays the little general as a great humanitarian, indeed as a saint. The surface is as smooth as silk with none of the jagged energy of the drawing.
Gros’s ferocious penmanship is contemporaneous with Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s neo-classical works, modelled with black and white chalk on blue paper. To modern eyes Prud’hon may seem a cold and distant artist, but his drawings have an undeniable warmth. The smile on the face of blind Fortune, or the tenderness with which he portrays a pair of disembodied arms reveals the depth of feeling behind the statuesque facade.
The same might be said about those other great classicists, David, and his some-time pupil, Ingres. A double portrait of his son and daughter-in-law is probably the last drawing David ever finished. It is a strangely private work for an artist who made his reputation with large set pieces in the service of politics.
Ingres is represented by five very different drawings, the most memorable being the portraits of his wife, Madeleine, and the violinist Pierre Baillot. For sheer delicacy and finesse, there is nothing like an Ingres portrait drawing, yet he is far from being a ‘natural’ draughtsman. Every tiny line in these drawings is the fruit of the most intense scrutiny. We can feel the power of the artist’s concentration, bringing these figures to life on the page. They give us the illusion that we could get to know the sitters simply by looking long enough at these images.
A drawing is as characteristic of an artist as a piece of handwriting, with a personality being contained in the sweep of a line or the way a volume is constructed. One may learn a lot about Gericault from his vigorous, Romantic drawings. In the calm, methodical approach of artists such as Millet or Puvis de Chavannes, one feels a more meditative and spiritual dimension. This is even the case in Millet’s deceptively simple drawing, Landscape near Vichy (1866/68), which allows us to look at a winding lane through the eyes of man with a deep, abiding love of the countryside.
One of the puzzles in this show is Delacroix’s brown ink wash drawing, Woman at the piano (1827/30), which shows a young woman playing the piano with incredible abandon, her breasts protruding from her blouse. Like all exceptional works of art, this picture seems to stand outside of time. It could almost be drawn by Balthus a century later. There has been much idle speculation as to the identity of the model, but it is safer to view the picture as a mildly erotic fantasy combining Delacroix’s enthusiasm for music with his love of the female form.
A striking feature of the Prat collection is the number of works with a literary or musical connection. There are two drawings by the poet, Baudelaire, from a known oeuvre of about twenty, and a number of pieces by the more prolific Victor Hugo, whom Prat describes as “the uncontested king of writer-draughtsmen”. Undisputed today maybe, but Hugo’s drawings were not widely appreciated in his lifetime, being viewed as curios for bibliophiles. As Prat notes, it was not until 1971 that these utterly unique drawings were collected into a scholarly exhibition.
There has often been a tendency to belittle the significance of the other activities of writers or artists, as if a creative person was allowed only one area of expertise. In one extreme case, the Australian artist, Rupert Bunny, spent his old age composing music, but most of this work was destroyed by the executors of his will who felt that it detracted from his reputation as a painter. Louis Prat, himself a novelist, is free from this narrow view. He finds it perfectly acceptable that Victor Hugo should have been a great draughtsman, or that Ingres played the violin like a professional musician. In the medium of drawing, where the first sparks of inspiration are kindled, the dividing lines between art forms are evanescent.
We may be impressed with the skill and ambition of a large painting, but it is those spontaneous marks on paper that lay bare an artist’s soul. In this exhibition it is as if we were peering over the artist’s shoulder, watching inspiration being translated into form.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 16, 2010
Art Gallery of NSW, September 22 – December 05, 2010