Question time in Canberra: “Is Masterpieces from Paris the most important exhibition ever shown at the National Gallery of Australia, as NGA director, Ron Radford, has claimed?” Answer: No. This is a silly, opportunistic thing to say, as it is a show without an original thesis. Think back to the NGA’s Surrealism: Revolution by Night of 1993, which was one of the first exhibitions anywhere to attempt a global survey of this movement. By comparison, Masterpieces from Paris is a trophy cabinet.
“Is this the most expensive, and consequently the most over-hyped show ever held at the NGA?” Answer: Yes. Even though the Federal and ACT governments have made significant contributions, this exhibition comes with a huge (undisclosed) fee, hefty expenses, and an advertising bill reputedly in excess of $1.3 million. It is hard to see how the NGA will make a profit, which is, after all, the ultimate rationale for any ‘blockbuster’ exhibition.
“Is the exhibition worth seeing, despite the over-the-top sales pitch?” Answer: Indubitably, yes. It would be perverse to complain about a group of 112 works that includes major pieces by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Seurat, Bonnard and Vuillard. To see such paintings it is a small inconvenience to travel to Canberra for a day or two.
Upon arrival at the NGA, however, those who came by car will find the degree of difficulty increases. Due to the gallery’s building program, the car park is diminished in size and cut off from the gallery’s main entrance. Anyone that finds a space will need to take a long hike through the sculpture park to reach a lower level entrance.
Perhaps it is not too much to expect visitors to suffer a little for the chance of seeing great paintings. Indeed, the Musée d’Orsay and other French museums have adopted this policy themselves, having given up the struggle to stop people taking photographs in front of works. Contemplation is out of the question. During the tourist season it is hard to even glimpse well-known paintings.
Perhaps this is what Kevin Rudd was thinking when he, or more likely an anonymous assistant, wrote in a foreword to the catalogue: “What is marvellous about this exhibition is that visitors will be able to actually see these pivotal and valuable works.” (sic) Our pedantic PM is also the only writer who reminds us – Dan Brown-style – that Paris is in France.
If one had any lingering doubts about the ‘blockbuster’ intentions of this show, the back of the catalogue croons: “this beautifully designed and illustrated book will be a great addition to any art lover’s collection.” I can’t recall ever reading such cheesy schlock on a publication by a reputable public gallery.
All these points may be seen as minor irritations, but they take the edge off an experience that has been promoted as positively transcendental. It is depressing that public galleries seem to believe that Australians have never been – or will never go – to Paris, to view these works and a thousand others. We are also held to be incapable of remembering that many inclusions in this show have already been seen in Australia. Paintings by Gauguin, Seurat, Redon, Roussel, Lacombe, and even Van Gogh’s Starry Night, were included in the 2004 show, The Impressionists, at the National Gallery of Victoria – which featured 41 pieces from the Musée d’Orsay, and was similarly hyped.
In 1997 the NGA’s Paris in the Late 19th Century included the same works by Gervex, Besnard, Bonnard (2), Gauguin, Seguin, Signac, Angrand and Toulouse-Lautrec. In addition, there are a number of paintings such as Bonnard’s The man and the woman (1900), that have visited Australia on other occasions. So it is hardly credible that we should see this show as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is more like a chance to get reacquainted with old friends.
The emphasis on “Post-impressionism” suggests the vestiges of a more focused agenda. Perhaps the most important point is made by curator, Sylvie Patry, who reminds us that Post-Impressionism should not be seen as simply what came after Impressionism, but as what goes against it.
This at least provides a way of reading the works in this exhibition: as contributions to a ferocious debate among competing avant-gardes, in which artists and critics strove to trump each other with their theories about the direction art should take in an age when the authority of the Salon had begun to decline.
It is a tangled tale because many of the best-known Post-Impressionists defy classification. Cézanne, for instance, exhibited twice with the Impressionists, but pursued a highly individual path. Van Gogh, although subject to a wide range of influences, was perhaps the most singular artist of his times. Even those such as Bonnard and Vuillard, who flirted with the quasi-mystical group, the Nabis, soon forged their own, idiosyncratic styles. By contrast, Maurice Denis, who clung to theories and dogmas, comes across as a secondary figure
The unmistakable highlights of this show are the works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, but there are many less predictable delights. Look, for instance, at Puvis de Chavannes’s The poor fisherman (1881), a work that had an extraordinary impact upon the artist’s peers, even though Puvis, with his stiff, unemotional style is much neglected nowadays. In this company the painting appears as a placid interruption in the relentless parade of experiments with surface and subject matter.
Another outstanding work is Emile Bernard’s Madeleine in the Bois d’Amour (1888), a large canvas that shows the artist’s sister, on whom Gauguin had a crush, lying in deathly repose in the forest – literally, “the woods of love”. Bernard, the loyal companion of both Gauguin and Van Gogh, often seems to be a shadow of his more famous peers, but this painting has a monumental presence. Madeleine is as inert as a mummy, suggesting the fleeting nature of youth and beauty.
There is an interesting contrast with Henri-Edmond Cross’s Madame Hector France (1891) – a large swagger portrait executed in Seurat’s fastidious pointilliste manner. The painting is glamorous, but also wears its avant-garde credentials proudly, its forms being dissolved into a mass of tiny atoms. It adds interest when we learn that Cross would later marry the sitter.
Among all the artists of the period, Vuillard remains possibly the most underrated. Although his work has been admired all over the world, he has never become a household name. For instance, one could not imagine a Vuillard retrospective touring Australia. In this show he is represented by a set of enormous wall-sized decorations, but also by the smallest, most intimate works. One of these, Au lit (In bed) of 1891, is a miracle of colour and composition: a study of a sleeping figure in a room divided up like a geometrical abstraction. Both the painter’s signature, and a sawn-off T-shape which may be a crucifix, are used to provide visual counterpoints in a harmonious blend of pale blue-green planes.
Many viewers will be lured to Canberra for the sake of one painting alone: Van Gogh’s bedroom at Arles (1889). This picture, so vividly coloured yet so poignant, is a powerful testimony to the artist’s unquenchable spirit but also his loneliness. Every brushstroke is clearly visible, every object treated like a holy relic in a chapel.
If there is one corner of this show in which gravity seems to draw us to the very bottom of the well where the primordial stuff of art is found, it is in the so-called Cézanne room. This features a sequence of two breathtaking still lifes, the portrait of Gustave Geffroy, and a Bathers; with the punctuation mark of a Picasso still life that reads like a schematic commentary on the earlier artist.
In their complexity and playfulness, Cézanne’s canvases venture into territory that no other painter had explored. Keep looking at these works and an ever-growing array of visual puns and puzzles begins to emerge. Where does the basket sit in Kitchen table (1888-90)? On the table or the floor? Is there a painting within a painting in Bathers (c.1890)? Watch the way forms grow more transparent as one scans from right to left in Still life with onions (1896-98). The non-naturalistic portrait of the critic, Geffroy, is a powerful anticipation of Cubism in its play of sharp angles and tilted planes. In this setting, Picasso appears to be no more than the humble student of Cézanne’s discoveries.
Herein lies the true “importance” of this show – the chance to learn about that quality Cézanne portentously referred to as “the truth in painting” from a few outstanding examples. This is a refined pleasure, not a manic surge through a shopping plaza. It is to be hoped that one day such works might be presented to the Australian public in a way that is commensurate with their own seriousness of purpose, their own quest for a new way of seeing, in which success was not reducible to returns at the box office.
Masterpieces From Paris, National Gallery of Australia, December 4-April 18, 2010
Published in Sydney Morning Herald, January 2, 2010