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National Gallery, London
The temporary closure of the Courtauld Gallery means some of its great masterpieces can sit alongside the National’s for this sensational exhibition
At least there is more solidity in the objects that surround the haunted barmaid with her straw-coloured hair and faraway eyes. The colours of these things are raw and real. Her narrow-waisted top is Prussian blue, one of the modern chemical colours that helped revolutionise painting in 19th-century France. It makes a midnight contrast to the fierce oranges in a crystal bowl beside her. Green and amber liquids, gold foil on champagne bottles, and violet and white flowers in a vase all hook her into sensory reality, and yet she is alienated from the drunken corruption of this place. In the mirror, we see that a moustached man in a top hat is talking to her. He looms dangerously. Murderously.
I used to think the greatest masterpiece of modern art was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which you have to go to New York’s Museum of Modern Art to see. But it is of course A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. No artist has ever captured the thrill and anxiety, tumult and wonder, beauty and terror of modern life as exactly and ironically as Manet does in the last majestic painting he finished before succumbing to syphilis, aged 51, in 1883.
Manet’s genius painting usually hangs in the Courtauld Gallery, on the Strand in central London. While that gallery is being refurbished, this and other choice masterpieces from its collection have moved a few hundred metres down the road to the National Gallery. Mixing the National’s own superb collection of French 19th-century art with the sensational one amassed by the industrialist Samuel Courtauld in the 1920s makes for a display that may actually be better than visiting the Musée d’ Orsay in Paris. It is a blinding array. But why did they give it such a dull title? This is a clever, insightful exhibition that again and again reveals the revolutionary genius of the French avant garde in the age of Baudelaire.
There is a portrait of the poet, art critic and drug enthusiast Charles Baudelaire in Manet’s 1862 painting Music in the Tuileries Gardens. He sits in the brightly dressed crowd under a canopy of emerald-spattered trees, his features collapsing in sickness and gloom. Baudelaire’s poems describe the ennui of modern life. In his critical essays, he called for artists to be cool observers of the surface dazzle and inner mystery of modernity. Baudelaire and Manet were friends. Manet portrays himself at the edge of this scene as the quintessential painter of modern life – a tall, slim dandy with a ginger beard, at once in the crowd and looking out of it, at us, as if to share his dry observations.
This painting belongs to the National Gallery, and it offers a kind of key to Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It is a manifesto for the ideas about modern art that he and his friend Baudelaire evolved, which reached their ultimate embodiment in the sad barmaid adrift in a crowd of melting reflections.
The coming together of two of the world’s best collections of 19th-century French art results in a similarly stunning display of Georges Seurat’s pointillist perceptions. The National’s epic Seurat canvas Bathers at Asnières, his dreamlike, homoerotic 1884 vision of working-class men taking a break by the Seine, is partnered with the funniest, most intimate painting he ever made – the Courtauld’s outrageously rococo toilette scene Young Woman Powdering Herself, done in about 1888-90. It is a portrait of Seurat’s lover Madeleine Knobloch. He creates her tubular arms, spherical breasts and heaped-up hairstyle out of thousands of tiny dots in a bravura exercise in the pointillist technique he’s famous for.
Textbooks say pointillism is an attempt to paint according to a scientific analysis of how we see. Here it is sheer visual ecstasy. Knobloch’s cascading mound of hair is composed of myriad brown, blue and orange dots, her flesh a galaxy of pale atoms. She’s set against a psychedelic sea of blue wallpaper in which ethereal goldfish seem to swim.
Courtauld’s family had come to Britain as French Protestant refugees. Whether or not this French heritage fed his passion, he bought not just the obvious impressionist highlights – there are only two Monets here – but more challenging masterpieces that show how Baudelaire’s call to paint “modern life” led artists on a road of revolution. In Toulouse-Lautrec’s Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, the unhappy, pinched features of this famous dancer shrink inside her fur-lined coat as she walks a line between celebrity and poverty in bohemia.
If Toulouse-Lautrec found modern life in Montmartre, Paul Gauguin found it in Tahiti. His painting Nevermore is the most Baudelairean masterpiece of all. Baudelaire was a fan of the horror writer Edgar Allan Poe and made him a cult for the French avant garde: “Nevermore” is what the bird of ill-omen keeps saying in Poe’s The Raven. It is written in English on Gauguin’s canvas, which turns the fatal bird into a colourful Pacific species. A young Tahitian woman lies in contemplative sorrow. She’s naked, yet her face is what draws the eye – and beyond her face, her thoughts. What is she brooding about?
That same pensive uncertainty haunts the eyes of Paul Cézanne in the National Gallery’s great Self-Portrait that is juxtaposed here with the Courtauld’s phenomenal works by him including The Card Players. In Cézanne’s funny and magical Still Life with Plaster Cupid (c1894), a statue of the Greek love god contemplates a cast of a nude, but he has been very visibly castrated. Around his feet are sprouting onions and ballsy apples. The table seems to slope up into the air. At the top of this ski slope of paint hangs an apple. It is dead still. Yet according to everything we think we know, it should be rolling downhill.
Take that, Newton. In the art of Manet, the real world is observed with sensual irony. By the time we get to Cézanne’s late masterpieces, apples no longer obey the law of gravity. That’s a measure of how fast art became modern in France after 1860 and how well this A-list exhibition fathoms its earthquakes.
• Courtauld Impressionists is at the National Gallery, London, from 17 September to 20 January.