The Ashmolean’s latest exhibition Degas to Picasso seeks to tell ‘one of the most compelling stories in the history of art – the rise of modernism’. Self-styled as a ‘ground-breaking’ narrative through this truly creative epoch, epitomised by the bohemian atmosphere of twentieth century Paris – it does indeed tell a truly compelling tale. As with all narrative constructions however, is the focus in the right place, have all the characters, influences and locations been convincingly drawn, and are there other stories that should be told?

In the Ashmolean’s own words:

“The exhibition plots a course from Neoclassical and Romantic artists like David, Ingres and Delacroix, through Impressionists and Post-Impressionists like Degas, Monet and Seurat, to the groundbreaking experiments of Picasso and Braque.”

So far, so straightforward. But it’s also noted that:

“There was no straight line leading from tradition to the shock of abstraction. The story is altogether more interesting as academic artists and members of the avant-garde exchanged ideas and as rivalries developed between different schools and powerful characters.”

Walking into the dim exhibition space, with prints and sketches adorning the walls (with visitors crowding round in an extremely orderly fashion), it feels like an art history lecture. The ‘course’ is effectively plotted and demonstrated by the curatorial team, starting with the incredible control and classical approaches of artists such as David, Delacroix and Ingres – slowly moving round the room (chronologically as well as stylistically) to explore how these approaches were rethought and remodelled by Degas, Millet, and Monet (to name a few). It is a story that any Art History student will be familiar with; the shift towards impressionism, a focus on light, observing every-day life and nature ‘as it is’, and working pointedly en plein air.

This ‘independent’ group (chiefly consisting of Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Cezanne) railed against the work of old masters such as Jacques Louis David and the Neo-Classicism of Ingres and Poussin, who formed the stylistic underpinnings of the careful and lengthy French Academy education. If drawing was the cornerstone of the academy’s training, then it is entirely right that this was the first battleground, and the start of this tale of revolution.

But this brings me to the main issue with the Ashmolean’s narrative. Although these breaks with Academic tradition form an appropriate starting point, the story of French modernism did not start ex-nihilo in complete negation from this point. Whilst they have acknowledged there was no ‘straight line’ to the shock of abstraction, I’d argue that there isn’t a ‘one-way’ movement that can be spoken of at all (no matter how rambling, or interconnected).

To demonstrate this point, the exhibition’s last room displays some beautiful sketches and paintings by Jacques Villon (the artist organiser of the Salon de la Section d’Or, meaning ‘the Golden Section’). This movement was named after Leonardo Da Vinci’s writings on proportion and harmonic structure, which appealed to the mathematically-minded cubists (headed by Braque, Picasso, Leger…). You can see this influence in Villon’s works such as Monsieur Duchamp Reading, with the central diminishing shapes contrasted with the lines and planes pushing out towards the edge of the painting. This was all very neatly described by the Ashmolean’s information cards, but lacking was any visual demonstration. I longed to see how these concepts visually interacted – how did Da Vinci’s works impact this modern story? Already you can see that the artists are not simply moving away from classical traditions, but are incessantly referencing and building upon it.

In the new modernism, instead of directly working against classical forms, tradition becomes a form of rebellion. Through their revolutionary approaches, Picasso, Monet and Degas are themselves the new institution. Instead of a movement towards abstraction (looking forwards), it was only by looking back, by gradually re-thinking what had gone before that progress occurred. Thomas Kuhn’s understanding of ‘paradigm shifts’ (only occurring when enough significant anomalies have accrued against a current world-view) and Hegel’s conception of negation (that it is only by negative, contradictory logic, that the habitual can be overturned) are two particularly pertinent ways of looking at these changes. The story of French modernism is a process of ‘negative’ contradiction, as opposed to entirely original creation – it is the contradictions within and against the ‘whole’ that make it interesting, adaptable, and provide the forward momentum.

One of my favourite works of the exhibition demonstrates this dialectical push and pull between traditional classicism and modern abstraction. Picasso’s Three Musicians (1920) is ambiguous; it could simply represent a still life with a jug on a table, but could also hark back to the stark ‘Pierrot’ figure of traditional French pantomime. Although this contrast between ‘Innovation and Tradition’ is identified, it isn’t extrapolated on. I was instantly reminded of Watteau’s haunting Pierrot, and felt the exhibition could have brought these links to the foreground. Similarly, depictions of female nudes in the ‘Venus’ tradition pervade the exhibition, building on and harking back towards a classical past, but if Picasso’s rapid undulating sketches, or Fernand Leger’s cubist masterpieces really are drawing on Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, or Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (which I believe they are) – this would be fascinating to see. In this story, a smaller cast of characters but a lengthier chronology might have made the Ashmolean’s point more effectively.

For an exhibition with such an overt narrative to tell, ironically the question I was left with, was not regarding the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the emergence of modernism, but why French classicism was quite so pervasive. Having said this, it shows what a truly fascinating exhibition this was. There were multiple other stories that could have been told; a major theme was the growing rise of patriotism and nationalism through the French revolution to the two World Wars, as well as European migration and intellectual exchange (Picasso was Spanish, Van Gogh was Dutch, Chagall was Russian…the list goes on…). There is obviously not enough space for all these stories to be told in one show, which is why a narrow focus on one aspect could have worked in its favour. Despite this, Degas to Picasso presented an amazingly varied collection (all from a private donor), which like all good stories, left the viewer with more questions than it answered. It is definitely worth a visit, and is on until May 7th.

For more information, see the Ashmolean’s website.

One thought on “From Degas to Picasso (or, Revolutions and Institutions)

  1. Interesting points and, as you say, it’s good to have such a thought-provoking exhibition. I like the fact that the new were referencing the old rather than throwing it out. Nothing moves forward without knowing what went before it, and that will always shine through. Thanks for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

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