Friday, 19 February 2016

A French revolution?

Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix was born in 1798 in the southern suburbs of Paris. Into a country that had recently seen the storming of the Bastille, the Terror, and the executions of Louis XVI and Robespierre amongst countless others. He lived during the first half of a nineteenth century which saw the reign of Napoleon and the later restoration of the French monarchy. Tumultuous times by any reckoning.

The National Gallery's new exhibition 'Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art' eschews the obvious temptation of a chronological approach and instead attempts to reposition our titular hero as one of the fathers of modernism.

Despite his almost permanent ill health and/or hypochondria he was known to his friends as a tiger and appropriately enough did not want to be caged in by the strict parameters of the French academic system which demanded monochrome drawing be mastered before artists were let loose on the colour palette. Instead he looked to contemporary British art of the time (Richard Parkes Bonington, Constable) and, particularly, back to the seventeenth century Flemish artist Rubens. You can see the influence in his Death of Sardanapalus (1846). A picture condemned in the harshest terms by critics of the time for it's sense of improvisation and ambiguity. Too modern perhaps?

Delacroix was not immune to the exoticising orientalism so prevalent then. Following France's invasion of Algeria he travelled to Morocco where his depictions of Jewish weddings and views of Tangiers both inspired Renoir and brought a new dimension to his oeuvre which had been hitherto dominated by historical works. In fact his earlier north African scenes were inspired by readings of Byron rather than visits to the Maghreb. My favourite in this section is 1838's Convulsionists of Tangiers.

Delacroix also helped revive the genre of flower painting. It had become seen as purely decorative (though surely all art is to a point?) despite its historical associations with the philosophical tradition of the memento mori. He set his baskets in gardens, rather than interiors, and incorporated prickly foliage into his canvasses. All the better to bring out the essential untamed nature of his subject.

Romantic myths and heroic tales were his pain et beurre though. From Shakespeare and Byron to the (supposedly) greatest story ever told. His imagination contrived and his technical virtuosity rendered vivid tableaus of Christ on the cross, Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, and the third siege of Missolonghi. His Christ on the Sea of Galilee from 1853 anticipates the looser expressive brush strokes of the Impressionists whilst, at the same time, nodding in the direction of his prematurely deceased contemporary and countryman Theodore Gericault.

His landscapes further inspired artists like Monet, Cezanne, and Whistler. The belief in synaesthesia he shared with Richard Wagner and, perhaps most of all, the Journal published after his death in 1863, gained him yet more admiration from Renoir, Moreau and Fantin-Latour as well as the poet Baudelaire and the novelist Henry James.

Delacroix pointed the way towards modernism. But to these eyes he was not, himself, a modernist. This hits home on entering the gallery's final rooms where you encounter Manet's realism, Gauguin's primitivism, Signac's pointillism, and, most strikingly, Van Gogh's violent expressionism. See below for 1889's Olive Trees. Van Gogh kept a Delacroix in his bedroom in Arles. Gauguin took one to the South Seas with him as he pioneered his early form of sex tourism.

We all need signposts but they shouldn't be confused with destinations. The tour, and it is a worthwhile one, ends with a Kandinsky. Suggesting, possibly, that Delacroix in some way paved the way for pure abstraction. A leap too far, maybe, but an interesting contention and it's a favourite trick of this writer to end on a question rather than an answer. Or is it?

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