After Impressionism: ‘Artists were not content with the art of the past or the art of the present’
Curator MaryAnne Stevens explains the inspiration for the National Gallery’s new show, which is sponsored by Christie’s. Dominated by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Munch, it also includes lesser-known figures such as Isidre Nonell and Max Slevogt
Featuring more than 100 works, After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art, a new exhibition at London’s National Gallery, focuses on a time of cultural upheaval between 1886 and the start of the First World War in 1914. It was a period in which many European artists — most famously, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh — broke with established tradition and boldly laid the foundations for art ever since.
Rejecting direct transcription of the world around them, these artists expressed themselves in a variety of exciting ways, spawning movements such as Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism. Below, the curator MaryAnne Stevens tells us more.
What made the artists in After Impressionism so radical?
MaryAnne Stevens: ‘These figures weren’t content with the art of the past or — for the same reason — with the art of the present, dominated as it was by Realism and naturalism.
‘Of course, if you reject naturalism, the question then is “What next?”, and our exhibition looks at different artists’ answers to that. The question was first posed in Paris by Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, a trio who together cast a long shadow over After Impressionism.’
Is Paris your focal point?
MS: ‘Yes, from the 1850s onwards, Paris had been the cultural capital of Europe. It was a magnet, attracting artists from all over to train in its Ecole des Beaux-Arts and private academies, and to take advantage of its many exhibition platforms and the growth in the commercial gallery sector. You could find people of countless nationalities working cheek-by-jowl in Paris studios.
‘What’s interesting, though, is that many artists did return home. Not happy to toe the academic line there, they sought alternative modes of expression and helped form exhibition bodies for avant-garde art in their own countries.’
Beyond Paris, you also explore artistic activity in four other cities.
MS: ‘That’s correct. These cities were ones where avant-garde exhibition bodies emerged particularly strongly: Brussels, with Les XX; Barcelona, with Els Quatre Gats; and Vienna and Berlin, both of which had a Secession group.
‘In the case of Els Quatre Gats, this became the focus for artists to essay a really wide range of exploratory approaches to representation. The exhibition includes one of Isidre Nonell’s near-monochromatic scenes of destitution, for example; and also The Automobile (below), a stunning declaration of modernity by Ramón Casas i Carbó, in which a solitary woman drives a motor car directly at the viewer.
‘I’m delighted we achieved the loan of the latter [from the Círculo del Liceo in Barcelona], because the painting has never been seen in the UK before. In fact, it has never left Spain before. Painted in an experimental style, with thick impasto, it has a background that’s blurry because of the car headlamps, which glare brightly in our eyes.’
What else was going on in Brussels, Vienna and Berlin?
MS: ‘Given the geographical proximity, it’s perhaps no surprise that Brussels showed artistic proximity to what was happening in Paris. A good example is Belgium’s Théo van Rysselberghe, who was a friend of France’s Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. After encountering it in on a visit to Paris, he keenly adopted that pair’s new style of painting, Pointillism [featuring myriad dots in complementary colours].
‘In the late 1880s, Van Rysselberghe introduced Pointillism to the painters of Les XX, and they ended up with a more poetic, more lyrical version of the style than Seurat [whose approach to mark-making was grounded in science]. For those in Brussels, a particularly popular colour combination was green and purple, while their application of a yellow wash on the canvas gave works a special luminosity.
‘At roughly the same time, Edvard Munch was living in Berlin: he painted the first version of The Scream there in 1893. Our exhibition features three paintings by Munch, as well as a standout canvas by Max Slevogt called Danae (below). Its title alludes to the princess from classical mythology. However, its subject is very much a contemporary woman: lumpen, naked and grossly foreshortened as she lies on a bed with rumpled sheets.
‘As for Vienna, its Secession exhibitions were too numerous for us to give them due attention here. One thing worth stressing, however, is that the Austrian capital was a seedbed of cultural innovation, producing some of the key actors of modernism. Not just visual artists such as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, but also architects such as Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner; the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein; the psychiatrist Sigmund Freud; and composers such as Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg.’
Given that they’re featured in the exhibition title, where do the Impressionists fit in?
MS: ‘Our emphasis is very much on the word “after” in After Impressionism. Which is to say, the Impressionists had something of a crisis of confidence in the 1880s — partly as a result of criticism from Emile Zola — and they began to ask themselves soul-searching questions. What was the purpose of their movement? And how does one make art that isn’t just a record of the transient [as Impressionism was], but has a degree of permanence within it?
‘The start date for our show is 1886, the year of the final Impressionist exhibition.’
And what of Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh? What made them so mighty?
MS: ‘These three truly stood out among their peers and the generation after them. Each had an unflinching commitment to the experimental and took risks with received conventions. Most tellingly, they created images where space is either severely constrained or eliminated altogether.
‘Their influence spread in no small part because their work was exhibited widely across Europe, inspiring artist after artist who saw it.
‘Our exhibition includes Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) from the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection [in which a group of Breton women are separated by a huge diagonal tree-trunk from the biblical scene they’re imagining of Jacob wrestling an angel].
‘This was a foundational painting for Post-Impressionism. Gauguin is basically asking: if the quality of art can no longer be judged by the degree to which a tree looks like a tree in the external world, what is the criterion for artistic excellence?
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‘Gauguin’s answer was that you must judge excellence according to the degree of an artist’s innovation. This threw down the gauntlet to all who followed him, and laid the path that would ultimately lead to abstraction. After Vision of the Sermon, anything was now possible.’
After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art is at the National Gallery in London until 13 August 2023