LONDON — Group shows are often multi-sprawling affairs, wiggling in so many different directions at once. In short, pure octopuses. Or, as someone or someone else is said to have remarked about Life (was it Mark Twain or Winston Churchill or Arnold Toynbee? Your guess is as good as mine): is just one damn thing after another…
But that certainly can’t be the case with After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art, the exhibition that has just opened at the National Gallery? Isn’t this exhibition entirely devoted to the legacy of Impressionism? Not really. Not enough. The timeline is (relatively) pretty clear: the three or more decades between the end of Impressionism and the First World War. But the underlying argument seems much less clear and much less focused. It often feels like child’s play, at breakneck speed, through much of what came after (and some of what came before too), without worrying too rigorously about legacy activity.
Why, for example, is this pompous nude by Lovis Corinth part of the mix? What is he doing here? Ah yes, that’s because a curatorial decision was made to include what was happening in a few capitals other than London and Paris during those same decades. Everything should be fine then… Where is it?
There is also another problem. Impressionism didn’t end in 1884, did it? They weren’t all dead then, were they? Wasn’t Monet, for example, hunting for decades, actually improving, and perhaps becoming less impressionistic, as his eyesight began to decline? Why is Monet not included in this show? Why was it left out?
What’s undeniable, as I try to push my way through the crowds, just a day after it opened to the public, is the popularity of this show. Isn’t that quite surprising, though, since it’s full of paintings by all those crowd-lovers we know we love to love, like van Gogh and Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso and Matisse and Kandinsky?
So let’s expose the difficulties of this project. One concerns the National Gallery itself and its available hanging spaces. Its Sainsbury’s wing is closed for renovation for the foreseeable future. This means that those unappreciated underground galleries, where most major traveling shows usually take place, can no longer be staged there. At least these galleries had a real sense of flow. How to compensate for this loss? Other spaces had to be requisitioned upstairs, mainly those occupied by the permanent collection. That means individual wonders live for a lot more cuddles these days – take a look at the crowded company that Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Doge Loredan’ is currently keeping.
That sense of calm, manageable flow is missing from after impressionism, which begins in a gallery of a small size, then opens into various other spaces subdivided by the odd dividing wall as needed – a considerable number of works must be accommodated. The catalog lists 96, including sculptures by Rodin, Camille Claudel and Medardo Rosso. In short, the staging seems a bit impromptu and improvised.
But what about the content? Let’s rewind for a moment. This first gallery presents two free-standing works by Rodin, one of which is this monstrous public tribute to Balzac, which the bourgeois of Paris rejected out of hand. He was posthumously rehabilitated, if not sanctified, of course. But other than the fact that any sane person would agree with these bourgeois, what exactly are two very great Rodins doing here anyway? Why should he be considered a representative of those generations after Impressionism? Where is the link? Where is the reasoning? Well, the reality is that he cleverly inserted himself, chronologically speaking, both before and after the Impressionist Moment – if we can call it that. He was born in 1840 and died in 1917. Is that some kind of answer? Answers on postcard.
The next room is full of great painters celebrating with each other. Here they are, almost all at once, all those we came to see, those we came declare to have seen, later, during various dinner parties with less fortunate friends. Less lucky? For what? Because they probably never will. I have already been informed by the press office that the exhibition is almost sold out. Such is the attraction of this magic word, Impressionistwhere everything that was once so truly revolutionary is now so lovable, so sun kissable, by everyone…
Picasso, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch, Gauguin, van Gogh, blah, blah, blah…. Many of these paintings are on loan from private collections, so we have never seen them before. What a godsend, Charlotte!
This space is also a nightmare to cross. Towards the back is a group of freestanding sculptures and an unusual painting by Picasso that you have to see from both sides (because he painted it that way), and a party wall separating you from the back wall of the gallery. All of these light-hearted decisions managed to make going ahead or across, then along and around, with relative ease, completely and utterly impossible.
And that creates a terrible traffic jam of bodies. No one can really force even to see the little Breton Gauguins on the back wall at all. But no one really seems to care. In fact, I recognize then that I’m standing there and gazing at the scene, and listening to all the heated discussions and watching the camera phones in all their smooth ups and downs, everyone passing really a wonderful time. And that’s because they’re all really there – in person, in all the maddening, infuriating, confused nudges of what surely turns out to be a very momentous occasion for so, so, of all those post-Impressionists (if that’s what they are) and everything else – and talking so passionately to friends, as if it weren’t so much about an exhibition at the National Gallery as about a terrific bazaar or exhibition, where socializing is part of it.
And that’s how. Just smile and bear it. And, having reached the end of the trip, we walk into the shop, we watch ourselves take away a catalog, to be consumed quietly during more contemplative hours, well elsewhere, well not here.
After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) until August 13. The exhibition was curated by MaryAnne Stevens and Christopher Riopelle with guest associate curator Julien Domercq.