Tate Britain, 2 November 2017 – 7 May 2018
“France! what horror! to see a star fade in the heavens!/ I feel the lugubrious ascent of disgrace./
Dismal anguish! one curse falls, a new one rises.” wrote Victor Hugo in his series of poems entitled L'Année terrible. The Terrible Year, 1870-1871, saw two sieges of Paris, the rise and fall of the Commune, the civil war, the massacring – during what became known as the semaine sanglante, the Bloody Week, some 25,000 Parisians were killed. Paris was bombed, blood and corpses scattered everywhere.
The opening section of the EY exhibition plunges us into this horror, with photographs of the destroyed monuments, and the general devastation. There are also some very personal works of the artists who experienced those terrible events: Frans Moormans’s oil painting of the Hotel De Ville after the fire, with the dead soldier in the foreground, The Wounded Soldier by James Tissot, who remained in Paris throughout the events as a stretch-bearer, Manet’s lithographs depicting the street scenes during the siege. All the colours in this first room are muted, grey, ochre, and there is an overall sense of sadness and bleakness.
Thousands of French nationals sought and obtained refuge in Britain during and in the aftermath of these events, including a high number of artists. Over 100 works are brought together at Tate Britain in the first large-scale exhibition to chart the stories of French artists who sought refuge in this country during the Franco-Prussian War – Monet, Tissot, Pissarro, Sisley, among them.
And what a change of atmosphere, and emotion, we see from room 2 onwards – joy, colour, curiosity, humour, pervade all the French painters’ interpretations and observations of British culture and social life, everyone choosing their favourite themes. Scenes of people enjoying London parks, for instance, caught the attention of Pissarro, while Sisley and Tissot were fascinated by regattas.
In London, French artists met, and encouraged each other. They also gravitated towards key figures, who would help them with their careers and finance. The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who had moved his entire stock and family to London, was clearly the most influential, but so many other characters played important roles, Daubigny, who mentored Monet, or opera singer and art patron Jean-Baptiste Faure. An incredibly complex and fascinating network, that makes this exhibition most interesting for historians and art historians, as well as for art lovers.
The French impressionists, always intrigued by colour and light, seem to find and depict so much of both in their British scenes, to the point where one starts wondering, if, like Canaletto, they wiped out all the cloud and fog from the British skies. But, no, room 6 is dedicated to fog, and in room 7 Monet’s series of the Thames and Westminster, is very foggy indeed, blue, hazy, reminiscent of Turner, yet more tranquil and dreamy. Spoiler: the coda of the exhibition, is dedicated to the work of André Derain, who was 23 when he saw Monet’s Views of the Thames, and paid homage to the artist, by choosing the same motifs, but in a wild explosion of colour.
To appreciate all the social, historical, political and artistic intricacies of this extraordinary exhibition takes time, but it’s definitely time well spent.
First published on the East Finchley Open Artists December Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.