Monday, November 16, 2015

Delacroix (and others) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

There are many fine paintings to be seen at the new Delacroix exhibit at the MIA—and Eugene Delacroix actually painted a few of them. The artists included in the show range from relative unknowns such as Chassériau and Bonnington to post-Impressionist masters like Cezanne, Seurat, Matisse, and even Kandinsky. In short, there is much to examine, ponder, and enjoy in these five rooms, even if, like me, you find the paintings of Delacroix himself slightly garish and histrionic, and the estimations of his influence highly exaggerated.

Yet that's the theme of the show: how artists of succeeding generations drew inspiration and insight from Delacroix's example. After an hour or two in the exhibit, I remained unconvinced. It's undoubtedly true that many of Delacroix's young successors expressed admiration for his work, and acknowledged the inspiration he'd given them. But looking at his paintings today, it's difficult to get excited about them or see where the merit lies.

It's like reading a bunch of tributes to American filmmakers Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray by French directors we continue to admire–Trauffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette. The fact that the tributes are sincere doesn't improve the quality of Pickup on South Street or Johnny Guitar.

The interpretive text accompanying the exhibit stresses that it was not just Delacroix's use of color, but also his theory of color, that fascinated the Impressionists. Yet I didn't see a single reference or quotation of specific aspects of those theories in the show.

I have read elsewhere that Delacroix would construct palettes of up to 23 colors, but I couldn't help noticing that he relies heavily on the same generic red and blue we see in many Baroque paintings. And there's a yellow-brown caste over most of his paintings that becomes obvious when we see them hanging next to works by Gauguin and Van Gogh.

Also conspicuously absent from the show are paintings by Dominique Ingres, Delacroix's rival and chief neoclassical competitor throughout much of his career. This is a curious omission, though it might have to do with the difficulty of securing the relevant paintings. Ingres, the most influential painter of the day, was a self-proclaimed master of "line," though nowadays he's justly celebrated for his psychological penetration. Delacroix, on the other hand, took pride in the freedom and looseness of his brushstrokes and his devil-may-care approach to anatomical accuracy. Both painters, though in different ways, excelled in those vast historical works that few viewers today take an interest in.

Strange as it may seem, some of the best of Delacroix's paintings included in the show are the murals he did for various public buildings in Paris. His ornate style fit in well between the gold encrustations on the ceiling of the Apollo Gallery at the Louvre, and the murals he did for the library of the National Assembly are even more appealing (see above). What we notice here, however, is a more serious approach to line, smoother surfaces, and a general lightening of the palette. 

You won't see these murals in the show, of course, but a 14-minute video devoted to them is showing continuously on a big screen in one of the galleries.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of paintings by other artists to occupy our attention. Among my favorites is Frédérick Bazille's "la Toilette" (above). The harmony of tones that Bazille establishes here goes well beyond anything you'll see in Delacroix's work. The painting seems to have escaped from Ingres's extreme exactitude while remaining proportionally accurate. The midnight blue on the striped fabric in the lower right is worth the price of admission in itself.

Fantin-Latour's "Tannhauser on the Venusberg"  seems to inhabit a space somewhere between the realms of Giorgione and Odilon Redon, while the same artist's group portrait "Homage to Delacroix" projects a straightforward dignity that made me want to rush home and take another look at the collection of Baudelaire's critical pieces, written during Delacroix's time, that have been gathered together under the title The Mirror of Art (Phaidon Press, 1955).

And speaking of Redon, this exhibit contains one of his crisp, subtle paintings of flower arrangements--complete with a stunning orange poppy--but also several sparkly, child-like renderings of bird wings and rowboats that are oozing with mystical import--profound or atrocious, depending on your taste.

In the end, by ignoring the narrative underpinnings of the exhibition and relishing the canvases one by one, we can be reminded again and again that the history of art and the history of art-style are very different things. One involves knitting together chains of influence, while the other is rooted in personal judgment regarding whether any specific work of art is beautiful, and if so, why? 

The former is preferred by curators and art historians, who usually prefer not to stick their necks out too far; the later approach serves lovers of art pure and simple, because while techniques and theories come and go, in the end every durable work of art draws its inspiration largely from within.

Or, as Baudelaire wrote in his critique of the Salon of 1846:
You cannot know in what measure Nature has mingled the taste for line and the taste for color in the mind, nor by what mysterious processes she manipulates that fusion whose result is a picture. Thus a broader point of view will be an orderly individualism--that is, to require of the artist the quality of naivete and the sincere expression of his temperament, aided by every means which his technique provides.

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