Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France

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This exhibition looks at key moments in the development of art from the French Revolution to the Second World War.

The main subject matter of European art from the 15th century onwards had been the ruling classes and their possessions. Realism had been the dominant artistic form. However, the successive political upheavals of the 19th century encouraged the spirit of rebellion in the arts.

Satire flourished in the illustrated press and artists began depicting nature and rural life in an un-idealised way that was seen as a challenge to the increasingly urban-centred French state.

The collection on show here features works by Picasso, Braque, Leger and others who first experimented with Cubism. Their harsh, unnaturalistic use of colour and rough technique was seen as deliberately provocative and they became known as the “Fauves”, meaning wild beasts. Braque and Picasso began working in an increasingly blocky style that broke with the western tradition of one-point perspective to explore form from a multitude of viewpoints.

The influence of industrialisation can be seen in the works of Leger whose bold abstract work depicts many cylindrical objects that have the appearance of polished metal with bold primary colours giving a feeling of motion.

After the First World War art in Paris continued to set the agenda for modernism world-wide. Cubism flourished and fed into the mainstream design aesthetic of the Jazz Age. But the effects of war also persisted, not only in work haunted by the conflict but in a politicised interest in the lives of ordinary people.

The Image of Mother and Child by Leger (1949) illustrates his ambition to create humane, uncomplicated and accessible art. The pair face the viewer with the boy holding a flowering branch. Leger, who had joined the Communist Party in 1945, used the branch as an emblem of the desire for a just and peaceful world.

There is such a wealth of works by artists including Cezanne, Chagall, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Van Gogh and many more.

My favourite work in the exhibition, though, is a piece by Gleizes called Portrait of Igor Stravinsky. The figure is reduced to a kite shape but is still recognisable by the black of his jacket and buttons on his shirt. A sheet inscribed with four notes evokes the idea of music, producing a feeling of rhythm and dynamism.

Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”, and I would strongly recommend a viewing of this exhibition.