Oxford — 26 April 2017

Writing this article today, I reflect that two days ago I didn’t even know I was going and that somehow it has happened and I feel satisfied as one does when waking from a lovely, deep sleep full of sensory images which make one feel restored and relaxed.

The drive to Oxford was great. What a wonderful time of year to travel. The colours of the countryside were vibrant and gleaming new. To pinch an adjective frequently attached to ‘Isle’, the grass really did look emerald and lush, and all the bushes and trees painted by nature in many other harmonising greens: a verdant therapy. Interspersed, as we sped up the M4, were the new rapeseed crops.

Their colour seems to me to be almost unreal: a sort of mustard crossed with sunshine. The fields of these crops are huge and from our heightened stance, one could see
them stretching over the undulating hills for miles.

Added to this were the most beautiful cherry trees, full of blossom, appearing as Roy, our driver, turned off onto smaller roads. The lacy pink and white petals stood sharp against the morning’s poet’s-blue sky. It was just as well, I mused, that I was on my way to view an art exhibition because I felt like I was in a moving painting.

People disappeared into the city on arrival in Oxford but a number of us just crossed the road to The Ashmolean Museum. Aim for the day: to visit the exhibition about the rise of Modernism in France, entitled ‘From Degas to Picasso’. I was delighted by the ease of this trip: no driving, no parking and being deposited just where I wanted to be, fantastic.

The exhibition starts roughly at the Napoleonic Wars and ends roughly at the Second World War. That’s 150 years with 100 works representing 40 artists. I spent four hours enjoying this but it would equally take me 40 pages to describe even some of it, so I’ll outline a few things and hope to capture the gist of this excellent (though foot and back wearying) exhibition.

It was 1957 and Ursula from Germany met Stanley Johnson from America when they were both art students in Paris. In the 1960s they began to collect art and the senior curator of European Art for The Ashmolean Museum, Colin Harrison, flew to Chicago to view their collection, much of which has not been seen in public before.

Colin Harrison carefully selected 100 works to ‘plot the course from neoclassical and romantic artists such as David, Ingres and Delacroix to impressionists and post-impressionists such as Degas, Monet and Seurat and then on to the wild and game-changing experiments of Braque and Picasso’.

Today we are familiar with the technology of enhancing or touching up images of all sorts and I enjoyed looking at Ingres’ ‘Odalisque’ which features a beautiful woman with an unnaturally long back, expanded buttocks and long, unboned arms. Nothing new there then. I loved the comment by Chasseriau, Ingres’ favourite pupil, that he was fed up with his master’s conservatism in style (Ingres was horrified by his pupil’s use of white highlighting) and he thought that Ingres should ‘move with the times’. Again, there is a ring of familiarity about this: doesn’t it happen in every generation?

When Paris’ famous ‘Salon’ rejected the ‘plein air’ work of the group we now know to be The Impressionists, they set up their own and became famous and loved in their own right. (I think I read that John Lennon said that once about the advent of The Beatles.) When photography was invented in the 1830s, it
was no longer necessary to reproduce exactly pictorial images so Manet and his followers were ‘free to be free’, as it were. I marvelled at Seurat’s use of dots
(pointillism) and had to have explained to me how it’s possible to sharpen a crayon or chalk to that degree of finesse. Fellow viewers at exhibitions are
very useful!

Just recently Prince Harry has been much in the news highlighting mental health. When I saw Van Gogh’s etching of his doctor, (May 1890), Dr Gachet, Iwas surprised by the power of emotion I felt. Pissarro, who had been a patient of this doctor, recommended him to Van Gogh. Dr Gachet, a psychiatrist, was interested in working with artists. He gave Van Gogh some copper plate to etch, the first etching the artist had ever done. Van Gogh was apparently delighted and produced this beautiful, soulful work of the doctor. I could imagine this man sitting down with Prince Harry in a room and saying, ‘Tell me all about it son’. Unfortunately Van Gogh was so ill that his death came not long after this work so it remains Van Gogh’s only etching.

Usually I read a child’s book to inform me about subjects before I venture into more sophisticated information. From this source I had understood the idea of the move from Impressionism to Cubism and the desire to show things from many different angles rather than just 2D. Cezanne illustrated this beautifully with his still life in that the vase is seen from above, the pitcher from the side, the orange by segment and so on. I particularly enjoyed Fernand Leger’s painting from 1913 entitled ‘Contraste de formes’. The write up describes how
this is a visual and auditory delight and I agree. You can really hear the tambourines and drums playing whilst marvelling at their shapes drawn from all angles which appear to come out of the surface of the painting. I noted also the remark that the colours (red, white and blue) are patrioti, given the date of the painting and the growing tensions of imminent war.
There is so much more to say and I haven’t even mentioned Degas or Picasso but there is no room in this article. It is a rare and well notated exhibition, if not a little tiring!

After four hours I headed off into Oxford city and came upon ‘The Art Cafe’, not unlike our local one in Melksham. Heaven. I enjoyed a meal of homemade soup, warm bread and coffee and wondered if the cafes of Montmartre had looked a bit like this one. Was that a modern day Renoir or Monet sitting in the corner? Did I pass Albert Gleizer on the rickety stairs?
Our coach arrived punctually and I got out my knitting for the journey home. Blue skies had turned to a moody grey and the mood on the coach was quiet. Snatches of conversation entered my head as I concentrated on plains and purls: ‘We hitchhiked to Denmark in 1961’, ‘ We were going to have lunch by a tree; I don’t know which tree’, ‘She discovered that the deer was eating the camellia’. Maybe a poem I mused? After all, this is the Arts Association of Bradford on Avon. What fun!

Julie Hewson

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