Friday, 29 November 2013

Daumier (1808 – 1897): visions of Paris, Sackler Wing of Galleries, Burlington House, Royal Academy, 26th October to 26th January 2014

           The Royal Academy has amassed some 130 works of art by the legendary French artist and chronicler, Honore Daumier, who lived during a turbulent and pivotal time in French Nineteenth century history. He is an artist who had the capacity to respond to the events of his time with humour, empathy and satire and is explored in great detail in this exhibition – the first for over fifty years – focusing on his paintings, drawings, watercolours and sculptures.<p>
            Daumier was a meticulous artist who made drawings of his subject matter and then returned to his studio to draw from a combination of memory and from his notes. He did not employ models. One of his predominant interests was the life of the ordinary man and the role of the artist in society in portraying him as he tried to escape poverty, war and disease. He worked for two main French newspapers, La Caricature and La Charivari in which his satirical drawings of men, often political men, were showcased. On display are his real to life clay heads of different personages; one of them being Jacques Lefevre a pompous politician. You can see the pomposity in his haughty expression and the delicate way Daumier has copied his face. Daumier’s incredible talent, draughtsmanship and focus on detail is reflected in these small sculptures.  He was a prolific artist - he drew in total 4000 lithographs and 1000 designs for wood engravings which were published in both newspapers and from which he received his main income. Throughout the exhibition are information panels explaining different techniques, historical facts and reflections on society as it was then, such as the explanation of lithography, which are extremely interesting.<p>

Ecce homo, 1849, Daumier

 ‘Ecce homo’ which Daumier painted in 1849 is his largest painting and takes as its theme Christian art. We see the ambiguity of mood and meaning as Daumier portrays a mass of crowds as they view Christ.  The inherent danger and volatility of crowd mentality and ignorance is suggested. Christ can be seen as a figure who challenges the prevailing order of society. Daumier’s style is loose and free with less of a focus on detail and the crowds of people are painted mainly in profile. A hint of melancholy can be found in much of his work, for example, in his small painting called ‘The Watering Place’. This is a bleak portrayal of a man on a white horse with the suggestion of the city behind. His two mirror image paintings of a ‘Man on a Rope’ portray a working man suspended on a building. One can see the muscular form of the man with his use of browns, yellows and whites to portray the artist’s respect and concern for the ordinary worker. Similarly in ‘The Launderess’ we see a simple painting of a woman and child as they climb the steps from the Seine with their washing. Suffused in blues and greys the simplicity of the scene is amazing and we have a modern, evocative portrayal of poor people as they go about their daily life.<p>
            Daumier refused throughout his life to pursue more lucrative genres, for example portraiture or book illustration. Moreover much of his work anticipates other famous artists who took his work as a source of inspiration. For example his painting ‘The Muse of the Brasserie’ where the crowd is reflected in the mirror behind a central figure is a precursor to Manet’s famous painting,’ The bar of the Folies Bergeres’ which uses the same subject matter. The isolation of the individual in the city was a favourite theme of Daumier’s and in this he shared his interest with the photographer, Charles Negres’s who recorded people in photographs. One of Daumier’s most famous watercolours and the highlight of the show for me is the painting, ‘The 3rd Class Railway Carriage.’ Here we see ordinary people in a crowded railway carriage, painted in warm hues of reds, browns and oranges. The central figure is an old lady hemmed in by a sleeping child and a nursing mother with the top hats and backs of men flanking her in the back. Her troubled face is lined with worry, and old age. It is as if you can feel the hardship of her life and the troubles she resolutely faces. The painting depicts all ages of man as old and young are portrayed together. Daumier fortunately was very popular with collectors which helped ease his life, particularly when he was faced with difficulty, for example when he was dismissed from Le Chaviravi. Degas owned 750 of his prints, 5 drawings and 1 painting and Van Gogh too talked about Daumier ceaselessly in his letters. Daumier’s later lithographs, located in the last room of the exhibition, depicted the political instability in Europe as the 3rd Republic was shaped into being in France. All the conflicts of the twentieth century are anticipated as is the struggle of power within a world  where the increasing need for arms became a major reality.<p>

            If you want to learn much about France in the nineteenth century whilst also admiring a fine artist you should not miss this show. In Daumier is both past and present - much of his work is reflected in the art of contemporary artists such as Peter Doig, Paula Rego and Gerald Scarfe. He was a fine master of his art.<p>
By Larissa Woolf, arts editor,<p>

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