After Impressionism: a white-knuckle journey with breathtaking views but a risk of travel sickness
Beep-beep! Midway through the National Gallery’s new exhibition, there’s a painting of an open-top car – one of the first automobiles to reach Barcelona, with a hippo-like front-end featuring four circular headlamps – hurtling, in the twilight, straight towards the viewer. It encapsulates the pell-mell pace of this ambitious, bone-shaking show, which celebrates innovations in avant-garde European art during the three exciting decades from 1886 (the year of the eighth and final Impressionism exhibition), and zips from one movement to another (a pit-stop by Pointillism; a blink-and-miss-it encounter with the Fauves), while veering, en route, between various cities: Berlin, Brussels, and Vienna, as well as Barcelona and (naturellement) Paris.
Yet, as with any white-knuckle journey with a speed freak at the wheel, there are hairy moments and wrong turns. (Oddly, given the setting, the course doesn’t include London.) In the catalogue, the gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi, describes the “uncommon nervous intellectual energy” of After Impressionism’s principal curator, MarryAnne [sic] Stevens – and, throughout its first-floor rooms, a restlessness may be detected. Vroom!
Some haste is understandable: part of the show had to be swiftly reconstructed after Finaldi terminated a collaboration with Moscow’s Pushkin Museum following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Fifteen loans were withdrawn, including, according to The Art Newspaper (and this is a real loss), one of Henri Matisse’s so-called “symphonic interiors”, The Pink Studio (1911); Edvard Munch’s White Night (1902-03) was another sorry casualty. Both artists are still represented by several canvases (and a bronze, in Matisse’s case), though The Death Bed (1895) by Munch, lent by a Norwegian museum, appeared at the Courtauld last spring.
Regardless, the show feels peculiarly piecemeal. Yes, among its 95 artworks, there are entrancing masterpieces, some familiar, many others – most welcome, this – from private collections (eg, Paul Gauguin’s The Wave (1888), or The Dance (1906) by André Derain). It’s a treat, for instance, to encounter Matisse’s radical and radiant Girl Reading (1905-06), from New York; if I could have walked off with impunity with Paul Sérusier’s small, delicious landscape The Talisman (1888) tucked beneath my jacket, I would have done so. A brief excursion into German Expressionism – underplayed in a small corner towards the end – reminded me that, in this country, a survey of this electrifying movement is overdue.
But there’s also space for less adventurous pictures by the likes of Théo van Rysselberghe and Lovis Corinth (whose fleshy nude sex worker, Nana, anticipates Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor”, seen recently in the same spot). The Sacred Grove (1884/9), by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, feels about as “modern” as a cuneiform tablet, and provides an uncharacteristically sluggish, underwhelming start. Moreover, cross-referenced labels disjointedly direct us forward and back to works in separate rooms that could have been hung together; scanning them is like reading a book mired in footnotes.
There are some breathtaking views, then, through the show’s windscreen. But travel sickness is a possibility, as the wheels of its breakneck argument risk coming off.
From March 25; nationalgallery.org.uk