The premise for this show, “After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art,” is a sound one: to mark art’s transitional point to Modernism as it moved from naturalism through Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, and Symbolism, all the way to Cubism and other forms of abstraction, within the time frame of 1886 (the occasion of the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in Paris) to 1914. Eight exhibition rooms reveal with admirable clarity this development both chronologically and geographically. This layout also allows for the tastes of the crowds to be clearly revealed: it is the earlier works—of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Degas—that have large groups lingering in front of them, while the later cubist and abstract pieces create some empty floor space around them.

It is a remarkable journey in such a short period of time.

The startling transformation of styles is most starkly seen in the final room, “New Terrains,” which ingeniously juxtaposes three pieces by Piet Mondrian. The first, Isolated Tree on the Gein, I (1906), depicts its scene in a recognizable way while still moving beyond straight Impressionism. The second, Tree (1908), retains an element of verisimilitude (although at a distance the subject might be mistaken for a fig leaf). In turn, the abstract third, Composition no. XVI (Compositie I, Arbres) (1912–13), tells us from the title that the painting contains trees, but we have to take the artist’s word for it. It is a remarkable journey in such a short period of time. Full credit to the show’s curator, Maryanne Stevens, for laying out the changes so admirably for visitors.

The other intelligent approach taken by the exhibition is to display the period through the centers of the new developments, each with a room of its own: Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, Berlin, and Vienna. Each has its highlights, but the first, Paris, outshines the others by some margin and is understandably allotted more gallery space. The first painting the visitor encounters is Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ The Sacred Grove (1884/89), which nicely illuminates the continuing importance of classical subjects to painters of the time, though modernized and made more symbolic, eschewing the prurient finesse of Alma-Tadema’s style. It is a clever way to begin the exhibition.

Paul Cézanne, Grand Bathers, ca. 1894–1905 , Oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London. © The National Gallery, London.

Cézanne is well represented with six paintings—the familiar fruit table and a proto-cubist view of Mont Sainte-Victoire are here—as this “Father of the Modern” should be. His frequently reworked Grand Bathers (1894–1905) is the largest, capturing his deliberate off-line idiosyncrasies perfectly—a combination of oddly painted figures with a glorious background rendered in the tones of Prussian blue that the artist often favored. Here we also see Homage to Cézanne (1900) by Maurice Denis, which unintentionally demonstrates the achievement of the dedicatee, for Denis’ still life of fruit is no match for Cézanne’s own.

But it is that inveterate scene-stealer Van Gogh who dominates this first room and indeed the whole exhibition—and, it should be said, the crowd’s attention. One might wish to disparage the inevitability of Van Gogh always taking center stage, but here it cannot be begrudged, because the pieces are stunning—and make an even greater impression for not being among his best-known works, four of the five coming from private collections. Sunset at Montmajour (1888) and Landscape with Ploughman (1889) astonish with their colors and composition, both close up and from a distance (a viewpoint not taken by many). In Houses in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888), the artist applies the paint in a completely different manner, but no less effectively, while Snow-Covered Field with a Harrow (after Millet) from 1890 is striking precisely because Van Gogh blanches the canvas of color. It is all nothing short of spectacular.

Paul Gauguin, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888, Oil on canvas
© National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. 

Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas receive a good airing alongside the pointillism of Seurat and Signac and works by Vuillard, Bonnard, and Sérusier of the Nabi group, keeping us in the nineteenth century before we head north into Brussels and less-traveled roads; the most arresting painting in this small, pointillist-heavy section is Théo van Rysselberghe’s portrait Alice Sèthe (1888), which takes on a soft-focus-lens photographic quality.

The Barcelona room sports a trio of Piccassos, including the diabolical (in its literal sense) portrait of Gustave Coquiot (1901), while nudes abound in Berlin’s locker, with Lovis Corinth’s backward-looking Waterhousian Perseus and Andromeda (1900) and forward-looking Freudian (as in Lucian) Nana, Female Nude (1911). The conservative Wilhelmine Germans seem a tad behind the times, with Max Slevogt’s Children by the Pond—The Garden in Godramstein (1909) remaining resolutely Impressionist, and none the worse for it, either. Some have questioned the presence of three Munchs in the Berlin room, but, given the artist’s connections with the German capital, it seems fair enough. The messy sketchiness of his Cabbage Field (1915) hardly warrants any excitement, but that masterpiece of Expressionism The Death Bed (1895) always creates a sense of awe. Vienna gets a box of a room for a brace of portraiture: Bronica Koller-Pinnell’s The Artist Mother (1907), with obvious Whistlerian acknowledgments, and Gustav Klimt’s Hermine Gallia (1904).

The exhibition goes fully modernist in the last, large room, “New Terrains,” with an explosion of styles.

As already indicated, the exhibition goes fully modernist in the last, large room, “New Terrains,” with an explosion of styles: the Naivism of Henri Rousseau’s Joseph Brummer (1909), the Fauvism of a number of Matisses and a trio of André Derains (his charming The Dance from 1906 provides the exhibition’s poster), and the Cubism of Braque and Picasso. It all ends with an abstract eruption of color from Kandinsky: Painting with White Lines, 1913. By this stage, however, the crowd’s interest is not so firmly held.

With nearly one hundred artworks on display, including carvings and sculptures (Rodin’s presence being notable in this medium), this large show cannot help but impress its significance upon viewers.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 10, on page 57
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