A commonplace of art history is that, in times of anxiety or extreme formal experimentation, modern artists – from Degas to Seurat, Renoir to Matisse – looked for inspiration to Ingres, the great upholder of the French classical tradition. So when Matisse was flailing in the wild colours and brushy incoherence of his Fauve period, he turned to Ingres for an ordering principle. The results were the Matisse decorations of 1909-10. Renoir, resisting dissolution into the impressionist soup (derived from Ingres’s great rival, Delacroix), looked to Ingres’s odalisques when painting his late, buxom bathers. With Degas and Seurat it was the same: Ingres helped impose structure and line on to pictures flirting with deliquescence.
There is one modern artist, however, who looked at Ingres more than any other, and a compact exhibition in Paris shows that what he found in the cantankerous old Cerberus of the classical tradition was not so much discipline and order as the habit of heresy.
“Picasso Ingres” at the Musee Picasso is one of the most electrifying shows I have ever seen. Despite its size, it is as important as the recent international blockbuster “Matisse Picasso.” And like that exhibition, which went some way to lifting the fog of cliches insulating those two artists from fresh reception, “Picasso Ingres” alerts us to the dangers of art historical shorthand – of thinking about individual artists through the prism of generalisation.
When Odilon Redon was pressed about the strange quality of some of his pictures, he protested, “but it is Ingres who has made monsters!” Picasso – art’s most notorious monster-maker – would have agreed. When looking at Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque in the Louvre, it is customary to remark on the anatomical impossibility of her endless spine. Similarly, in front of the supplicating figure of Thetis in Ingres’s Jupiter and Thetis, one French endocrinologist claimed that her erotically swollen neck was evidence of a malfunctioning thyroid gland. We may assume the explanation for these anatomical distortions lies in Ingres’s wish to subordinate all the elements of his pictures, even the sovereign human body, to the dictates of a classical conception of grace and order. But that is to glide too easily over what surely arrested Picasso: the morbid voluptuousness of Ingres’s bodies, and the simmering surrealism of his combination of photographic fidelity to appearances and physically impossible phenomena.
Many of Ingres’s distortions are co-opted throughout Picasso’s…