Why do we forget some paintings and cherish others?by Lesley Chamberlain / March 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Take two exhibitions. The first features great painters celebrating the joys of life in riotous colour; it is worth three hours of your time and probably a day-return to Paris on Eurostar. Beginning with a celebration of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, the current show at the Mus?e d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris entitled Le fauvisme ou l’?preuve du feu explains that France was not the only place where, around 1906, modern painting was dazzling its way into public awareness. From Helsinki to Prague, Amsterdam to Moscow, exhibitions were broadcasting the new venture in colour, and painters from Munch to Van Dongen, Mondrian to Tatlin responded. Room after room of paintings in this packed exhibition delight the senses and make an art-historical point which leaves you hungry for more. Not, alas, for the second exhibition.
The Royal Academy’s “1900: Art at the Crossroads” exhibition in London could not make a more different impression. In its first room-an overcrowded rehanging of a space from the 1900 Exposition universelle in Paris-it is hard to know where to look first or last, because the names of the painters are barely known, and nothing about their varied techniques stands out. In fact, the visitor must do all the work, for the point behind the Royal Academy exhibition is a question: why do we forget some paintings and cherish others? Come and pay ?8 a head to sort this out for us, will you? The fact that some labels were missing on the day I went underlined to me what can happen when art criticism hangs up its hat.
The London show, out of a bizarre enslavement to the millennium, displays scores of paintings by unknown painters and gives us the worst possible examples of works from such big names as Picasso, Degas, C?zanne, Matisse; plus, as if by accident, a few thoroughly interesting works by lesser-known painters such as the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler and the Pole Wojciech Weiss. There are also a couple of likeable but over-familiar Monets. As for sculpture, there is no competition between the delightful, familiar sensuality of Rodin and the atrocious formal busts of the 19th-century British school, so why put them side by side? Surely not for fun, nor even self-instruction.
Many works at the Royal Academy exhibition should have been left in the basement, while the better paintings would have been more interestingly seen in the…