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July 23, 2011

Blockbuster Art Exhibitions – London UK

by Val Reynolds
Absinthe, Toulouse Lautrec

Absinthe, Toulouse Lautrec

When it comes to art exhibitions, the term ‘blockbuster’ is somewhat overused these days, but it surely must apply to Tate Britain’s offerings

The Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition ran until 15 January 2006 and was filled with accessible, beautifully executed paintings. It drew on works from the eponymous painters as well as gems from lesser known or even scarcely known artists such as Bonnard, Vuillard and Warrener.

Arranged more or less in chronological order, from the 1880s to the 1900s, the works on display marked the beginning of modern art, particularly in form and composition. Some are extremely well-known, such as several of the ballet scenes by Degas, but the visitor was encouraged to see the very modernist concepts that were introduced by the artist, such as the cutting off a figure at the edge of the canvas or the horse’s head divided by a pole in the foreground of his Jockeys before the Start. These innovations give an almost photographic feel and were much tut-tutted over at the time.

The subject matter too marked a move to the modern era. The centrepiece of the exhibition is undoubtedly Degas’ L’Absinthe. Incredibly this familiar work was exhibited in London for the first time since 1893 when it caused a tremendous stir, with its two main figures drawn from Parisian lowlife looking drab, despondent and decadent. A whole room was devoted to this and just one other painting, with facsimiles for the visitor to read which draw on the ‘shock-horror’ responses of the nineteenth century critics.

The exhibition also highlighted the cross-fertilization between England and France during this period, and although it seems mainly the English that have benefited from the ideas of French artists, the influence of the somewhat underrated Walter Sickert across the Channel is well illustrated. He is often criticized for his use of dark colours, but there is a wide variety of styles in evidence here and this exhibition surely enhanced his reputation.

You may well recall another ‘trio’ of painters at Tate Britain in 2005, Turner, Whistler and Monet. It seems an exhibition of more than one great master is not a pre-requisite of gallery exhibitions (there was an exhibition devoted entirely to Constable in 2007) but they have all shown successfully the influences across borders and between styles in exhibitions that are both informative and enlightening.

This exhibition really was a feast for the eyes.

Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec, London and Paris 1870 – 1910 ran at Tate Britain and sponsored by British Land Company PLC

Review of Toulouse Lautrec and Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge at the Courtauld, London UK 2011

Jeannette Nelson, Art Critic

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