This Spring the Ashmolean brings over 100 works of art together to make the journey to Modernism on the French artistic scene. It's easy to forget, with the lavish statues and collections of historical artefacts, that the Ashmolean is a museum of art, as well as of archaeology. Degas to Picasso rectifies this, drawing from the Ursula and R. Stanley Johnson Family Collection to weave together works by famous artists, including Ingres, Monet & Picasso, to chart the development from Neoclassical art through Impressionism and Cubism to Modernism.
The breadth of the art on display in Degas to Picasso is quite magnificent. Rare, unseen pieces, on display in Britain for the first time, jostle for your attention, and the exhibition establishes and propagates its narrative through the works. We begin in the late 18th century with naturalistic works from the likes of Fragonard, Isabey, and Boilly. The rigid forms and pursuit of perfection are in stark contrast to much of the rest of the exhibition, giving Degas to Picasso a fascinating starting point. Early acts of rebellion to the style of the period are included, such as Delacroix's magnificent pastel drawing, 'Madame Cavé'. This rebellion is felt to a greater extent as the exhibition moves forward. External social and political disruption feeds the move from a naturalistic style to one that is subjective and abstract.
Much of the exhibition focuses on the 20th Century; from the foundations of Cubism in the Fauves movement through two World Wars, and the art that these disruptions bred. Technological advancements and methodology diversification are keenly felt in the works on display. There is a clear stylistic evolution but also a diversification to the art subjects. While works focusing on war and landscapes are constant throughout Degas to Picasso they are joined by more banal subjects. The exhibition also offers an insight into the changing portrayal of women in art, from mythical goddesses to real women. We begin with such representations as Ingres' 'Odalisque' & Révoil's 'Portrait of a Woman' and end up in the company of Metzinger's 'Woman with Earrings' and (as seen on the posters for the exhibition) Léger's 'Mother and Child'. Unfortunately the presence of female artists is rarely felt in here, which seems a lost opportunity in an otherwise exemplary exhibition.
As with any collection there will be those artists and works that feel like discoveries to the attendee. Degas to Picasso introduced me to the sumptuous work of Albert Gleizes, whose work fits potently within the Cubist movement. One of the strengths of the exhibition is the insight it offers into the artist's journey, the development of the idea. This a theme that the Director of the Ashmolean, Dr Xa Sturgis, stressed in his introduction to the exhibition. The exhibition includes many early sketches and proofs from the same artist, so for example not only is Villion's 'Portrait of Monsieur Duchamp' included but also a trial proof of 'Monsieur D. reading'. The artistic struggle and the development of the idea at the core of their work is one of the key themes of the exhibition. Often works by artists are placed together, creating a timeline for the visitor. Near the end of the exhibition an entire wall is dedicated to Picasso's work, tracing from the 1920s to a late work from 1971, including one of the standout piece's 'Cockerel, Woman and Young Man'. Seeing Picasso's style evolve is a treat, as is the presence of Van Gogh's only etching, 'Portrait of Doctor Gachet (The Man with the Pipe)'. While Van Gogh's work doesn't fit the narrative of Degas to Picasso, his influence is felt in other works on display such as Matisse's 'Nude in Profile on Chaise Longue (The Large Woodcut)'.
The inclusion of Van Gogh's etching, as well as a number of other works, leaves me unsure whether the exhibition's narrative is fully supported by the works chosen and their supporting information. Certainly the broad historical sweep is felt and the impact of the major events of the period brought out, but the information on the artists' individual development creates too much noise for the exhibition's through line. Yet it is these details that make Degas to Picasso so rewarding. It is fascinating to learn, for example, that Jacques-Louis David was exiled to Brussels after the fall of Napoleon, and the exhibition is packed full of similar details about the artists and their works.
The breadth of work on display, and the opportunity to experience such rarely-seen works means Degas to Picasso is a must for any budding art historian or connoisseur of iconic artists. The curator, Colin Harrison, expressed the hope of stimulating new thoughts as well as old ones, and certainly the exhibition achieves this goal. For a museum with no Cubist works of art this feels like a necessary rectification and I strongly recommend this captivating exhibition.
Degas to Picasso runs in the John Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries at the Ashmolean Museum from 10th February to 7th May 2017.