Daumier's paintings show he is at heart a sculptor

The artist didn't express what an action looks like, but rather what it feels like — as the Visions of Paris exhibition at the Royal Academy demonstrates

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

Daumier (1808–1879): Visions of Paris

Royal Academy, until 26 January

Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure

The Courtauld Gallery, until 12 January

There hasn’t been a decent Daumier exhibition in this country for more than half a century, so art lovers have had to be content with the handful of pictures in national collections and books of reproductions. This works all right for the lithographs, which were after all made to be reproduced, and it is on his high status as a satirical printmaker that Daumier’s fame principally rests. And yet he is frequently lauded by artists who talk about him as a major draughtsman, sculptor and painter, not just as a political and social cartoonist, however fine. The chance to see a show of all aspects of his work is thus very welcome: how does the Academy acquit itself of the responsibility?

The first thing that must be said is that there are rather too many lithographs on display. As I’ve mentioned, they reproduce extremely well so we don’t really need to see them on the walls (except perhaps to recognise their scale) — they could easily have been reserved to the catalogue. But perhaps the loans would have been thin without this admixture of printed matter, and on second thoughts I realised that the regular inclusions of prints provided natural pauses or breaks in the exhibition installation, and were rather useful as resting points between the real work of concentrating on the paintings, drawings, watercolours and sculptures. And, by the way, it’s the paintings that constitute the oddest aspect of this show.

Ex_Daumier_Key 009Daumier, Lunch in the Country, c. 1867-1868 Photo: National Museum of Wales

As David Sylvester observed: ‘Daumier, more than anyone but Turner, perhaps, did most to break down the traditional distinction between the sketch and the complete work of art.’ Indeed, many of his paintings look unfinished and may well have been abandoned. Sickert, who rated Daumier highly, and called him one of the great artists of the world, as a draughtsman, described his paintings rather disparagingly as ‘drawings in brown oil-paint’. Yet John Berger says that what distinguishes Daumier’s work from that of his contemporaries (and we’re thinking of such artists as Corot, Daubigny and Delacroix) is ‘its unique corporality’. Perhaps this ties in with Sylvester’s notion that it was Daumier’s habit to express what it feels like to do something, not what somebody looks like doing it. This physical internalisation of a subject does suggest that Daumier was perhaps essentially a sculptor at heart, which makes it even more of a shame that there are so few of his sculptures in this show — or indeed anywhere.

There exist 36 busts in unbaked clay of French members of parliament (‘Celebrities of the Juste Milieu’), of which only six are shown here, expressive forerunners of Spitting Image. Then there’s the masterly ‘Ratapoil’, an 1891 bronze cast from the 1851 unfired clay original, all bony sham-magnificence and jutting beard, a gentleman boulevardier down on his luck, malevolent as a skinned rat. The other sculpture here is a plaster relief after another model in unfired clay, entitled ‘Fugitives’, and clearly a subject that closely engaged Daumier since there are also a drawing and a rather beautiful painting here on the same theme. The painting is, in fact, one of the most convincing pictures in the exhibition, perhaps because it dispenses with any pretence to detail and concentrates instead on pictorial rhythm and flow and an almost sculptural sense of form. In fact, more evidence for the argument that Daumier was principally a sculptor. Yet aside from the works listed above, there is little more that is definitely by the hand of Daumier the sculptor, though a number of other pieces are disputed.

Ex_Daumier_Key 30Daumier, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, c. 1855 Photo: The National Gallery, London. Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917

Daumier drew habitually from memory, scarcely bothering to set his figures in a recognisable context. He is the quintessential observer in the street, supremely concerned with the human element (as a vehicle for his wit or compassion, or simply as an example of characterisation), not the human actors in relation to their surroundings. Daumier’s settings are minimal, abstract even, composed essentially of contrasts of light and shadow, a play of shapes. He has always appealed to artists: Degas owned a painting shown here (‘Don Quixote Reading’, now in the National Museum of Wales), van Gogh found in him ‘a passion which can be compared to the white heat of iron’, Nicolas de Staël admired him deeply, while Peter Doig contributes an enthusiastic text to the catalogue. Going round the show, I was reminded of a number of Modern British artists: Sickert (Daumier’s ‘Painter at His Easel’ is reminiscent of Sickert’s portraits of Victor Lecour and Viscount Castlerosse), Paula Rego, and all the better illustrators, especially Edward Ardizzone.

However, the best of Daumier’s work is seriously good and stands alone. Look particularly at the two versions of ‘Man on a Rope’ (note the differing and unusual surface textures), the various versions of ‘The Burden’ and ‘The Print Collector’, anything featuring Don Quixote, and the fluid brushstrokes and wild ribbons of paint, implying form rather than stating it, in ‘Woman with a Child in Her Arms’ (c.1847 or c.1870). All the drawings are worth looking hard at. This is in fact a marvellous show.

A greater contrast probably couldn’t be found than with the sober exhibition of black-and-white Dürer at the Courtauld. Strictly speaking, it’s Dürer and Co., with such impressive contemporaries as the Master of the Drapery Studies and Martin Schongauer competing with Young Albrecht for our attention. There are too many excellent things here to itemise, but please don’t miss the precociously talented Dürer’s ‘Youth kneeling before an executioner’, ‘Study of a sleeping man’ and, most particularly, ‘The Prodigal Son’. And I liked all the wise and all the foolish virgins, though maybe that’s a bit indiscriminate…

5. Courtauld Dürer - The Prodigal Son BMDürer, The Prodigal Son

A substantial scholarly catalogue accompanies the Dürer, and there are smaller catalogues for the two concurrent exhibitions: Richard Serra: Drawings for The Courtauld and Antiquity Unleashed: Aby Warburg, Dürer and Mantegna (both until 12 January also). I rather enjoyed Serra’s brutish black litho crayon drawings on Mylar, though perhaps they would have been better displayed on light boxes. Although the textures of the most heavily worked pieces are seductive, the sparser compositions, where you can actually see something going on, are more appealing. And the size is a bit restrained for one of Serra’s reputation for gigantism. Antiquity Unleashed is not quite as thrilling as it sounds, but there is a marvellous Pollaiuolo engraving, ‘Battle of the Nudes’, and a superb brown ink Dürer drawing of ‘The Death of Orpheus’. All good reasons for treating yourself to a Christmas or New Year visit to the Courtauld.

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