No need for a commentary

Jon Whiteley on “Daumier: Visions of Paris” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 26 January 2014

Honoré Daumier, Man on a Rope, around 1858. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The catalogue of the current exhibition of Daumier’s work at the Royal Academy is a welcome addition to the literature. If one had to choose only one book on Daumier, it would not be this but, with four lively essays by Catherine Lampert, Michael Pantazzi, Judith Wechsler, and Edouard Papet, it usefully supplements what has been written before, notably in the catalogue of the memorable 1999-2000 exhibition to which both Wechsler and Papet contributed.

Like others before him, Pantazzi attempts to identify the sources of the stock of poses and gestures that Daumier used to such expressive effect. Some of his suggestions hit the target, others are less convincing. The figure thrusting forward with arm outstretched that appears in a number of the drawings, prints and paintings is not necessarily based on the Borghese Gladiator: the boy falling backwards in the lithograph The Paris Urchin at the Tuileries is not close enough to a figure in Jordaens’ Christ and the Moneylenders to be a source, nor the fleeing figures in The Last Cabinet Meeting of the Ex-Ministers to the similar group in Rubens’s Council of the Gods; nor the woman in various versions of The Burden to the nude at the centre of Rubens’s Birth of Marie de’ Medicis. Of course, Pantazzi is right in pointing out that Daumier drew upon a stock of gestures and poses that owed more to the Old Masters than it did to the world in which he lived but these tend to be of a generic kind and it is probably unwise, most of the time, to attempt to pin them down to a specific source. The links that Pantazzi suggests between Daumier’s work and the work of other artists are clearest when Daumier is parodying the Old Masters. The similarity between Van Dyck’s Charles I in the Louvre and the lithograph Il y a trois mois, m’sieu is an intentional joke, as are many of the references in the lithographs to the work of David and the artists of the First Empire. Papet’s essay adds to the list of celebrated works parodied in the lithographs while demonstrating the importance of sculpture in his art.

Judith Wechsler’s discussion of Daumier and allegory, a form of art dear to left-wing artists in the July Monarchy, similarly reminds us that this protagonist of modernism drew inspiration from traditional sources.

The essays and the works in the exhibition reinforce the impression of an artist who kept a humorous distance between himself and the handed-down ideas that he ridiculed and yet who prepared his paintings according to age-old academic habits and had ambitions to be an established artist like Rubens or Delacroix. Baudelaire tells us that the bourgeois did not realise that Daumier’s lithographs were art of the highest order. Nor, one suspects, did Daumier himself.

Much has been said about the “modernity” of his roughly painted compositions although this, as Baudelaire once said to Delacroix, must have been chiefly due to his difficulties in finishing. He was not a trained painter and the large finished paintings, most of which are not in the Royal Academy, are not very successful. The Ecce Homo was left in the state of a brilliant sketch. The Man on a Rope, of which there are two abandoned versions in the exhibition, would have been an extraordinary image of the heroism of city life had he been able to master the difficulties in painting it. As it is, however much these two sketches may appeal to modern sensibilities, both are a mess. It is not immediately obvious what they represent although this has been settled convincingly by Michael Pantazzi in his essay in the 1999-2000 exhibition where he compared it with the lithograph of a woman white-washing the exterior of a building. The preparatory drawing, shown in the exhibition, includes a bucket and long-handled brush although the “escarpolette” on which the painter would have been perched is difficult to see. The suggestion that he is a painter is alluded to by Lampert but the lithograph that confirms this could have been helpfully mentioned in a label or in the entry in the catalogue.

The information on the labels, however, is spare, no bad thing in itself if it encourages visitors to concentrate on the image, but what there is tends to be speculative. Most of the labels include dates, often with a cautious vagueness, sometimes with a precision unsupported by the evidence. The chronology of Daumier’s drawings and paintings is notoriously uncertain, but the dates given here are explained in a note in the catalogue as the dates given to the organisers by the current owners. This is an unusual way out of a difficulty that could have been dealt with in a more helpful and less arbitrary fashion.

The illustrations in the catalogue are excellent but the catalogue notes, for the most part, are non-existent. Many of the illustrations face nearly blank pages. There are probably good reasons for including Ecce Homo in an exhibition subtitled "Visions of Paris" but they are not given in the catalogue. The presence of images inspired by Cervantes and La Fontaine is harder to explain although the exhibition would have been poorer without them. Despite the title, this is not an exhibition about Paris but a selection of paintings, prints, drawings, watercolours and sculpture representing the range and quality of an art that is by turns funny, pathetic, tender, angry, poetic, epic, passionate and humane. Daumier does not always need a commentary. As this enthralling exhibition makes clear, his art is capable of speaking for itself.

Daumier: Visions of Paris

Catherine Lampert, ed

Royal Academy of Arts, 224pp, £40 (hb)

Published Thu, 12 Dec 2013 13:00:00 GMT

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