Gustave Doré : L'Imaginaire au pouvoir

Art , Drawing and illustration
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Gustave Doré, 'Les Saltimbanques' dit aussi 'L’Enfant blessé', 1874 / © Ville de Clermont-Ferrand, musée d'art Roger-Quilliots
Gustave Doré, « Au secours ! Au secours ! », frontispice pour 'Le Chat botté', publié dans Charles Perrault, 'Contes', Paris, Hetzel, 1862 / © Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Gustave Doré, 'Souvenir de Loch Lamond', 1875 / © French & Company, New York
Frontispice de 'Don Quichotte', illustré par Gustave Doré, gravé par Héliodore Pisan (1822 - 1890), Paris, Librairie Hachette, 1863 / © Bibliothèque nationale de France
Gustave Doré, « Quels furent tes ancêtres ? », publiée dans Dante Alighieri, 'L’Enfer', Paris, Hachette, 1861 / © Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Gustave Doré, 'L'Enigme' / © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Jean Schormans
Gustave Doré, 'L'Enigme'
Gustave Doré, « D’autres étaient rangés en cercles... », publiée dans Rudolf Erich Raspe, 'Les Aventures du Baron de Münchhausen', Paris, 1862 / © Bibliothèque nationale de France
Gustave Doré, 'Pierrot grimaçant', sans date / © Photo : musées de Strasbourg

It’s a rare person who hasn’t been moved by Gustave Doré’s images (we reserve special mention for the ogre in ‘Tom Thumb’, which scared our five-year-old selves witless). A precocious artist who was already making a name for himself as a caricaturist aged 15, Doré went on to carve out an oeuvre that takes in drawings, paintings, stencils and sculptures. His images made an immediate impact on 19th-century society, whose aftershocks are still felt today.

His virtuosic technique aside, it’s the striking aesthetic that really distinguishes Doré’s works: he switches between dark and playful tones with casual ease and an ever-present sly humour. Thanks to his striking, utterly unique style, he was able to provide successful new artwork for literature that had already been illustrated to death, including Dante and Milton. Through these illustrations he exerted a direct influence on future graphic novelists, not to mention the likes of Van Gogh and Terry Gilliam.

Putting together an exhibition for an artist who died with over 100,000 oeuvres under his belt is no mean feat, and the Musée d’Orsay is the first venue in decades to attempt a comprehensive overview of his career. Unfortunately, the curators have made a bit of a hash of it. An artist whose reputation rests partly on his immense versatility deserves a varied exhibition to match; yet 'L'Imaginaire au pouvoir' privileges his paintings and sculptures at the expense of his arguably more important caricatures and literary illustrations, which are presented as a mere stepping stone on his path to more 'sophisticated' art. Only his work on the great classics – Cervantes and the like – is done justice, presumably because of the stature of the literature. That an illustrator of this calibre can't be recognised as such, but must instead be legitimised by his work in other media, says a lot about enduring snobbery in the art world. It's a loud false note in an otherwise valuable retrospective.

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