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‘After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art’

  • Art
  • National Gallery, Trafalgar Square
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Laboureur dans un champ, September 1889
Vincent van Gogh. Farmer in a Field, 1889 (oil on canvas) Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Some old people tell the same stories over and over again. They probably don’t mean to, they’re just a bit forgetful. And the National Gallery seems to have forgotten that the story of the Eurocentric birth of modernism has been told countless times. It’s the most written-about period of art history ever. The narrative of how Monet led to Cezanne who led to Van Gogh who led to Picasso is as overexposed, over-explored and over-baked as it’s possible for art to be. 

So what could the National Gallery possibly have to tell you about European art from 1890 onwards that hasn’t already been written about and shown to death? Well, the answer is absolutely nothing. This is an exhibition filled with familiar big hits by familiar big names. Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bonnard are all here, so are Klimt and Matisse and Picasso. You know these artists; you know how they shaped modern art, hell, you probably even know all of these paintings. This show has no reason to exist. It’s boring, uninventive, tired, safe and unnecessary.

But, goddamn it, it’s beautiful. You want to be cynical, but then you walk in and see Cezanne’s mountain, Van Gogh’s snowfield, Signac’s shimmering pine and Gauguin’s tumbling sea and you get all tongue-tied like you’ve just bumped into your crush who is way, way, way out of your league. You just fall in love despite your cynicism, despite yourself. 

So I guess we have to go over this again. The Impressionists – a group of French artists in the mid- to late nineteenth century made up of people like Monet, Renoir and Degas - managed to create a relatively clean break with art’s past by ditching classicism and precision in favour of light and atmosphere. They painted outdoors, they captured the sun and fog, they experimented. It was the very start of art prioritising ideas over execution. It was the start, in other words, of modern art. 

Almost all of this is really, really great

Soon after, you got artists pushing that idea even further. The show begins with Cezanne and Rodin. Huge swathes of semi-abstract painted flesh by the former, huge swathes of semi-abstract plaster and bronze by the latter. Then Vincent Van Gogh goes thick with the paint, pushing colour and form to swirling psychedelic extremes and Degas flattens everything out into a wild sea of orange and red. It’s Impressionism moving into Post-Impressionism, nice, easy, beautiful little steps.

The leaps get a little bigger after that with the pointillism of Seurat and Signac and their tiny dots of explosive colour, and then The Nabis, like Pierre Bonnard and Paul Sérusier, nudge everything closer and closer to abstraction. The amazing Sérusier bridge painting is so non-figurative it feels about three decades too early.

The show then travels around Europe. There’s the macabre weirdness of Belgium’s James Ensor, abject Spanish misery by Isidre Nonell and Picasso’s grotesque portrait of an art critic. Now the links are feeling a little more tenuous, the theme of the show starting to fray a bit.
Edvard Munch comes next with his gothic sombreness, and Gustav Klimt with ghostly, elegant portraiture, and before you know it you’ve got a Kandinsky landscape, some early Mondrian trees and the stuttering of Picasso and Braque’s cubism.

Look, almost all of it is really, really great. Seeing Matisse alongside André Derain’s ecstatic dancers, or Rousseau’s squashed lil fella next to a beautiful Paula Modesohn-Becker portrait, are awesome experiences. But we’ve literally just had a major Cezanne show at the Tate, we had a ‘birth of modernism’ show at the RA a couple of months ago. I’ve reviewed so many Picasso shows in the past few years that you’d think he was the only artist to ever pick up a paintbrush.

The world of art is so much bigger than this, so much more interesting and varied. There are so many great stories to tell, and museums really need to stop rehashing the same old tales. Even the good ones about the birth of modernism.

Written by
Eddy Frankel


National Gallery
Trafalgar Square
Tube: Charing Cross
Opening hours:
10am to 6pm (Fridays until 9pm)

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