Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art
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The audacious, under-appreciated Romantic painter steps into the spotlight in this blockbuster show
Sex, love, death, war… Lions. More death. Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) isn’t for delicate blooms (those of a fragile disposition should head instead to the Royal Academy’s ‘Painting the Modern Garden’). But if massacres and revolutions are your thing, then fill your boots at the National Gallery, where the French Romantic painter serves up scenes of sword-plunging, foe-slaying, flesh-conquering fantasy unrivalled in nineteenth century art.
Born during the dying days of the Revolution, Delacroix straddles eras – whether he’s the last of the Old Masters or the first of the moderns taxes scholars to this day. Certainly, he looked back to the classical tradition of taking subjects from mythology, literature and the Bible. But, as this bold and at times wayward show reveals, he was also miles ahead of his time, influencing the likes of Renoir, Van Gogh and Matisse with his sexy brushwork, exuberant colour and dizzying compositions.
Delacroix’s style of painting was as controversial as his subject matter. When his early masterpiece ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ (1827), inspired by a play by Lord Byron, was first shown, the art establishment condemned the work for its lack of compositional focus. You’ll be more shocked by the intensely relaxed attitude to depravity of a scene in which the rotten old king, on learning of his imminent defeat, has his worldly possessions – concubines included – disposed of while leaning nonchalantly back on a pillow like he’s catching up on the latest box set.
Hanging in the Louvre, the original painting is five metres wide. Which is another thing about Delacroix. He painted big. Hop over to Paris and you’ll find his over-the-top imagery writ large across vast canvases, as well as the walls and ceilings of museums and other municipal buildings. But those works don’t travel: if they’re not attached to the architecture, they’re either too precious to French national identity (Delacroix’s ‘The 28th July: Liberty Leading the People’ (1830) is a defining image of the republic) or in such a poor state that they’re under house arrest. So, the ‘Sardanapalus’ you’ll see at the National Gallery is a reduced replica, painted a couple of decades after the original. In fact, about the largest thing by Delacroix here is ‘A Basket of Fruit in a Flower Garden’ (1848) – sultry, but a still life, nonetheless.
Does it matter? Yes and no. The National wants us to think of Delacroix as a giant. But that’s hard to do when the work on display, marvellously moody as it is, is on such a small scale. It takes a while to get your eye in, even if you’re already a fan. But it’s worth perservering, because those whirling tangles of legs, swords and manes have an awesome intensity. And, like sparks from a Catherine wheel, Delacroix’s influence showers across the art of the next half century.
What Delacroix does is give his successors permission to indulge their fantasies – as dark or daft as they might be. That long-haul post-impressionist Paul Gauguin should find inspiration in Delacroix’s travels through the ‘living antiquity’ of North Africa isn’t surprising. But even straitlaced Cézanne, that diligent measurer of trees and mountains, unloosened his cravat thanks to Delacroix, painting not only the bizarre ‘The Apotheosis of Delacroix (1890-94) in which his hero is borne aloft, naked on a cloud, but also ‘The Eternal Feminine’, a deeply disturbing ‘homage’ to woman that shrieks ‘psychosexual problems’. So, Delacroix – he’s the cool uncle of nineteenth-century art, encouraging his charges to behave badly and madly. If that isn’t quite the show’s message, it’s a whole lot of fun to behold.