(Bloomberg) -- It will be useful, as you enter the National Gallery’s new blockbuster spring/summer show, ”After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art”, to think of the Impressionists as part of the modern art world’s Big Bang.
The show posits that before the likes of Monet, Renoir and their kindred literary, musical and philosophical spirits arose around Europe, modernism was still embryonic. But after these pioneers invented new ways of seeing, creating and questioning, they ruptured the status quo, leading the way for every meaningfully important Western European artistic movement that followed.
It’s an expansive narrative. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time the subject has been addressed. The origins of modernism have been examined in countless books and multiple exhibitions, including the Royal Academy’s 1979 “Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European and American Painting”, which was co-curated by MaryAnne Stevens. Not coincidentally, Stevens has also co-curated this new show at the National Gallery more than 40 years later. After opening on March 25, it will run through Aug. 13.
Art in the show was created roughly from 1886 to 1914. Given the immensity of the subject—a whole lot of art came after Impressionism and before the First World War!—the exhibition, which includes roughly 100 works, necessarily omits a fair amount. No drawings are included, and some of the most important artists (admitted latecomers Picasso and Matisse) have a relatively small presence. Anyone expecting a lucid arrangement of works will be disappointed. Here, one painting does not always obviously lead to another, and it’s largely up to the viewers to draw connections.
The connections are there, if you take time to look. A decent number of generally underappreciated names hang alongside superstars, (the inclusion of the Belgian artist James Ensor, sometimes called a proto-Surrealist, is a particularly nice touch), and the show’s lack of didacticism is actually liberating, once you get your bearings. The hands-off approach allows the visitor to soak in a sumptuous array of truly excellent paintings and sculpture, many loaned by private collections and not seen publicly for years.
The first two rooms begin with the big guns: There’s the National Gallery’s own Cezanne Bathers from about 1894–1905, along with Rodin’s massive plaster Monument to Balzac from 1898, on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris. The show’s second room presents a wall of five excellent van Goghs, four from private collections. Rounding out these heavyweights are several significant paintings by Gauguin, whose formal and conceptual practice, the show argues, was built on techniques learned from van Gogh; Van Gogh, in turn, drew from the Impressionists to develop his distinct visual language.
The exhibition then moves on to artists who built on Impressionists’ technical innovations. There are household names such as the pointillist painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, as well as more obscure artists like Louis Anquetin, whose 1887 Avenue de Clichy (Street—Five O’clock in the Evening), uses a range of blues to evoke the mood of a streetscape at dusk.
From there the scope widens: We’re treated to a room with work by artists from Barcelona and Brussels (Picasso pops up, finally, and so do the wonderful, if not internationally famous Spanish artists Santiago Rusiñol and Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa), and to another room that includes the Vienna Secession and fin de siècle Berlin. Edvard Munch lived in Berlin in 1892-95, and three of his paintings are in the show, including his fantastic The Death Bed, from 1895, whose composition, the exhibition catalog suggests, can be traced to Gauguin’s 1888 Vision of the Sermon, which is also exhibited.
By the final room, we (just barely) make it to abstraction, which is represented in work by artists including Piet Mondrian (influenced by van Gogh) and Picasso, who basically took from everyone he could.Thousands of interconnected threads among artists, in other words, create a vast, if chaotic, web of European art history. Once these threads are picked apart, or even vaguely perceived, they have the potential to serve as a map charting the topography of 20th century Western art. This is a standard curatorial exercise, to be sure, but rarely does it feel so fresh. For that reason alone, After Impressionism is worth a visit: Pedagogy with such a light touch rarely looks this good.
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