French Kissing the U.K.

The MIA's new painting show documents how French and British artists swapped style (if not spit). Isn't it romantic?

"The White Horse," painted in 1819, is a good example of the expressive naturalism so admired by the French. In Constable's Wordsworthian idyll, a red-shirted ferryman in the foreground acts as a kind of repoussoir, leading the eye lazily toward a tree-shaded riverbank, and, beyond, to a sky full of billowing clouds. Yet there is no vanishing point. Instead, the painting recedes into the even, gauzy light of the British countryside. The scene is one of perfect bourgeois tranquility, a landscape commensurate with the growing confidence and prosperity of postwar Britain.

But maybe more remarkable is what's not in the picture: No allusions to classical myth; no grand historical theme; no fussy brushwork; no rote color scheme; and none of the crumbly ruins that clutter French academic painting. Not only was Constable giving modern life the kind of grand treatment usually reserved for dead kings and fallen empires; he was also, as though predicting Impressionism, celebrating the eye of the individual artist. To the French, such freedom must have been instantly intoxicating.

 

The best thing about "Crossing the Channel" is looking at it. In fact, it's hard to imagine a more dramatic presentation for these paintings than the one the MIA has put together. Gericault gets his own room, of course--and "The Raft" does make more sense situated at the exhibit's head than at its tail, as it was in "Crossing the Channel"'s original showing at the Tate Britain. The heart of the exhibit, though, is an enormous, airy gallery designed to evoke the splendor of the Paris Salon. (If you care to compare, there's a painting of the 1824 Salon, by François Joseph Heim, showing French visitors in their plumage.) The gallery design is a masterstroke, since one of the exhibit's points is that the salons of 1824 and 1827--the "British Salons"--were as important an exclamation of aesthetics as the Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s or the Armory Show of 1913. And, like those celebrated Salon exhibitions, "Crossing the Channel" revels in variety: For every Constable or Turner, there's a genre painting of frolicking nymphs or the ravishing of some poor, half-dressed Byronic heroine.

Some of these risqué works may look pretty ripe to modern eyes. But "Crossing the Channel" is also animated by their theatricality. These paintings, we're reminded, were once popular entertainment. "The Raft," for instance, drew 40,000 paying visitors to Piccadilly and touched off--rather like that horrid Titanic craze of a few years ago--a brief fever for Medusa-related plays and dioramas.

"The salon is a kind of movable feast," Noon says. "It's the sort of room Americans don't see, the sort you'd really have to go to Europe to see. And, of course, it's important to remember that art wasn't always just a part of high culture. These paintings were painted for public exhibition."

Take Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's 70-foot-wide diorama of Scotland's Holyrood Chapel, created in 1824, some 14 years before Daguerre invented photography and--at least according to painter Paul Delaroche--killed painting altogether. When exhibited, the diorama would be illuminated from behind, so as to slowly reveal a ghostly figure wandering in the moonlit Gothic ruin. Even from the much smaller oil-painted version in "Crossing the Channel," one gets a sense of the effect such a spectacle must have had on the Romantic-era imagination, with its melancholy bent and appetite for medieval ghoulishness.

One of the pleasures of "Crossing the Channel" is that it opens a small, clear window into this era and its preoccupations: the infatuation with erotica and Orientalism, for instance; or the interest in British sporting life; or the obsession with maritime adventures. Yet the evolution this exhibit describes wasn't just a change in the choice of subject matter or in painterly technique; it was, put simply, a new way of looking at the world.

To understand just how radical a break this was, one might compare Gericault's "The Raft of the Medusa" with Turner's 1835 canvas "A Disaster at Sea." Turner was likely inspired by Gericault's masterpiece, and he chose a similarly infamous subject--in this case, a British ship carrying female convicts to Australia that refused French aid during a storm. The ship was wrecked, and more than a hundred women drowned.

There, the similarities with "The Raft" end. Gone are Gericault's deliberate chiaroscuro and classical composition. Instead, Turner gives us a mass of humanity flailing against the waves. Whereas Gericault's scene is historically specific, Turner's is open to ambiguity. Where Gericault's style is epic and precise, Turner's is expressive and chaotic, with a heavily worked impasto to match the roiling violence of his sea. Seeing the two canvases together, "Crossing the Channel"'s ambition begins to come into focus: What we're witnessing here is nothing less than the birth of modernism.

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