After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art
The National Gallery, Mar-Aug 2023
This exhibition was like opening a book on the history of modern art. The exhibition explains how modern art evolved from movement to movement, Impressionism to Expressionism, redefining what painting means and its uses to paint what can’t be seen with the eye. How do you paint sadness? How do you paint joyfulness? These questions are answered visually as the exhibitions allow you to answer these questions yourself and beautifully guide your understanding of the development of painting. This development is shown both visually and understood through the larger ‘why’ as it articulately explains why modern art evolved.
My Favourite were the Van Gogh’s, which were amazing to get close to. Seeing the impasto layering of oil on the canvas and the infamous swirls of bush strokes makes the paintings seem deeply personal, as with Van Gogh, you can feel the artist’s hand more than other artists. This personal connection makes the artworks deeply moving, and combined with the sombre subjects, the paintings are deeply moving. This level of emotion is something really difficult to capture online and is why visiting this exhibition is something I would really recommend, and it is one thing to understand the works in Art History, but it is another thing altogether to feel them. My favourite painting of the Goghs was the ‘Snow Covered Field with Harrow’, as the raw emotion and power of nature are blissfully present. The snowscape is not pretty white, nor romantic in any way like how we imagine snow. Instead, a reality of cold, harsh, bleak winter days confronts us to the reality of winter. When you step outside, do you look forward to the cold? The truthful reality of winter is captured on canvas, and winter is made to look like the destructive force it is the scape that looks something like a World War One battlefield, harsh, jagged, and brutal. I don’t think I have ever felt cold looking at a painting before, but this one really did affect the way I felt.
Then we move on to the rest of our Art Historical journey. The great names of Picasso, Gauguin, Monet are all there for you to enjoy. It really Is a crash course in Art History, making it great for beginners. I would recommend bringing a friend to this exhibition who may not be familiar with art history as a way of igniting their passion for the arts, as the works are truly inspiring. Yes, you get the joy of the big names, but to understand why these artworks are so connected in a single narrative helps make the artworks more than blockbuster titles but part of a larger story this exhibition attempts to read. However, this is where criticism comes in as telling the story of art history in one exhibition is obviously impossible. What takes people years to study cannot be learned through one one-hour exhibition. Therefore, the exhibition leaves out crucial artists, artworks, and whole movements by taking on too much. Therefore, this exhibition should be understood as more of a blurb to art history rather than a full story.
The exhibition is nicely curated to make an obvious narrative and easy journey easy to understand. The blue walls were unusual but worked well not to insult the paintings behind them. The blue helped add a layer of emotion to all the paintings, which is surprising for such a powerful colour. The objects were placed in ways that did not allow crowds in their masses to camouflage the artworks in the hustle and bustle, allowing all the works to breathe. There were also no ropes to block you from getting up close and personal with the works, allowing me to really look at the brush strokes and the making of these great works. The lighting was typical of a large exhibition and great at lighting the works on display. Equally, the length of the exhibition was good, although the quality of work there was slightly overwhelming so I would recommend a little more than an hour if you wish to look at each work, which you definitely should!
Although in trying to see everything there are some artists who have been missed from this exhibition. Unfortunately, the exhibition suffered from Western centrist attitudes and lacked serious female artists. Indeed, in doing a crash course of art history certain groups and people were left out of the canon, something which felt overlooked and skipped. Personally, I think it is too easy to let off the exhibition for not including more female artists, as there are such overwhelming examples of women in art history that should have been included. Equally, there could have been a great opportunity to look at African art in comparison to Gauguin and Picasso and their problematic relationship. The term airbrushed history is one I wouldn’t use lightly. However, it felt that this exhibition neglected many of their broader representation responsibilities. Perhaps other exhibitions will give attention to the people missed in this group; however, to have more female and non-Western artists on display would have felt more appropriate, especially given the high calibre of work they would have been accompanied with.
So, to conclude, the exhibition is still a must-see, especially for the average person who likes art and wants to understand it more. It is a great opportunity to get close to some masterpiece works and explore something in its wider context in art history. A genuinely great exhibition that I fundamentally enjoyed.
Callum Chamberlain to London Art Walk