The Ashmolean has managed to pull a real crowd pleaser out of the bag with its most recent exhibition Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France. Bringing together a rich collection of Modernist works ranging from 1800 to the mid-twentieth century, the exhibition shows and explains the rise of one of the most famous and pinnacle movements in art – Modernism.
Spread over three rooms, Degas to Picasso is a simply presented and chronological exhibition which is well catalogued and organised. The works on display are taken from a private collection owned by Ursula and Stanley R Johnson who lived in Paris in the Fifties. The couple made it their mission to collect and catalogue the exciting art period they were surrounded by. The Ashmolean has procured over one hundred works from this exciting collection which has never been seen before in Britain.
Ingres, Gericault, Delacriox and David are the names which welcome the visitor into the exhibition. A series of sketches in both chalk and pen, these are the artists which began to pave the way for modernism in France and open up the floor to new, experimental talent. Perhaps, to some, this opening doesn’t seem quite so jaw-dropping as one may imagine upon entering a modernist exhibition, but these intimate and relatively unknown sketches are an interesting backdrop for what is to come.
Slowly, as you move through the next two rooms, the colours get bolder, the size increases and the composition becomes more experimental and revolutionary. This steady progress from black and white images to colour contrasts and more abstract composition is a clever curatorial move which highlights the exciting progression of Modernism within France. Within these latter two rooms, the visitor is introduced to works by Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Leger, Manet, Chagall and Renoir. Pioneers within the modernist movement and names which most will recognise. However, rather than the usual blockbuster shows which haul in all the ‘big’ works, the pieces presented here, generate new links and understanding for each of the artist’s own individual practices and their progression within Modernism itself.
Overall, Degas to Picasso is well worth the visit and is already becoming one of the Ashmolean’s most popular shows. Pre-booking is advised at weekends but during the week, pop in and take a refreshing and educational journey through the rise of Modernism in France and experience some magical pieces by world renowned artists – ones which are rarely seen in such an intimate and personal setting.
Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France is on at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford until 7th May 2017