From Rococo to Revolution - French Art from Lille

Article excerpt

THE present exhibition at the National Gallery in London is on loan from the Musee des Beaux Arts in Lille. Its seemingly simple title 'Tradition and Revolution in French Art 1700-1880' is one I find challenging. Voltaire remarked that history was a pack of tricks played upon the dead. One sees how at every age, every society differs in its habits and values from every other, but surely the swings and changes during almost two hundred years spanned by this exhibition were particularly volatile. It encompassed the downfall of various kings, the despotic rule of Robespierre, the omnipotent rise of Napoleon; it covers a Revolution unique in human history, if only because it attempted a total reversal of an entire form of life in the West; it included the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Commune of 1871 when, from the end of March to the end of May, Frenchmen did unspeakable things to other Frenchmen.

According to the feminist Professor Griselda Pollock 'Social historians pay infinitely more attention to art than traditional art historians'. They should have a field day here. The average visitor will see an uneven miscellany -- a few undoubted masterpieces, several works of irredeemable awfulness and two exquisite gems. The exhibition provides a rich opportunity to see work by unfamiliar artists, and to speculate on one who may become the new darling of the art trade.

This might well be Louis-Leopold Boilly (1761-1845), born in Lille, to whose work a whole room is devoted. Many years ago I contributed a modest bi-monthly column for the 'Arts Review' called 'Around St. James's'. Many of the galleries in those sleek streets displayed the scintillating little genre scenes painted by Boilly. Fragonard was his prototype, and he could match the extraordinary delicacy of surface texture, especially of silk materials, of his master. As manifestations of a certain privileged social milieu their value was considerable.

Such inconsequential work did not suit the pre-revolutionary mood. 'Hasn't the brush been too much and for too long devoted to debauchery and vice?' stormed Diderot. And Boilly was denounced for frivolity by a lesser Lille artist, Jean Baptiste Wicar. To atone he painted 'The Triumph of Marat' seen here. While politically correct this animated street scene includes some slyly ironic and grotesque references. A pair of portraits of about 1800 of a droll looking husband and wife display this artist's meticulous clarity of draughtsmanship, as much to her bonnet ribbons as to the carpenter's tools her husband has laid aside.

'The Combat between Minerva and Mars' by Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) provides a rare chance to see this artist's bravura rococo style, learned from Boucher, his distant relative, before he became the high priest of the neo-classical style that typified the austerity of the revolutionary ideal. That began when he went to Rome in 1776 and plunged into Antiquity. The archeological discoveries at Herculaneum in 1755, Winckelmann's vast tome on Greek works of art and Piranesi's 'Le Antichita Romane' all fuelled this interest. On David's return to France in 1781 his 'Belisarius' had a triumphant reception. This early masterpiece, seen here, shows the noble but wronged Roman general, now blind and impoverished, arousing the pity of a noblewoman and her child to his plea for alms. David's concern with linking space in geometrical patterns in order to pinpoint the action is perfectly displayed.

The 'Belisarius' cannot compare in power to his 'The Oath of the Horatii' nor to his depiction of the death of Marat which raised portraiture into the domain of universal tragedy. Indeed his 'Belisarius' comes dangerously close to the affecting sentimentality that suffuses the work of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). Hypocritical piety played an important part in setting the neo-classical trend and 'The Punished Son' and 'The Ungrateful Son' in this exhibition are fairly typical examples. …