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December 2010

Vol. 152 / No. 1293

The shock of the old: 'Manet and the Post-Impressionists'

IT MIGHT BE thought that there was little more to discover about Manet and the Post-Impressionists, shown at the Grafton Galleries, London, in the winter of 1910–11. So celebrated an exhibition has been written about and chewed over by art historians and cultural commentators for several decades. But, as is evident from the articles in this special issue to mark the centenary of the show, there was still a good deal to find out. For example, we publish here for the first time in full (p.798) the simple and touching letter written by Van Gogh’s sister-in-law to the Grafton show’s secretary, Desmond MacCarthy, on Vincent’s mental illness and suicide; Fig.17 is a recently discovered installation photograph of a sculpture by Matisse in the exhibition; and there is much new detail on the exhibits themselves, on how they were selected, and who lent them. Although the exhibition was put together relatively quickly and was predominantly a selling show, involving a good number of dealers, it becomes clear from Anna Gruetzner Robins’s article that Roger Fry’s selection was by no means as makeshift as has often been surmised. There were important lenders from Germany, Holland, France and America, and the astonishing array of works by Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh was highly representative. With the choice of living artists there were some grounds for complaint. It was on this point that only those familiar with the Paris art world could criticise with some justification.

It should be remembered that progressive art from abroad was comparatively rarely seen in Britain at that time and although several of the artists shown at the Grafton Galleries had had work in exhibitions in London and elsewhere (notably in Modern French Artists at Brighton in June 1910), the examples were not always of the best. There were few dealers who risked showing European Impressionism and Symbolism, let alone anything more advanced. Even Durand-Ruel’s great exhibition of the Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in 1905, although critically acclaimed, sold nothing. Five years later and the situation was almost reversed: Manet and the Post-Impressionists opened to a hailstorm of critical abuse and over 25,000 paying visitors made their way to the West End gallery, in the plush centre of the art establishment, to discover what it was all about. The show made healthy sales. It was well publicised with posters and press advert­isements (in three consecutive months in this Magazine, for example). One visitor, who thought most of the pictures were ‘abortions’, found the galleries ‘uncomfortably crowded with a horde of giggling and laughing women’. This was the future Turner scholar, A.J. Finberg.1 

While the exhibition did not make its leading artists household names overnight, it prepared the ground for their eventual canonisation over the following decade. Gauguin, whose work escaped the worst excesses of critical abuse, became a figure of romance and rebellion, his life evoked a few years later in Somerset Maugham’s bestselling novel The Moon and Sixpence; Van Gogh was the deranged genius of popular imagination, although the publication of his letters in the following decade put paid to the idea of him as an undisciplined lunatic; and Cézanne, from being an incompetent ‘bungler’, rapidly assumed shaman-like status in the development of Modernism. The term ‘Post-Impressionist’, with its contemporary ring, quickly entered the English language: it is found soon afterwards, for example, in novels by H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett; and by 1920 Soames Forsyte in John Galsworthy’s To Let is already remembering ‘the fuss [. . .] about those Post-Impressionist chaps’ and has acquired paintings by Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso.2 

Reviews and accounts of the exhibition were not confined to London: regional centres were eager for lectures on the Post-Impressionists and for shows of their work. Examples from the Grafton toured in 1911 to Dublin, for example, and formed the basis of a Post-Impressionist show in Liverpool that year.3 A striking feature of much of the criticism of the show concerned the subject-matter of many of the works. It was boring, ordinary, unelevated, without distinction. Mme Cézanne had no feminine allure to recommend her; Matisse’s green-eyed girl was common, even brazen; the sunflowers and the apples were charmless. Only Gauguin’s Tahitian scenes had some exotic pulling power, but his ‘savages’ could hardly be hung on one’s wall. Here was an unsettling visual democracy that undermined the cultured assumptions of the educated classes. Even the brilliant colour was an affront to such refined sensibilities, conditioned as they were by the muted palette of the New English Art Club, by Whistlerian tonalities or the decorum of society portraiture. But, for many young artists in Britain, it was this freedom of colour that was inspirational. If for some it was a deleterious experience that resulted in crude pastiche, for others it was the making of their work. In 1910 it would have been out of the question to have had a British Post-Impressionist representation at the Grafton, but at the Second Post-Impressionist show, two years later, it became almost a necessity.

It was a stroke of good fortune that at the time of the show, Fry was taking a lead in this Magazine’s coverage of recent art, for otherwise we might well have been in the company of those journals and critics who condemned the exhibits with such ‘reckless courage’. Forty years later it was another Editor, Benedict Nicolson, who, in these pages, gave the first serious art-historical account of the exhibition. For this month’s centenary homage we must particularly thank our contributors not only for what they have produced but also for acknowledging the collaborative nature of the enterprise and accepting with good grace editorial interventions to ensure a seamless whole.


1  For A.J. Finberg’s review published in the Star (14th December 1910), see J.B. Bullen, ed.: Post-Impressionists in England. The Critical Reception, London and New York 1988, pp.136–39.
2  For Galsworthy and Post-Impressionism, see L. Ormond: ‘The Soames Forsyte Collection: A Study in Fictional Taste’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 119 (1977), pp.752–56.
3  The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, will mark the centenary of Liverpool’s Post-Impressionist exhibition in summer 2011.