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February 2014

Vol. 156 / No. 1331


Reviewed by Merlin James




SOLITARY IN THE studio, a prisoner in a bare cell: L’artiste en face de son œuvre provided the perfect culmination to the Royal Academy of Art’s exhibition Daumier (1808–1879): Visions of Paris (closed 26th January).1 The work (c.1860–63; cat. no.120; Fig.70) shows a strapping, even athletic figure, yet his contemplative repose suggests the physique symbolises more inward powers. He has a classical philosopher’s head, and the lyrically contoured hair brings associations of a garland. His apparent nakedness (one cuff line just hinting at a chemise) is accepted by the viewer as a conceit: this artist is a sufficiently platonic entity – no brushes, pigments or other paraphernalia around him – for us to suspend disbelief at his nudity. It is as if he has become his own life model, and in his monochrome shades he echoes classical sculpture. Almost an Antique god, though quite unassuming, he is boxed in by the canvases before and behind him, and by the high, blank window to his right. The ‘fourth wall’ on his left – the screen through which we watch him – is made faintly palpable by the squaring-up left visible across the image. We observe as if through a two-way mirror, and the canvases leaning over him (tilting forward as they do on such studio easels) seem to interrogate him, more than he them. His eyes appear alternately to gaze at the work before him or to be lowered or closed in rumination. He seems to await the conception, the inspi­ration, that will motivate creation. The grid, visible through the whole design, evokes bars or astragals as it crosses the window, and across the empty canvas behind him, it as it were, depicts itself, suggesting that that surface too carries such a matrix for future composition. All the conditions of ‘virtuality’ thought special to our age of the Web already pertain for this figure, an avatar suspended before screens in his proto-digital universe. The squaring-up, with even the peripheral numbering of rows and columns, is a very graphic statement of Daumier’s famous willingness, even compulsion, to leave pictures unfinished. Provisionality is vital, as if to complete would be to kill the creation that in this work is explicitly synonymous with its creator. The prisoner–painter survives by a stay of execution.

Artists, collectors and connoisseurs, looking at paintings, sculptures and prints; audiences and witnesses watching performances and displays – such images featured tellingly throughout the exhibition. The desire to explore Daumier’s concern with the nature and experience of art itself was a stated curatorial aim, and his fascination more generally with how humans scrutinise, interpret, judge and value, emerged brilliantly. Overall the show was far more penetrating than one might have been led to expect by its blandly popularising subtitle, Visions of Paris, that was perhaps institutionally imposed.

The inclusion of so many of Daumier’s lithographs from the satirical press may also have reflected an institutional imperative to give the public plenty of product for their entrance fee, at the expense (as often at the RA Sackler Galleries) of a more measured hang that might bring out the qualities of fewer, finer works. Daumier’s prints are distinct from his drawings, watercolours and oils, not so much in medium as meaning and motivation. The lithographs are programmatic and parti-pris. They allegorise their political and social points wit­tily, wryly, witheringly: war is senseless; apathy weakens democracy; counter-revolutionary rabble rousers are hateful; monarchy is a decadent drain on society. Yet the images – with the devastating exception of Rue Transnonain (no.19) – do not really have a life beyond their time. One appreciates them by re-imagining their historical context, admittedly recognising parallels with one’s own day.

The prints are consummate, yes, in ensuring that the intended conclusion is drawn. But Daumier’s paintings and drawings, at their frequent best, precisely resist such conclusiveness, never becoming semantically and aesthetically spent. There were great, sometimes unfamiliar, examples here in crayon, ink, watercolour and oil, of the artist’s favourite motifs: courtroom scenes; circus and travelling players; street-life cameos and more bucolic vignettes; crowded train carriages; character heads and conversation groups; laundresses on the quays of Paris; theatre subjects; travelling migrants; and the great, haunting visualisations of the travels and travails of Don Quixote. Many of these subjects relate thematically and formally to Daumier’s images of artists and amateurs, and to their implicit meditation on judgment and estimation. Quixote, with his over-fertile imag­ination, his unshakeable vocation and purity of motive, is of course a paradigm of the romantic artist, wielding lance and shield like brush and palette. The courtrooms are sites of scru­tiny, display, performance and discrimination of many kinds. The saltimbanques, meanwhile, are archetypically artistes, drumming up audiences for their performances, proclaiming the worth and excellence of their champions and star acts. They hoist pictorial banners for attractions such as the Strong Man or the Fat Lady. Socially marginalised, they seek often vainly, but with stoic dignity, to gain the interest and credence of the crowd. Their very existence depends on attracting attention, on spectacle. Among several heartrending examples in the exhibition, one showed a Pierrot and a Strong Man in a fairground back-stage area (no.94; Fig.71). The clown sits on his drum in utter exhaustion and dejection. Behind him in the shadows some drapes, and his own hat cast off like a frail boat on a stormy sea, perform a macabre and ghostly dance of forms. His body slumps, like an empty costume itself, his role as the life and soul of the carnival all played out. Looking down at him, compassionate as an all-understanding yet unintervening deity, the Strong Man is powerless to help. He leans against a wooden post, an iron ring set into it above his head, and the association is of some column to which he might be shackled for an escape stunt. The weights at his feet are probably ones used for the guy ropes of a circus tent, but again they are like accoutrements of his act. All the clichéd circus ironies (the tears of the clown, the van­ity of the fair) regain authenticity in such an image, in which every aspect is metaphoric of the existential confinement-within-freedom of these people, the light and dark, lightness and gravity, of their lives. And as always with Daumier’s paintings and drawings it is the physical making of the work that generates and embodies the metaphors. The Pierrot’s head, a flurry of minute erasures and chalkings-over, becomes the dissolving, almost vapourising heart of the work. We see him, in his suffering, transfigured. He becomes Christlike; or saintly, at least. (It is in another work in the show, L’orgue de Barbarie, no.49, that such a tremulous blurring of the face inescapably conjures a vision of the Saviour himself.) It is in fact the Strong Man who is maybe more like Christ, looking down from the implied cross of the timbers behind him. Daumier is a deeply secular artist, but the Bible and Christian art saturate his work. The exhibition included the large oil Ecce Homo (c.1849–52; no.26) which is re-echoed in so many later works, notably the courtroom dramas and those circus scenes where a Pierrot harangues the crowd while pointing back to an impassive wrestler, weight-lifter, escape artist or other Adonis (for example, Hercule de foire; no.99).

Perhaps two dozen works in the exhibition demanded and rewarded critical attention as fully as Un Pierrot et un Hercule dans les coulisses and L’artiste en face de son œuvre. Many, as noted, reflexively engage that attention by depicting acts of scrutiny, often of art itself, as in the so memorable pictures of artists or collectors leafing through portfolios (nos.69–73). Yet Daumier’s art is far from dryly self-referential. The spontaneous ardour of his facture, summoning bodies, poses, gestures, facial expressions, illusionistic space itself from the very scrawl of the crayon and scrub of the brush, conveys manifest human empathy. And indeed his protagonists are just as often conspicuously not involved in artifice of any kind. Laundresses lugging their loads, ushering along their infants (nos.31 and 43–46); migrants fleeing persecution or poverty (nos.27–29); workaday third-class passengers (nos.87 and 89–90) – these and many others give no hint of conscious show or study. Their poses and gestures are just innately expressive of their feelings, instincts and circumstances. The recognition of resonance in such realities is a large part of the artist’s achievement. A father kissing a baby (Daum­ier’s depictions of fatherly tenderness are almost unique in Western art) adopts a pose that, while protective, is itself softly babyish, imitative of the toddler (no.3; Fig.72). Here is expressive performance and a precious object cherished, but the work is that of life itself. Two celebrated paintings of a man climbing a rope (nos.61 and 64; Fig.73) show action and gesture even more entirely dictated by the imperatives of the moment. Nowhere in Daumier are we more aware that life depends on – life is – a matter of energy and an energy of matter. But these two images again, in their suspended animation, open onto multiple meanings. If one version suggests a mariner in the rigging, even a poll vaulter, the other is almost a St George skewering the dragon, or Charon, punting across the Styx.

1    Catalogue: Daumier (1808–1879): Visions of Paris. By Catherine Lampert, Michael Pantazzi, Judith Wechsler et al. 224 pp. incl. 207 ills. mostly in col. (Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2013), £40 (HB). ISBN 978–1–907533–32–7; £21.95 (PB). ISBN 978–1–907533–33–4.