All-time-great artists in a show with a rare provenance - Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France, review

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Fernand Léger, Mother and Child
Detail of Fernand Léger's Mother and Child (Mère et Enfant), c. 1949 Credit: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

Our sense of Paris around the turn of the 20th century as the great fount of art just continues to get stronger. Despite competition from more recent iconic moments such as New York in the Fifties or Swinging London, when we want to understand where we come from in terms of art, we inevitably turn to Paris, from Monet to Matisse – or as this exhibition has it, Degas to Picasso.

Indeed, any exhibition that can marshal a “team” including those four plus van Gogh, Cézanne, Manet, Renoir, Chagall and many other greats is virtually guaranteed to have the punters flooding in.

Pablo Picasso's Female Nude (Nu) Credit: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

There’s an unusual story behind this one. Ursula and Stanley R Johnson were art history students (she’s German, he’s American) in Paris in the late Fifties, who set about creating a collection of works, mostly on paper, that would tell the story of Paris’s moment of artistic supremacy. They turned themselves into art dealers to make this dream a reality, but had to scrimp and save along the way.

This exhibition, comprising just a fraction of their collection, begins with the artists who paved the way for modernism: the classicists Ingres and David (represented by a small and slightly spooky black chalk drawing that once hung over Henry Moore’s bed) and the romantics Delacroix and Géricault (represented by a wonderfully vigorous pen and ink study of a hussar).

Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault's Charging Polish Lancer (Cavalier polonaise), c. 1818 Credit: Ashmolean

When the great modernist eruption arrives, it doesn’t have quite the seismic impact you might imagine, perhaps because the likes of Manet and Degas saw themselves as proud heirs of the great masters, but also because relatively small drawings and prints, many in black and white, don’t lend themselves to huge drama.

It’s with Degas’s large coloured drawing, in chalk and pastel, of a woman drying herself from 1905 that we sense that something really massive has happened. The feeling of sheer animal engagement with her movements makes the older artists, even the red-blooded Delacroix, look positively insipid in comparison.

The exquisitely exact rendering of Cézanne’s Study of Pines provides a potent contrast. Large areas of the paper are left blank, evoking the brilliance of the Provençal light, while the recession of space among the trees is captured in the most minimal touches of pencil and watercolour.

Paul Cézanne's Study of Pine Trees (Étude de pins), c. 1890–5 Credit: Ashmolean

While the show is divided into sections conscientiously delineating the very well-known story of avant garde Paris, from Impressionism to Cubism, you may prefer to go off-piste and make some connections of your own. The vigorous lines of a Matisse wood-cut (a rarity in itself), for example, seem spiritually connected to the delirious intensity of the only print van Gogh ever created, a small etching of the doctor who treated him for mental illness.

Among many other delights, Raoul Dufy’s charming painting of hugger-mugger rooftops on the Côte d’Azur makes perfect sense hung opposite a couple of exquisitely subtle cubist prints by Picasso and Braque.

Fernande Léger’s Mother and Child are boldly delineated against panels of abstract colour that positively sing out in this largely monochrome company. The rounded, simplified features and beatific expressions radiating a mood of utopian optimism The show climaxes with a group of large and exuberantly erotic Picasso drawings from the Sixties, with reclining female figures captured in voluptuous looping lines.

Raoul Dufy's Palm Tree and Terrace at L’Estaque (Palmier et terrasse à l’Estaque), 1908–9 Credit: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

The largest, Cockerel, Young Man and Woman – arguably the standout work in the whole show – was obtained on preferential terms from Picasso’s dealer, the notoriously cantankerous Daniel Kahnweiler, on the understanding that the Johnsons would say, “Kahnweiler is a great man” whenever they looked at it.

There’s a personal, human feel to this collection. Unlike say an oligarch’s acquisitions, many of which will have been chosen by “art advisers”, there’s the sense here of a story and hard choices behind each work, which encourages you to ponder the sort of decisions you might have made were you in their position. Given finite resources, would you have opted for a tiny Picasso drawing or a full-size painting by a lesser known figure, such as Jacques Villon’s vigorous cubistic portrait of his father?

Jacques Villon's Portrait of Monsieur Duchamp (Portrait de Monsieur Duchamp père), 1913 Credit: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2016

Villon was a member of the so-called Section d’Or, a group of once-prominent cubists, including Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes and Villon’s younger brother, the conceptual art pioneer Marcel Duchamp, who was then just starting out. Well-known in France, this group are largely unknown in this country and barely represented in our national collections. They are represented here in the largest works in the show, relatively minor, but quirkily interesting paintings – Gleizes’s portrait of Stravinsky is perhaps the best – that provide an interesting counter-narrative to the main story.

The Johnsons, in fact, own enough paintings by Villon and co to mount an entire exhibition on la Section d’Or. That might have been fascinating: something that we genuinely haven’t seen before. But it wouldn’t have proved anything like the draw of the magical names that dominate this delightful exhibition.

Until May 7. Tickets: 01865 278 112; ashmolean.org