The British Museum’s new French Impressions show was several floors up in room 90, around the back of the museum. I’ve become quite accustomed to coming here for the BM’s print shows, for, for one thing, the BM benefits from an impressive print archive – admired the world over. The last exhibition I attended here, featuring the German print-maker Käthe Kollwitz, was one of the best shows of its kind last year.
This time the focus is on French artists of the nineteenth century, who were drawn to print-making for both commercial and aesthetic reasons. On display are eighty important works by artists such as Van Gogh, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin and many more.
I walk over to Divan Japonais 1893 by Toulouse-Lautrec, a poster-size lithograph of red-headed dancer, Jane Avril, looking a little sinister in her long black dress. She’s listening to music in one of the many cabarets of that era. It’s familiar territory and I move back to the show’s logical beginning, a black and white etching of the Siège de la Société des Aquafortistes, 1884 (see header image). Alfred Cadart owned a print publishing business and shop in the rue Richelieu, Paris. Here women would flock to the windows to view and covet their preferred lithographs
One forgets about the excitement prints brought to the middle classes in the second half of the 19th century. The mechanical printing press and photogravure had already come into being in the first half of the 19th century and had allowed artists such as Ingres, to make more money from their prints than from their paintings.
From the 1860s onwards, the French bourgeois, with more money in his pocket, sought an artwork that was closer to the artist’s initial creation, and that was the etching. The etching bridged the gap between the painter and the engraver – and what took place in fact was an etching revival.
On display at the show are the monthly journals and albums, the print-loving Parisians subscribed to. Journals such as La Revue Blanche and L’Estampe Originale. I peer through the glass cabinet at three alluring portraits of women. One particular print of a woman with her hair caught in brambles looks particularly contemporary.
Not all artists were happy to produce etchings of their most famous paintings. In the exhibition there is a rare Cézanne lithograph entitled Les Baigneurs. Young men dry off after a swim in a provencal landscape. Cézanne only ever made eight prints!
Whereas Les Baigneurs is in the Cézanne style, it is hard to recognise Manet’s hand in Le Ballon.
The crowd gathers at Les Invalides to celebrate Emperor Napoleon 1’s birthday. It’s a public holiday with theatre, music and strange ‘mats de cocagnes’ – slippery soap poles on which those who are nimble enough to scale them, can win a prize dangling from them. The amount of shading in this work is more in the style of a Goya. In Les Courses, beside it, Manet captures the excitement of the crowd at the Longchamp races in the Bois de Boulogne. There seems to be more movement and freedom in these prints than in his paintings. Printer Lemercier however was unconvinced and refused to print these Manet works, deeming them unsellable!
Most of the greats were happy to experiment with the print such as Van Gogh. At the show there was a very decent portrait of a man with a pipe. Pissaro meanwhile was dissatisfied with his lithograph of a market place in Parisian suburb. I meanwhile found it very engaging. In an album of Bonnard’s prints on Paris, I particularly enjoyed Rue Le Soir Sous la Pluie (Street at night in the rain) with its grainy texture, dark carriages and street lighting reflected in the avenue.
Most endearing was Dans la neige (In the snow) also known as L’Education du Chien (Dog training), a coloured lithography by Ker Xavier Roussel. Roussel’s print was produced in the Nabis style- the lines are very simple, like a Japanese print. I hadn’t come across Roussel before and made a note to look him up. Japonaiserie permeates the works in this print collection.
French Impressions is a very enjoyable show. It was intelligently set out by the curator and I was left with the sense of wanting to know more about certain contributions to the show, which is always a good thing. Recommended.
French Impressions: Prints from Manet to Cézanne will run from 20 Feb-9 August 2020 in Room 90 at British Museum. Admission is free