European Masters 19th to 20th Century from the collection of Städel Museum at the National Gallery of Victoria on St. Kilda Road presents a history of modern art. All the familiar modern art movements are represented from Classicalism and Romanticism to Cubism, along with a few less well-known styles and groups of artists. There is art by 70 German, French, Dutch, Belgian and Swiss artists. And although the exhibition is mostly paintings there are a few sculptures by Rodin, Degas and Renior, There is plenty of variety to see in this exhibition – this variety of styles, trends and tastes is a reflection of the modern predicament.
It was not the introduction of photography that motivated modernism – it was the end of the accepted subjects for art, history or classical and Biblical themes. The great artists of the 19th and early 20th century could have painted anything, so why did they choose to paint these images? What is the subject for art when your world has changed – transformed by revolutions, industry and urbanisation; and expanded by exploration and tourism? One of the first paintings in the exhibition depicts the German writer, Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann H.W. Tischbein. What to paint when traditions and values are under question? For Tischbein the answer was simply a return to classicalism.
The problem of what to paint was a problem for artists at end of the 19th century and early 20th century. It is interesting to see what solutions these European artists proposed for these problems because we can learn about how we can approach similar contemporary problems. The Symbolists have similar quest for spiritual values to our New Agers. The Orientalists, like Eugène Delacoix painting Arabs, have their contemporary analogues in the world travellers photographing the 1001 places you must visit before you die. The Nazarene artists are comparable to contemporary religious fanatics or, given the Nazarenes long hair, 60s Jesus freaks.
And if religion and exotic travel doesn’t interest you what else is of any value? There are Romantics, like Caspar David Friedrich contemplating the environment. Rural landscapes – urban dwellers still dream of a simpler country life in a cottage painted by Van Gogh early in his career. Or, you could have a simple breakfast with the Monet family, which for me was, one of the highlights of the exhibition.
Why be so serious? Why not just paint amusing genre scene with a psychological comic insights? Why not go and join the circus? Or, dance the night away at Café d’Harcoart in Paris with the one of the stars of the exhibition, Henri Evenepoel’s lady in red?
Everyone will have heard of some of the famous artists who have work included in this exhibition. Seeing the exhibition is a way for you to judge for yourself if the European art history books have been praising good artists or emphasising the most important trends in modernism. Perhaps it is time to revise your opinions of artists that you have only read about and seen a few illustrations. Even if you know next to nothing about art history this is a good place to see it for yourself.
There is a small focus in the exhibition on the art of Max Beckman with several of his paintings hung in a gallery painted dark grey. The dark grey emphasises their dark lines dividing the bright areas in his paintings.
Thanks to Alison and the NGV for the free tickets to the exhibition.