Exhibition Hopping – Part 1

Over the past two months I’ve seen three exhibitions that have shown the impressive curating teams at three of our Canadian museums. Two have been right here in Ottawa and the third in Montreal.

Gustave Doré: Master of Imagination – National Gallery of Canada

Traditionally the NGC attempts to mount a “blockbuster” for the summer months when the tourists are flocking to the National Capital to stare through the fences at the now inaccessible Parliament Buildings and manouveur the detours and construction that is Ottawa.  In past years it has included a Van Gogh Exhibition (with not a sunflower in sight!!) that drew the biggest crowds in the history of the Gallery.  This year’s Exhibition deserves to have a similar success but unfortunately a drop in tourism, road construction that makes access difficult and the sad fact that Doré is not a household name has meant that attendance has been disappointingly low.

The National Gallery and Musée d’Orsay used Doré’s well-known illustration of Le Chat botté as their poster for Gustave Doré: Master of Imagination.  A click on the picture will take you to their mini-site devoted to this exceptional exhibition.

If attendance has been low the quality of the exhibition is of the highest.  Of course Doré the illustrator is a known quantity: it is Doré the sculptor and, for me at least, Doré the landscape artist that astounds the most.  As you enter the exhibition area it is difficult to miss Poème de la vigne, the massive (4 metres high and weighing in at 6000 lbs) bronze that was brought to Ottawa on a flatbed from its home at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  But as is often the case as impressive as the large pieces are it is  the smaller exhibits that cause that little catch in the throat that says you are looking at a master at work.

Frolic (Leapfrog) is a bronze from 1881 – a brilliant piece of suspended animation.  Its form and fluidity are a prime example of the talents of the artist as more than an illustrator.  The delicate balance of the work is an astounding piece of calculation.

If his bronzes impressed it was his landscapes, particularly those of Scotland and the Pyrenees that came as a complete surprise.  Unfortunately I found that most of his religious paintings – and he did a great many – reeked of that faux-sanctitity that was typical of French art of the period.  But those landscapes! 

A range in the Pyrenees painted in 1860 – Doré’s landscapes are romanticism at its highest – and that is meant as a compliment.

Several years ago the summer show was a brilliant exhibition: The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as a Clown.   It celebrated the history of the circus with some 200 lithographs, paintings, photographs and sculptures.  Though Picasso’s overwhelming show curtain for Parade had me near tears with its sheer exuberant glory what stuck in my memory were two paintings of French street performers:   Grimaces et Misères (Les Saltimbanques) (1888) by Fernand Pelez and an earlier work by Doré: La famille du Saltimbanque: L’enfant blessé (The Family of Street Acrobats: the injured child (1874).  

 The artist’s comment on the painting removes any taint of maudlin sentiment and places the scene in the very real world:

He (the child) is dying.  I wished to depict the tardy awakening of nature in those two hardened, almost brutalized beings.  To gain money they have killed their child, and in killing him they have found out that they had hearts.

When curators Paul Lang, Édouard Papet and Phillipe Kaenel set up the exhibition they wanted to show the often overlooked influence that Doré has had over visual arts up to our own time.  In the work of cinema directors as diverse as George Méliès, Jean Cocteau, Cecil B. DeMille, Carol Reed, Terry Gilliam,  and Roman Polanski entire frames mirror the work of the Illustrator.   And the sway he has held over cartoonists and graphic artists to this day is another aspect of this remarkable man that, until now, has been neglected.

That rocket struck Moon in George Méliès La voyage dans la lune bears a more than passing resemblance to Dore’s Frost-Bitten Sun.

During a recent members’ night a series of Méliès’ films were shown including a Cendrillon which was Doré inspired by way of the Folies Bergère.   At times it was like one of Doré’s Contes de Fées come to life at other times pure escapism for the tired tycoon.  And the special effects were remarkable considering Méliès was working with one camera and very primitive techniques.  And a recent viewing of L’Inferno – the first full length silent film ever made in Italy – reveals that many of the tableau vivant and effects are straight out of Doré’s famous plates for Dante’s masterpiece.  And in more recent times take a look at that Dream Works Puss in Boots?  He remind you of anyone?

Two very different views of Street People by Doré.  Above:  London from a series of studies of Victorian London that accentuate the grim and smog laden atmosphere of the world’s largest city of the period.  Below:  The Beggars of Burgos, the former capital of Castille have a more romantic appearance than their Albion neighbours.   Doré’s views of Spain were to add to the Romantic notions the French seemed to harbour about the people beyond the Pyrenees.

There are only two weeks left before the exhibition ends (September 14) and I urge anyone in and around Ottawa to catch it while you can.  I certainly plan to make a visit in the next few days – once was not enough.

“How long must one be an illustrator before they become illustrious?” – Gustave Doré

August 30 – 1918: Fanni Kaplan shoots and seriously injures Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. This, along with the assassination of Bolshevik senior official Moisei Uritsky days earlier, prompts the decree for Red Terror.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

2 thoughts on “Exhibition Hopping – Part 1”

  1. Saw this one in tne Musee d'Orsay and have to say that, fascinating as it was, it made me realise that Dore churned out an awful lot of kitschy stuff when he wasn't providing superb illustrations of the classics.

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