Photo courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art
Delacroix Influence exhibit at the Mia
The Minneapolis Institute of Art has been celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a flourish of great exhibitions—The Hapsbergs, Mark Mothersbaugh, Marks of Genius, Italian Style—and, every week, the staging of a “surprise” art event intended to extend the museum’s reach out beyond its walls and into the “community.” That’s why, all summer long, people flying into Minneapolis-St.Paul airport saw a crop-art version of Vincent Van Gogh’s Olive Trees planted in a field in Eagan, complete with the Twitter hashtag, #vangrow!.
All of this centennial hullabaloo has all been leading up to the big finale, an ambitious, groundbreaking, possibly even iconic (pick your superlative) exhibition, Delacroix’s Influence: The Rise of Modern Art from Cezanne to Van Gogh, which opened over the weekend. Having seen the show, I can say without hesitation that it is now time for the “community” to gather inside Mia’s walls to marvel at the surprises awaiting them in the museum’s Target Gallery.
The brainchild of Mia’s eminent painting curator Patrick Noon, Delacroix’s Influence isn’t just a must-see exhibit for those interested in art; it’s a must-attend event if you are a human being—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in the creative ferment of 19th-century France, at the juncture of one of the greatest revolutions in history, namely the transition from classic traditions and their more flamboyant cousin Romanticisim, to Impressionism and what we now call Modern art.
This exhibit tells the story of—and makes the case for—French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix’s monumental influence on the generation of painters that came immediately after him. That subsequent generation features some of the best-known, most revered artists in history—people so famous that we don’t need their full name to recognize them: Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Gaugin, Matisse, and many others. All were devoted followers of Delacroix. All studied his style and technique. All read his journals. And though learned minds could spend hours disagreeing about the most influential painter in 19th-century France, Mia curator Noon’s pick is Delacroix. As Noon explained during the media preview last week, “Delacroix was the last painter of the Grand Style, and the first painter of the modern style. His work sparked a revolution. He is the link between Romanticism and Impressionism. All roads lead back to him.”
To tell this story, Noon took 30 paintings by Delacroix and paired them with works by these other great artists—many of them important, seminal paintings all by themselves—in order to illustrate Delacroix’s widespread influence. Walking through the 75-painting exhibit is like taking the best art history class you can possibly imagine, except that instead of slides on a screen in some dingy lecture hall, you get to view the Delacroix originals side by side with the work of painters who obviously took inspiration from him, paid homage to him, or just outright copied him.
In the first gallery alone—a section called Emulation—are paintings by Cezanne, Manet, Gaugin, Sargent, and several others, all arranged around the exhibition’s signature painting, a rare self-portrait of Delacroix himself. Among these are Manet’s famous Music in the Tuileries Gardens, as well as a remarkable copy of Delacroix’s The Jewish Wedding in Morocco done as an exercise by Renoir to tease out some of the Master’s secrets.
The following section, Orientalism, explores Delocroix’s travels to North Africa and other artists’ fascination with this new territory, recently colonized by the French. Among the delights to be found here are Delacroix’s Combat of the Giaour, a classic horses-in-the-heat-of-battle painting, and The Convulsionists of Tangier, a familiar painting from Mia’s collection. Both evoke the furious energy and violence that mesmerized painters in Paris, convincing many of them to travel to Morocco in order to experience for themselves the quality of the sun in that part of the world, as well as the barbarity that, if Delacroix’s paintings were to be believed, apparently ran amok in the streets there.
The exhibit continues through three more sections, each of which illustrates various ways in which Delacroix’s influence spread. The genius of this exhibit is that as you walk through it, you can feel the excitement and energy of artists enthralled with the new, all clamoring for ways to assimilate Delacroix’s disciplined rule-breaking into their own work. The seeds of the revolution Delacroix started are all there—the ascendance of emotion and imagination, the breakdown of classic formal constraints, the assertion of color, the loosening of brushstrokes, the love of nature—and, organized this way, it is easy to see how painters like Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, and others borrowed techniques and inspiration from him. Some of the thievery is blatant, some subtle, some reverent, and some humorous, but it all serves to put an exclamation point on the notion of Delacroix’s profound impact on those who followed him.
The one thing Delacroix’s Influence does not include are any of the giant, wall-covering Delacroixs one might see at the Louvre, such as his notorious The Death of Saradanapalus, which measures 15 feet wide and 12 feet high. Instead, visitors to Mia will see the miniature version of that same work that Delacroix painted some 20 years later. It’s still a Delacroix; it’s just not the original. What you can see instead is an excellent video, made for the exhibit, highlighting Delacroix’s magnificent and utterly amazing ceiling frescoes in the Louvre, the French parliament building, and elsewhere, some of which took up to a decade to complete.
Delacroix’s Influence is a remarkable accomplishment; it is also a peculiarly local one. Most of the Delacroixs in the exhibit are either from Mia’s permanent collection or from the original collection of railroad magnate James J. Hill, who was the premier collector of Delacroix in the United States during his time. What holds the exhibit together is the intelligence at its core and the careful way in which the narrative of Delacroix’s impact is told, through the paintings, many of which are already familiar to Mia patrons.
For many, I’m guessing, this could quite literally be a life-changing exhibit. That’s because after seeing it, it’s difficult to look at an Impressionist or neo-Impressionist painting again without thinking about its connection and debt to Delacroix. And once you understand how Delacroix broke down the formal rules of painting that he inherited, his role at the center of one of art’s great revolutions is obvious. Thus enlightened, you can walk out of this show with considerably more than a thumbnails’ grasp of almost two centuries of art history. What a bargain.
None of the ideas in Delacroix’s Influence are new if you’ve ever taken an art history class, but they are inform a basic understanding of what was going on in French art during the 19th century, which serves as foundation for understanding 20th-century Modernism. The show is about more than the paintings, though; it’s about the story behind the paintings—the people, ideas, politics, culture, and zeitgeist of the times. Not everyone thinks of Delacroix as the progenitor of Modern art, but, read as a kind of visual essay, Delacroix’s Influence presents an extremely compelling case—one that is sure to spark discussion beyond the Mia’s manila walls.
The wonder is that no one has thought to organize an exhibit about Delacroix in this way before. It’s got everything: great paintings, a compelling story, fabulous presentation, a coherent message, a beautiful catalogue. It’s even got Van Gogh’s original Olive Trees—the one memorialized in a local cornfield—which the ear-less one painted during his stay at the Saint-Paul insane asylum (another local connection!) in southern France.
So go. You’ll walk out a better person for having seen Delacroix’s Influence. And when the subject of modern art comes up, you’ll have something interesting to say about—because Delacroix will have influenced you, too.