‘Daumier: Visions of Paris’ is the first disappointing show at the Royal Academy of Arts in a while. I think that the problem lies in the fact that there is hypothesis sustaining a story behind it and the different directions that the exhibition suggests are so obvious that the outcome is something difficult to achieve which is turning Daumier into a complete bore. It is obvious that the curators’ main intention was to show his versatility whether working as a sculptor, as a draughtsman or as a painter. The overlapping of his persona with the person shows someone very much in control of his career and the way he moved in mid XIX century Parisian cultural elite. Having said this, those are things that I already knew and this show does not bring much additional light on that.
The catalogue might be a way of finding out what is wrong about this disconnection. The opening essay by Catherine Lampert titled ‘The Silent Hero of Modern Life’ has no structure not point. It is a succession of works and data that one already has in the catalogue. Michael Pantazzi’s ‘Notes on Daumier and His Imaginary Museum’ is such a lost opportunity because this is the area where Daumier excelled. He used to confront the ancient past as a source of artistic authority to the modern political corruption as the new source of political authority. Wit that in front of him, Pantazzi does not do much. Although he points out the references to the past, they are left there and the viewer is left high and dry. After this there is an essay by Judith Wechsler called ‘Allegory in the Work of Daumier’ and one starts to understand where the problem resides and it is the complete incapacity of the Royal Academician to identity the difference between irony, sarcasm and allegory. Wechsler puts everything inside the ‘allegory’ box and humor is left outside of the equation which in Daumier is… ANATHEMA!
By detaching the strictly artistic (modernity and references to the ancient past) from the political (allegorical) Daumier’s reason of being vanishes in thin air. Then there are three essays but art superstars John Berger, T.J.Clark and Peter Doig and the reader/viewer is left really confused because they are literally pointless. They are marginal comments which utterance is supposed to leave is contented.
I think what the modernist/political/historical approach of this exhibition misses is Daumier as artist. There is something plastic in the images where expression and intent collapse into humour. Van Gogh compared him to Michelangelo and he had a point. The way he conveys volume and expression is exceptional and he adds something to that Raphael/Poussin/Le Brun path that makes him modern The comparison with Goya is needed and inexistent in the show. I am saying this because where Goya is pure plasticity and darkness, Daumier is clarity and expression even when painting in dark greys and black. The way he visually expresses irony is very different from his use of political allegory. This is a point that Wechsler totally misses and the whole issue of humor is not even touched nor historicised.
Personally, I find his paintings unbelievably modern. The use of shadows to convey not only volume but expression is uncanny. If there is one thing that this show helped me see were these paintings. I am referring to The Kiss (1845), The Bathers (1846), The Burden (1850), and the Don Quixote series. The economy of visual resources to the point of abstraction reveal the most amazing painter not just a political satirist.
At the Royal Academy
Until January 26, 2014
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