Monday 20 January 2014

Art Review: Daumier: 1808-1879, Visions of Paris, Royal Academy of Arts, London

From satirical lithographs of contemporary politicians, to sketched and painted scenes of the labouring classes at work, this exhibition of HonorĂ© Daumier’s work gives a glimpse into the variety and colour of Parisian life in the nineteenth century. The Royal Academy’s exhibition is large-scale and comprehensive, with many works to merit individual attention and multiple points of interest.

Daumier shows us amateur print collectors, contrasted with more aristocratic art ‘connoisseurs’, uses scenes from classical mythology to mock politicians, illustrates Don Quixote, and reveals the spectacle which is off stage, rather than inherent to theatrical performance. His pictures are sometimes shocking (King Louis Philippe excreting papers, while gobbling the money of the poor), sometimes tender (the look shared by a laundress and child while crossing the Seine).

Ecce Homo
One of the most striking paintings, which is a marked contrast to Daumier’s lithographs, is his Ecce Homo (1849-52), which takes the judgement of Jesus before the crowds as its subject, despite the artist’s usual antipathy to religion. Despite its distinctness, the image shares an obsession which crops up again and again in Daumier’s art – the behaviour of crowds, especially when enraged and impassioned. There are depictions of riots, and scenes of public trial. The judgement of art is shown to be a similar undergoing, and there are glimpses into the artist’s salon, as well as the people’s streets.

More than anything the collected pieces are brilliantly observed, memorable and witty, even when they are hardly ‘fine’ art. Daumier worked from memory, rather than models and, perhaps because of this, it is the city which emerges in full force of character.

On Saturday afternoon, the exhibition was overcrowded, but if you have the time this week, before it closes on the 26th, it’s well worth a visit.

If you know of any other events or exhibitions dealing with the nineteenth century in London over the next few months let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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