The Degas to Picasso exhibition at The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has us totally wowed at Muddy HQ, and this is the last weekend to catch it.
One thing I love about the Ashmolean’s exhibitions is how civilized they are. Brave the opening days of one of the big London museums’ major shows and you’re guaranteed a view of the backs of heads rather than oil on canvas, while you jostle for position amid the crowds. Conversely, I popped down on Saturday afternoon to the opening weekend of the Oxford stalwart’s spring show, Degas To Picasso: Creating Modernism in France, and it was pleasantly buzzy without being a bun-fight. With the artworks displayed across three rooms of the third floor, it’s a space large enough so you can breathe but bijou enough for it to feel eminently doable, should you have a spare hour or so in town and fancy a culture fix.
The show covers a lot of ground – 100 paintings, 40 different artists, 150 years – in what was a pretty exciting period in French art, especially in the bohemian salons of Paris. Kicking off just after the French revolution in the late 18th century, it traces the evolution of modernism, taking in impressionism, post-impressionism, surrealism, abstract art, avante garde and cubism along the way. Degas, Monet, Pissaro, Renoir and Cezanne were the YBA-style bad boys of their day, setting up their own breakaway exhibition in 1874, after being sneered at by the Parisian art establishment. The resulting movement’s name, Impressionism, came from a pejorative newspaper review of their work – the art critic thought it was a all a bit wishy-washy and rubbish. Oops!
The artworks are borrowed from the private collection of a Chicago art dealer couple, Stanley and Ursula Johnson, who started collecting as students in Paris in the ’50s. As such, the focus here isn’t on blockbuster hits that you’ve seen on a million postcards, rather it’s about the lesser works of big names. Which is really interesting because you get to observe the artists’ creative processes. I loved the rough’n’ready line drawings by Picasso that echo his big-hitters, such as a sketch of nude women that foreshadows the five prostitutes in the famous Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon. It’s also fascinating to see how his sketches become simpler and more geometric as the exhibition chronologically progresses and he basically invents cubism.
Last year’s Andy Warhol spring exhibition last year with its bright colour pops were an easy sell to young children, but Degas To Picasso is less immediate than Warhol and requires some context, given it covers multiple artists, movements and eras. As an enthusiastic but not very knowledgable art lover, I needed to digest the labels next to each work to understand what the heck was going on and I’m not sure I could’ve done that with my kids pulling at my elbow and whining about wanting to go to the gift shop. That said, if yours are older or especially interested in art history, do take them – there’s a kids’ family trail leaflet to keep them occupied and when you do make it to the gift shop, it’s piled high with Parisian macaroons for a post-art sugar rush.
‘Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France’ continues until 7 May. Tickets: £10, £9 concessions, children under 12 go free.