In need of a change of scene from the busy streets of post-Christmas sale shopping, I beat a hasty retreat to the calm and welcoming rooms of the Royal Academy in London. Their exhibition, which has recently closed, on Honoré Daumier, Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris, caught my eye and intrigued (I don’t know anything about 19th century satirical art) I decided to have a look. This exhibition, it turned out, is something of a momentous occasion, as it is the first Daumier exhibition to have been staged in London in fifty years. The collection on display is an incredibly extensive one, beginning with the sketches and mini busts he made for Charles Philipon’s magazine La Caricature and continuing chronologically through his life, and ending with his retreat into his own secluded world with the paintings of an artist looking at his own work as if reflecting on life.
The exhibition is organized into clear and structured rooms, making the artwork visible and accessible to a large number of people eagerly, albeit very Britishly, standing and musing over Daumier’s pictures. There were a few works of art that stood out for me and which I remember very clearly. First was the large and impressive painting Ecce Homo c.1848-52, which represents Daumier’s view on the 1848 French revolution. The painting depicts Jesus Christ, the crown of thorns around his head, his hands and neck in chains, standing before a condemning crowd during his judgment by Pontius Pilot. Painted in broad, rapid strokes, the forms only roughly defined by black outlines, as well as the toned down colour palette all combine to create an effective sense of angry, jostling crowds who, on a hot day, besiege a convicted man. As Daumier was not religious his message can be seen as a political one, one which recalls the protests and easy manipulation of crowds during an uprising. Above all I get the feeling, by looking at this painting, that if I just step a little closer I will be swept up, peering round the child lifted high in the foreground, and thrown into the crowd; churning, twisting and milling below the platform on which Christ is displayed.
That wasn’t the only time during this exhibition that I felt part of Daumier’s art, as an active participant in it. As Daumier’s interest in the new art of photography grew, he emulated images in his own medium and style. However, unlike the art of photography, in which the viewer remains, more often than not, distant and separated from the image, Daumier’s art draws his audience in; the figures are so close to the picture plane that it is hard at times not to imagine that you are part a part of the composition. In the gallery, the photograph Organ-grinder c.1853 by Charles Nègre, Daumier’s neighbour, seemingly inspired the French artist to create his own version of the work. These two images have been hung next to each other in an attempt to encourage the understanding that artists felt a certain affinity with such musicians during the late 19th century, as both métiers were reliant on finding an audience in the troubled times of an unsettled France in order to make their living. Daumier, it would seem, finds images that no one else would think of as being art. Such as Man on a Rope c.1858-60, the scraped surface of which relays so much more than solely technique.
One room in the exhibition particularly caught my attention. The works displayed here focused on the theme of relationships between artworks and viewers, a topic that personally interests me greatly, and Daumier is certainly an artist whose art positively forces all observers to actively look at it. The Print Collector c.1860 embodies this act of looking as curator Catherine Lampert described: “…there’s nothing like that slow, silent scrutiny of someone looking at a work of art and you have that sense, that image of looking…and communing and identifying with a work of art.” The man, bent over his in depth study of prints invites the onlookers in the gallery to join him in perusing the art.
Continuing around the gallery towards the last works of art it becomes more and more evident that ultimately, as Lampert says, “artists make art for the love of working”. The satirical portraits gave way to artworks created towards the end of Daumier’s life that appear more self-reflective and more melancholy. The Third-Class Carriage c.1862-64, a prime example, portrays the three ages of man in a dreary and ill-lit train, the effect created is not so much a challenge to the social class system but a sad acceptance instead. I found myself thinking that this exhibition is not so much about identifying with a work of art but was far more about actively engaging with one, and experiencing a little taster of life in revolutionary Paris.
Although the exhibition has since closed, you can find loads more out about it, about Daumier and Daumier’s art here.