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Unalloyed delight

3 December 2005

12:00 AM

3 December 2005

12:00 AM

André Derain (1880–1954) has a somewhat mixed reputation. He is widely praised for his early paintings, done when he worked alongside Matisse and Vlaminck and they took the art world by the throat with their Fauve extremism, but his later work is largely dismissed. To quote the Yale Dictionary of Art & Artists, it ‘combined traditional modes with modern sketchiness attractive to those who seek academic assurances in new art’. Fairly slighting, but, in some cases at least, justified. Derain’s post-war work was certainly unadventurous, but then he had determined to be the solid classical reactionary. What we need now is a well-chosen retrospective of his entire career to highlight its undoubted strengths, rather than dwell upon its weaknesses. It’s the kind of exhibition the Academy could do with distinction, and the Tate used to take pride in, before it began to sink beneath a superfluity of curators. In the meantime we are stuck with the stereotype, though this has its compensations. At the Courtauld we are offered a small but superb exhibition devoted to Derain’s London pictures, and what an unalloyed delight it is.

At the suggestion of the dealer Ambroise Vollard, who hoped that the 25-year-old artist would somehow emulate Monet’s earlier success in painting the English capital, Derain visited London three times in the first decade of the 20th century. He wasn’t impressed with the people (though he thought the girls were rather good-looking), dismissing the English spirit as ‘sad, hypocritical and mocking’, but he loved the museums, and spent more time in the National Gallery and British Museum than almost anywhere else. His great subject, like Monet’s, was to be the Thames, but he didn’t find it easy to paint. Indeed, as his letters to compatriots at home demonstrate, he was much preoccupied with theory at this time, with ideas about what art should be, in between revelling in the glories of Turner, Rembrandt and primitive art. (At one point he writes to Matisse that looking at Hindu sculptures and Egypto–Roman embroideries has given him inspiration in how to depict the troublesome river.) In fact, the paintings of London which make up this exhibition do not seem to have been actually executed in situ. Quite possibly Derain began some of them here, but new research shows that he did more drawing than actual painting during his three brief English sojourns (of about a fortnight each) in 1906 and 1907. The ‘London’ pictures were mostly painted back in Paris.

The dozen paintings gathered in the intimate top gallery at the Courtauld have been borrowed from as far afield as New York, Washington and Madrid, but build upon a core of three canvases from British collections — ‘The Pool of London’ from the Tate, ‘Barges on the Thames’ from Leeds, and ‘The Thames and Tower Bridge’, owned by the Fridart Foundation, on long loan to the Courtauld itself. The last time a group of these paintings was seen together in London was during the tremendous Fauve landscape exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1990. I don’t suppose the 29 surviving pictures in the series will be reunited in our lifetimes, so this splendid grouping is probably as close as we’ll get to Derain’s complete vision. (Not even Vollard, who bought the series, ever exhibited them together.) Shown with one of the key sketchbooks, it makes an absorbing display of rare intensity, a worthy successor to the excellent Gabriele Munter exhibition which was shown in the same space earlier this year.

The first picture (on loan from the Pompidou Centre, Paris) is of Westminster under a blazing sun — not quite what was expected. We know that Derain complained to Vollard in a letter during his first visit to London, in April 1906, ‘I am totally deprived of fog.’ Whistler as well as Monet had relished the diffuse and brumous light effects on the river, and London as the fog capital of the Western world was letting the side down. But can Derain’s powerful colours and crisply outlined designs be imagined subject to a misty touch? His forceful Fauvism was totally unsuited to the wispy and atmospheric. In fact, Derain painted the Mediterranean version of London, seething with light and energy, and vividly plumed. The Westminster picture (as also ‘Waterloo Bridge’) is made up of cascades of discrete dabs of paint, rather like the divisionism or pointillism of Seurat or Signac writ large. These touches get broader in successive pictures, sometimes joining up, sometimes showing bare canvas between them.

‘The Thames at Westminster Bridge’ is perhaps not in the same order of experience as the other paintings here. It is altogether more ordinary, despite the non-naturalistic pink and green of the bridge in the middle ground. Though it works well as an image, particularly at a distance, it has none of the surface lusciousness of the others. By contrast, the whizzing curve of ‘Victoria Embankment’ looks like a cycle track (one remembers that his friend Vlaminck was a racing cyclist) with vehicles roaring round the corner apparently in hot pursuit of the leader. Note the nice interplay in the way Derain has painted the trees: the linear tracery of branches in the foreground as against the more volumetric and bushier treatment of the further trees. Not just mood but space is beautifully articulated by colour: a stunning composition relying heavily on simplification and silhouette without lapsing into generalisation.

‘Regent Street’ with its un-horse-like horses (more like roundabout beasts) and its great feeling for confusion and movement brings a new note to the display. But the most daring composition must be ‘The Two Barges’, once thought to depict barges on the Seine but now linked with the London paintings through two recently rediscovered sketchbooks of Derain. The sketchbook in question is actually on show here and open (or was when I visited the show) at a study with colour notes for the painting, so the interested visitor may stand and compare the one with the other. The viewpoint is a high one looking down on the passing barges, and nothing else impinges on the rich creamy paint (applied boldly with large strokes, here and there leaving the canvas visible) but the dynamic thrusting diagonals of the paired boats. It’s a magical painting in its sumptuous simplicity and clarity of design.

These pictures are joyful evidence of the triumph of pure painting, when all ideas of ‘the infinite‘, ‘the absolute’ or even ‘modern thought’ itself have been set aside. There is an argument that some painters try to be too brainy for their own good; perhaps this was Derain’s besetting sin. What excitement when he allows himself to improvise directly with colour, to paraphrase form! This is quite simply a glorious show. The handsome catalogue (published by Paul Holberton and available at the special exhibition price of £20) reproduces all 29 of the paintings in the London series, and discusses them in some detail both individually and within their historical and cultural context. In turn, this focus exhibition is set within the Courtauld’s larger collection, which includes three other key paintings by Derain, together with related works by Dufy and Vlaminck. While this exhibition lasts, an expedition to Somerset House is guaranteed to raise the spirits: Derain at his most buoyant and vital. Hugely recommended.

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