Miró, Calder, Giacometti, Braque: Aimé Maeght and His Artists
Royal Academy, until 2 January 2009
The role played by dealers in modern French art seems to exceed that of their English counterparts. Perhaps this is because the French were more bombastic and self-serving, but we remember the names of the great dealers such as Vollard or Durand-Ruel. Actually, I think it is because they played a crucial role in the nurturing of the artists they represented which was perhaps more personal and involved than the subtle and retiring English. Aimé Maeght (1906–81) was just such a dealer who, ably supported by his wife Marguerite (1909–77), founded a commercial art gallery in the dark days towards the end of the second world war. He had trained as a master lithographer at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Nîmes, and so knew the art game as an insider. In 1936 he and his wife had set up Arte, a printing studio and advertising agency in Cannes, which also sold radios and modern furniture designed by Aimé. They started showing a few paintings by local artists in the shop window.
From there, international events intervened: Aimé joined the army and Marguerite was unable to run the print workshop on her own, and instead took to selling the paintings brought in to be reproduced by lithography. Aimé meanwhile ran pictures for clients between the occupied zone in the north and the free south, in the process meeting and befriending Bonnard and Matisse. That was the real start of his empire. Commercial partnership with two such giants of the art world ensured his success, though it was a terrific gamble starting a business in 1945. However, with Matisse supplying the inaugural show and Braque fortuitously wanting to move dealers, Maeght was made.
The exhibition in the Sackler Galleries is borrowed almost entirely from the Maeght family and their Foundation. It begins with Bonnard and Matisse. The first room is completely dominated by Bonnard’s lovely large landscape ‘Summer’, a languorous all-embracing pattern of blues and greens with hotter passages through the middle. To its left hangs a superb Bonnard ink drawing of a garden, employing a similar all-over patterning. To the right of ‘Summer’ are three powerful charcoal drawings by Matisse, a figure and two portraits. In a display case below is archive footage of Bonnard and Matisse. On the other wall is a big ink and gouache drawing by Matisse called ‘The Bush’. Altogether a great introduction to this joyous exhibition.
Gallery 2 is devoted to Miró and Calder, with a big central display case containing such treasures as Miró ceramics, wire birds by Calder, film of both artists (a welcome feature of the exhibition, there’s footage of each artist, shown near their work), a Miró painting on a lace tablemat, a drawing mounted on red net and various maquettes for sculptures. At one end of the room you have to look through a large Calder stabile (the still, grounded version of a mobile) to see a couple of Miró paintings that can’t be viewed any other way. This is annoying, but by and large the installation though crowded works well. In this room there are some really beautiful Mirós, such as the long thin vertical ‘Blue Totem’ (1953) or the oil on cowhide next to it. Perhaps the finest exhibit of the whole show is Miró’s ravishing painting ‘Blue’ (1925), a masterpiece of colour modulation.
Gallery 3 features Braque and Giacometti. I’m a great admirer of Giacometti, so to say that he is almost overshadowed here by Braque is high praise indeed. First to be seen is a tremendous group of six landscapes, small heavily impastoed paintings, all with a wavy horizon line. They feature such simple objects as an old-fashioned plough-share or a boat on a beach, and have a richly satisfying solidity to them, though some find them sombre. Above a display case hang three engraved plaster line drawings from Hesiod’s Theogony. Of the other Braque paintings there’s the classic tabletop still-life of jug, bird and newspaper called ‘The Echo’ and a splendid vertical panel of the studio. I also liked the pattern-making of ‘Vase of Flowers’ (harking back to Bonnard) and the rich dark purples and browns of ‘Hyacinths’.
A vast black on pale blue Braque canvas entitled ‘Black Birds’ (1956–7), deliciously textured and minimal, hangs over a cabinet filled with exquisite things by Giacometti. Here are maquettes and drawings, an enchanting still-life painting of apples and three powerful early geometric sculptures. There’s also a long-backed cat to match the sculpture of an emaciated dog elsewhere in the room. A couple of his typically attenuated human figures, one standing, one striding, take up position among the other exhibits. (As I said, it’s a dense hang.) There are three other Giacometti paintings, the finest of which is a landscape, ‘White House’ of 1958. To my mind, the abstracted or cubist heads are some of the most impressive of the sculptures.
As Nicholas Watkins points out in his useful introduction to the catalogue (£19.99 in softback): ‘One of Aimé’s great strengths as a dealer was that he fully understood and supported his artists’ aspirations to go beyond small-scale easel painting into mural-sized paintings, ceramics, stained glass, prints and illustrated books.’ The Maeghts’s son Adrien, a skilled printer in his own right, set up his own gallery and was instrumental in encouraging Calder to make prints from welded copper plates. The Maeghts became the largest publishers of original graphics in the world, and Gallery 4 is given over to their publishing enterprises. Again the room contains a big central display case, this time full of publications, and a whole wall is taken up with editions of Derrière le Miroir, the periodical which doubled as the Galerie Maeght exhibition catalogue. On the other walls are lithographs. Once again Braque scores highly here with some gorgeous still-lifes.
Aimé and Marguerite Maeght set up a Foundation in Saint-Paul in the south of France to perpetuate their collecting zeal and as a permanent memorial to their remarkable achievement. With some 140 exhibits, this exhibition celebrates their taste and skill. Guaranteed to raise the spirits: don’t miss it.
Very last chance to see the first solo show of talented young painter Thomas Lamb (born 1978), who uses colour in intriguing combinations to evoke trees in blossom (at Browse & Darby, 19 Cork Street, W1, until 14 November). An artist to watch.