Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris at the Royal Academy
The first question viewers will ponder when walking into this exhibition hosted in the Sackler Wing of the RA is: why has it taken so long for Daumier to be exhibited in the UK? The eclecticism of his work does present a problem for any curator – indeed any aesthete. Yet such is the quality of the grand oils that hang in the first room, it seems incredible that he has not left a more prominent legacy.
Honoré Daumier was born into a working class family in Marseille in 1808 but spent the majority of his youth in Paris. He showed artistic inclinations from an early age, later studying at the now defunct Académie Suisse. Daumier lived through an age of great social upheaval in France, which groomed him for a career that predominantly constituted of making acerbic lithographs, featured within the pages of Parisian newspapers.
The eclecticism of his work is not helped by some strange curatorial decisions at the Royal Academy: the rooms do not follow a straight chronology, nor are they really based on specific themes. Many of the paintings are awkwardly juxtaposed with watercolour sketches, plaster sculptures and cartoons (both in the traditional and contemporary sense). Patrons may also be frustrated by the lack of focus upon the series of Don Quixote paintings – the adventures of the Spanish hidalgo were a lifelong source of fascination for Daumier.
As the exhibition has both an historical and aesthetic focus, featuring a wide range of mediums, there is surely something for everyone – though anybody expecting just to see an exhibition of Daumier’s progressive and illuminating oils and watercolours will be perturbed. Whether even the best cartoons have a place in a Royal Academy exhibition is a subject that will divide opinion; indeed, one could argue that an afternoon could be just as well spent flicking through a 19th century Punch annual.
Although only the most learned academics and cognoscente will wholly appreciate the RA’s rather cerebral offering, the public have been given an introduction to an inexplicably unrepresented stable of French Realism – and the exhibition is worth seeing for the paintings alone. Such honest, profound compositions depicting both metropolitan bourgeoisie and agrarian poor deserve to be seen by a wide audience.
Guy de Vito
Photos: Adnan Moe
Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris is at the Royal Academy from 26th October 2013 until 26th January 2014. For further information or to book visit the gallery’s website here.