Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
6 Oct 2011–8 January 2012
Stadel Museum, Frankfurt
3 February–6 May 2012
by MICHAEL SPENS
It is a masterly concoction of flourishing woodland and human occasion (an arrival from foreign parts so relevant to Twombly) languidly observed, from the foreground shade by Arcadian Greeks and their animals. The essence of Claude’s predominantly landscape subject matter was one of sublimity, even serendipity, expressing the primacy of nature over humanity. To this extent, the paintings in the exhibition have especially shown man in harmony with nature, or else surviving natural phenomena, as shipwrecks at sea or as in his etching of brigands on the prowl. It is notable too, in this connection that in his paintings as exhibited, Claude would extenuate, even distort the human figure, amending it to the context, as for instance, the contemporary painter Gerhard Richter notably has done.1 Claude strikes contemporary chords for us and that is what has made this exhibition in Oxford and soon to be in Frankfurt, so notable.
There has been a resurgence of interest too in the environment: its embellishment, its poetry, and buildings (and their ruins) in this context of change. At a technical level there has been a remarkable revival of interest and commitment to drawing, in his time a crucial compositional tool for Claude, and on its own merits, as for artists the world over today.
At the Ashmolean, the hang has been superlative. Exceptionally too, where paintings are concerned, it has been possible to view two masterpieces close together: the Stadel Museum’s haunting masterpiece Noli me Tangere, (Christ encountering Mary Magdalene on the third day, on the Resurrection, in the garden vicinity of the tomb) and from the Ashmolean’s own collection, Ascanius and the Stag of Sylvia. Neither work was exhibited in the Paris Grand Palais Exhibition/Washington National Gallery in 19822, supposedly the highpoint show of Claude at the time. In every way the Ashmolean/Frankfurt achievement is to surpass this predecessor, and as well as revealing a masterly selection of Claude’s drawings, the importance of etching and printmaking is taken to a new relevance as pioneered by Claude in his day.3 This would not have been possible to achieve other than in Britain, with the resources of the British Museum (eg Claude’s Liber Veritatis), which contains drawings for all his paintings maintained as the artist’s meticulous record and inventory and the large collection at the Ashmolean is represented as never before, in the company of significant examples from Frankfurt and Berlin.
The painting Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid (The Enchanted Castle) from the National Gallery was unfortunately only present in the Ashmolean, but helping to make the selection of 15 major paintings a definitive grouping. The Directors’ emphasise always the interaction of drawings, etchings and engravings, and the paintings as such as one of the primary motivations for the exhibition. However although nothing is present from the Louvre, the Bibliotheque Nationale compensates with an unusually biographical work, the drawing Landscape with artist drawing (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris and shown only in Oxford): someone, perhaps a critic, is leaning over the artist’s shoulder, so showing how then as now, the artist cannot avoid critique. The Musee du Petit Palais lent two etchings, Landscape with Brigands (the criminal gang is as old as time) and the somewhat ominous Atlas supporting the World (and only just so).
The exhibition Directors, Dr Christopher Brown, (Ashmolean, Oxford) and Dr Max Hollein (Stadel Frankfurt) had set out to “revise a number of preconceived ideas about Claude’s art”. This has indeed been well overdue, given the dramatic shift in landscape design research recently and its focus on the influence of Claude on eighteenth century followers. In England the painter Richard Wilson after visiting Rome painted in a manner of Claude, but quite distinctly and opportunistically to supply English landowning clientele with the provenance they wanted in remoulding their landscaped parks, demolishing villages in the way. By employing Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to establish a new landscape tradition, which disavowed formal “French” gardens, earth-moving and excavating even lake-making anew (water offered this clientele also opportunities for wildfowling, a factor not much commented upon by historians). And soon the “English Garden” was spreading across Central and Northern Europe, from Russia to Denmark to Germany itself. It became the embodiment in fact of the Enlightenment philosophy of the sublime and the beautiful in visual terms. It all began, not so much with the philosophers Burke and Kant, but with Claude.
1. See catalogue Gerhard Richter: Panorama to the same exhibition, Tate Modern, London, 6 October 2011-8 January 2012.
2. Claude le Lorrain, Paris 1983, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais.
3. In the Ashmolean exhibition, a cabinet was exhibited close to the display of etchings, deploying and explaining the tools provided by master etcher and printmaker Joe Winkelman of Headington, Oxford. This has proved most instructive to the public.