Galleries - February Issue

2017 marked the centenary of Edgar Degas’ death and was celebrated with a number of significant shows both in this country and in France. For example, The Fitzwilliam Museum’s thought provoking exhibition traced both the historical influences on his art and then his influence on 20th century artists – Picasso, Matisse and Freud all owned examples of his work – and was a kind of reflection on Francis Bacon’s observation that “To create something . . . is a sort of echo from one artist to another.” That show has just closed but several others are still going strong. The most significant of these is the big Paris show at the Musée d’Orsay, which focusses on his creative relationship with the poet Paul Valéry but, if Paris is a stretch too far, the two London shows, at the National Gallery and Browse & Darby , will do very well instead. The first, ‘Drawn in Colour’, features the extraordinary collection of Degas’ paintings, pastels and drawings from the temporarily closed Burrell in Glasgow which, taken together with the National’s own holdings, covers most aspects of Degas’ long and influential career. There is also the quite excellent small show at Browse & Darby – ‘Degas and Rodin’ – which compares and contrasts the work of the late 19th century’s two most influential sculptors. Very different men outwardly – the one intensely introverted, the other exuberantly extrovert – they were both profoundly committed to the idea, as Richard Kendall puts it, of confronting “the modern body” and in this they were united in their celebratory exploration of what it means to be human. The astonishing rapidity with which globalisation has overtaken the contemporary art world really is a thing of wonder but, at the same time, the art itself has not always quite lived up to the diversity this seemed to promise, so often coming across as having been homogenised into the simply bland and internationally acceptable. Always an exception to this are the consistently rich and challenging shows of contemporary artists’ work from around the world that the October Gallery has been putting on over the last 39 years and, moreover, not one whit diminished by the world appearing to be catching up with them. It hasn’t, as the latest in their series of ‘Transavantgarde’ (the trans-cultural avant-garde) group shows makes very clear, with some stunning work by artists quite new to me (and most of us I suspect) from, among other places, Nepal, Palestine, Iran, China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo being exhibited alongside artists the gallery have done much to bring to international prominence such as the superb Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui and the wonderful Japanese abstract painter, the late Kenji Yoshida. What links them all is not some spurious concept of global stylistic contemporaneity but a poetic visual sensibility that looks to give an intensely personal symbolic resonance to their experience of the world. It has always been my strong contention that, despite all the many negative pressures – political, economic and cultural – there are still more good artists, painters particularly, per square mile in Great Britain than in practically any other country in Europe and North America, possibly the world! For, though constantly being criticised, our art schools keep producing quite remarkably original, thoughtful and technically competent students and, just as importantly, our galleries, institutions and companies somehow keep finding the ways and means to show and support them as they develop their careers. All this à propos the latest Columbia Threadneedle Prize at the Mall Galleries which, now in its 9th iteration, just keeps on R OUND-UP 8 GALLERIES FEBRUARY 2018 F igure this World art Good work