The latest installment in a line of ‘blockbuster exhibitions' sweeping Europe, the National Gallery's ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art' has received mixed reviews. Well, mixed in the sense that they vary from neutral to outright condemnation.
Lacking his iconic large scale canvases, for hard-core fans the number of Delacroix's in the exhibition will be disappointing. In fact, the extensive pilfering of the permanent collection might have regulars irritated by the lack of new work at all.
Yet, for the uninitiated this exhibition offers a refreshing approach, crediting the viewer with intelligence but not prior knowledge. Most interestingly, it avoids the tedious biographic spiel that seems synonymous with the white male geniuses of western canon.
Instead, this exhibition delivers something much rarer; a lesson in seeing. By comparing Delacroix and the works of those he inspired, you're encouraged to closely study why exactly the man is considered a genius. Led carefully round the exhibition side by side comparisons illustrate how Delacroix's innovations were utilised by subsequent artists.
In a departure from the fashionably obtuse jargon, the wall text points you succinctly to the paintings’ shared elements. This proves a rewarding tactic that soon has you spotting Delacroix’s iconic colour combinations unprompted. In the later rooms the exhibition moves on to subtler examples, effectively training you to see as the curators do. This refreshingly visual approach contrasts the usual catalogue odes dictating how to appreciate the artist’s genius. Rather, this exhibition allows you to see exactly what other people appreciated in his work.
And personally? I enjoyed the unexpected but welcome cameos from the permanent collection which were revitalised in a new context.
In short, this exhibition is not a must see. The works are not particularly representative of Delacroix’s body of work and with exams coming, you may not get time. However, for future curators I’d highly recommend dropping by as a break in the next couple of days to check out this departure from the current ‘blockbuster’ trend.
Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art ran until 22th May 2016 at National Art Gallery, London.