Thursday, December 22, 2016

Fantin-Latour. À fleur de peau @ Musée du Luxembourg

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Henri Fantin-Latour, La Lecture, 1877
Fantin-Latour. À Fleur de Peau, the title of this exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg is—unusually for Paris—spot on. The best works in Fantin-Latour’s oeuvre as it is presented here are definitely those featuring skin and flowers. A handful of the most delicate and fascinating works greet us as we enter the exhibition. A series of small self-portraits show the young Fantin-Latour in the process of discovering his identity as a painter and the identity of his canvases. In each, the figure is in different stages of shadow, painted from different angles of vision, with varying degrees of certainty. The series of self-portraits c.1858 -1861 at the entrance show his development, a tentative exploration of painting that is so loose that his uncertainty seems to fill every stroke.  And then towards the end, in 1859, the Bordeaux self-portrait, depicts Fantin-Latour’s dissolving face as though he is holding a camera and turns it around on himself. The direct address to the viewer is startling, particularly as it follows from the face turned away, unsure of itself.

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Henri Fantin-Latour, Autoportrait, 1860
In addition to the early self-portraits, the most striking portraits depict women reading. A silence surrounds women in their own worlds, and even when there are two figures in the painting, they never interact. Their self-absorption isolates them against unremarkable backgrounds. The women in these works often hold something—a fan, a glove, a paint brush, a pen, as if their hands are occupied so they are not tempted to touch, or to reach outside of themselves. The single sitters—both men and women—like Fantin-Latour’s well-known group portraits tell of the reverence for culture in the modern world: reading, reflection, absorption, indicating a world in which culture is always put above sentiment. The alienation and isolation of modern life pervades these lonely sitters and their apparently lonely lives. In a way, this coldness makes the intimacy and emotion of the earlier self-portraits even more remarkable.  

The Reading (1870). Henri Fantin-Latour (French, 1836-1904). Oil on canvas. Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon.:
Henri Fantin-Latour, La Lecture, 1870
Fantin-Latour paints the same thing over and over and over again,  to the point where, by the end I was wondering if indeed, his paintings were original. Of course, he was a name on the French art scene, but he didn’t receive the same acclaim as those he painted: Rimbaud, Verlaine, Manet and Zola. In this exhibition, we see him continually referencing/inspired by/copying masters. The famous group portraits aside, it’s difficult to see what Fantin-Latour brought to the development of modernist painting in his time. It’s true that the paintings are lovely, but we have seen the poses before, we know the fall of light on the young artist’s face from Rembrandt, the profile of a woman against a grey background from Whistler, the woman reading from Vermeer. In addition, Fantin-Latour seems to do nothing without a model, suggesting an unswerving attachment to realism.
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Henri Fantin-Latour, Roses dans une couple, 1882
That said, some of the paintings of flowers are beautiful, rich in their colour and filled with an expression that makes flowers into people. In fact, the flowers are warm and emotional where the human figures are cold and isolated. Unlike the portraits of people, Fantin-Latour gives the flowers a range of emotions, a look, a knowledge of being observed, they even might be said to confront the viewer. There is always a flower that looks out of the portrait and implores the viewer to take pity on it, to notice it. Like the woman who is in her own world, the one flower is often lonely, in its own reality. While the portraits are filled with greys and taupes, even the women’s dresses are muted in their colour, which has the effect of not distracting from the sentiment of the study, the flowers are radiant. They are in pinks and whites, purples and their leaves of deep greens, so intense that they are tempting. They are exquisite, luscious and filled with desire.

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