Another good example of an artistic movement rejecting most of the avant-garde of their era is the French Naturalists
Art history is made out to be a deterministic narrative, a purposeful straight line where one artistic innovation or movement led to the next which led to the next which brought us to today. It couldn't be otherwise.
The problem with this straight line is that art history is not entirely comprised of the avant-garde of each era giving birth to their successor avant-garde. Plenty of people – horrible to say! – don't like what the avant-garde does, or at least not in its entirety. Take, for one example, the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, whose work in the main is… traditional. When I went to Hobart in Tasmania, I found another community not obsessed with the latest fashion.
Another good example of an artistic movement rejecting most of the avant-garde of their era is the French Naturalists, eight painters who flourished 1890-1950, according to a soon-to-close show at the Fleming Collection on Berkeley Street. Even calling them a movement is possibly to buy too much into an art history narrative – they were painters without a manifesto or tenets.
Still, they do sit well together as painters who trailed in the wake of Impressionism and lived when Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and the rest were exploding. What is immediately clear from this show is that the artists were happy to sample the techniques their predecessors and contemporaries devised but would rather produce pretty-yet-traditional work than modern-and-ugly paintings. If I call their work decorative rather than theoretical, that is not to insult either camp.
For the work is beautiful undoubtedly. Lucien Vogt's Les maisons alsaciennes (before 1930) is a bright country scene with charming shadows and trees taken straight from Cezanne in colour and free brushstroke. Vogt was also under the spell of Monet, Signac, van Gogh and plenty more.
Les jardins à Souppes-sur-Loing by René Fontayne
René Fontayne's Panneau décoratif (1932) shows sheep grazing in front of a woodland waterfall, with square scarlet blossom enlivening the pale grey tree trunks; it seems to draw on Art Deco's geometry. With Les jardins à Souppes-sur-Loing (1930-5) (pictured above), he comes closest of all these paintings to leaving the figurative behind: streaks of red roofs peek out through swatches of greens and brown, cleverly counterbalanced by the bright blue door in the centre of the canvas; at the bottom there is a haze of pink flowers. This painting almost dares to dissolve the planes of painting – but that was clearly far enough.
André-Léon Vivrel was another influenced by Cezanne, but he seems the most skilful in his own right. A Nature mort (before 1924) with flowers drooping out of a copper vase which enticingly reflects the fruit sitting before it is tremendously done: the succulent peeled satsuma, the foreshortened banana, above all the reflection of everything (possibly including the artist himself) in the pot. He maintains the eye's interest constantly.
Nature morte by André-Léon Vivrel
One of the favourite paintings of Philippe Clerc, partner in Chester Collections, which organised the show on behalf of a private collector, is Gaston Balande's Camping (1934) (pictured below), an idyllic scene of ladies relaxing in a forest, staring at the receding river. While Philippe's taste is otherwise exquisite, to me this painting is almost fascist: it looks like Nazi propaganda for a nice Aryan day out. Indeed, Philippe told me that the painting was taken to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics where a German collector tried to buy it.
Camping by Gaston Balande
When I asked Philippe the crudest question – how much do these paintings sell for at auction? – he said they don't: there is little demand in France, let alone beyond, for these works. We have been brainwashed into the straight line of art history and these works, rejecting the uber-modern yet beautiful nonetheless, do not garner critical acclaim.
The other side of that coin, of course, is that even with the premium that accrues from a first-rate public exhibition, you'll get a lot more Vivrel for your money than you will Cezanne.
French Naturalist Painters 1890-1950 runs until 7 July at the Fleming Collection, Berkeley Street