He begins in the Valley of the Dordogne. It looks like paradise. A cut away to a problematic Parisian suburb looks less so. Economic problems and terrorist concerns plague the capital these days. These are the two different faces of France and AGD, as he shall be known from hereon in, shows us that it has, in fact, always been thus.
In that same suburb of Paris, Saint-Denis, there sits a basilica. The appropriately named Basilica of St Denis is a gothic crypt offering a final resting place to several French monarchs and it sits in the heart of one of France's most multicultural regions. A statue of Marie Antoinette, herself an immigrant, stands testament to a history of violent change.
We jump back a millennium, almost, to the invention of Gothic architecture which began with the Basilica of St Denis, the brainchild of one Abbot Suger under whose patronage elements of Islamic architecture were fused with Norman and Burgundian techniques and styles. There were painted arches, high ceilings, and the building was full of 'sacred' light. Suger said "the dull mind rises to the truth through material things".
AGD's personal favourite Gothic site in Paris is the Sainte-Chapelle. It was designed to house "the most precious thing in the world". That being the crown of thorns that Louis IX had gotten hold of and placed, with great ceremony, barefoot on Saint-Chapelle's altar. In doing this he had made France the centre of the Christian world.
From 1337 to 1453 the Hundred Years' War raged. There was pestilence. There was famine. There was death. France was politically fractured and culturally uncertain. In Italy the Renaissance provided some of the greatest artists ever to live but between 1450 and 1600 France produced not one single painter of note. The troops of Louis XII didn't help. They went round destroying art. Even a Leonardo in Milan wasn't spared their vandalism.
The Renaissance did provide France with a philosopher though. Michel de Montaigne appeared in the 16th century. At a time when Catholics were massacring Protestants Montaigne's open mind was a great step forward. He was France's first 'free thinker' and set in motion a respect for philosophy that continues until this day.
He wrote essasys on subjects as wide ranging as friendship, loyalty, Siamese twins, and even thumbs! He said "I am a man and nothing human is alien to me". He understood, and was able to articulate, how frail our humanity is and how precious it was that we try and hang on to it.
As ever louder, more bellicose, voices, won out. During the 17th century more than 8,000,000 people (more than a quarter of Europe's entire population at the time) were killed during the Thirty Years' War, the deadliest ever European religious war. Jacques Callot's bleak prints of lynching predated Goya's similar, and more well known, work by two centuries.
Jacques Callot - Miseries of War
Though Callot's place in history has been underwritten the same can not be said for Poussin. He'd spent most of his career in Rome and, perhaps because of this, was the first French painter to really get the Renaissance. His paintings were reflections on life in much the same way Montaigne's essays were. Poussin's Arcadia has a Latin inscription that translates as "I too am in paradise" but paradise, here, meant death. Poussin was saying loudly and proudly that we're all going to die.
Nicolas Poussin - Arcadia
It's not certain if Louis XIV, The Sun King, thought himself so powerful he could cheat death but he did believe he could bend history to his will and make France the actual, rather than symbolic, centre of the world. He lived in Versailles, the largest palace ever created by a European monarch. The palace said, even if Louis himself didn't "L'etat, c'est moi" ("I am the state"). He held the masses in such contempt that servants weren't permitted to die on the grounds of Versailles in case they polluted the realm. A paranoid megalomaniac living in gilded luxury. Remind you of anyone?
Venice was the only place that made mirrors at the time so Louis XIV simply offered the Venetians more money to come and make them for him. Him, and his Minister of Finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert, were using protectionism and duplicitous business practices to enrich themselves. Again - remind you of anyone?
Artists, playwrights, and poets were given so many rules to obey that they, essentially, became prisoners of the system. Charles Le Brun was tasked with setting the standards and decided upon a hierarchy which put history painting, which he practiced, at the top. The secret in portraying the human face, he was sure due to an incorrect understanding of how the pineal gland works, was in the eyebrows. His 1665 Entry of Alexander into Babylon was huge. Twelve metres wide. Royal patronage had gone straight to his head.
Charles Le Brun - Entry of Alexander into Babylon
When Louis XIV died in 1715 he left France politically powerful but internally divided. Rich v poor. Watteau's enigmatic Pierrot, though looking very dated to our modern eyes, announced that times were changing. It wasn't the sort of thing Le Brun would've approved of. It was closer to Montaigne's elusive school of thought. The 'dictator' had gone. There was a void. All of France was as confused as Watteau's Pierrot. Both it, and France herself, seemed to be saying 'what now?'.
Jean-Antoine Watteau - Pierrot
Watteau was the love after Louis XIV's war. Rococo appeared. Boucher had been to Le Brun's academy and, like Poussin, studied in Rome. His pictures of Diana seemed to be designed more for private contemplation (cough!) than for imperial bombast. Madame de Pompadour, a big patron of the arts and the official mistress (so French) of Louis XV, approved.
Francois Boucher - Diana leaving the bath.
The Francophone Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a thornier character. He railed against the French attachment to material things and argued for the primacy of nature and the inner child and even against civilization itself. About the same time the first modern encylopedias arrived and were, predictably, fiercely criticised by the church who always prefer an unquestioning populace.
Rousseau contributed as did both Voltaire and editor-in-chief Diderot. None of them were keen on established or inherited authority. There wasn't just one Montaigne in France now. There were loads of them. The anatomical illustrations inside the encyclopedias were beautiful if somewhat morbid and may've pushed Diderot into his next venture.
After two decades he moved into art criticism becoming one of the first ever art critics. Under Louis XV's reign the doors of the Salon at the Louvre were thrown open to the general public and Diderot's art criticism became social commentary. There's still some chancers writing blogs in this vein today. Diderot rallied against the decadence of Boucher and, in doing so, was critical of the entire Ancien regime. Diderot's hero was Chardin (one of the first artists I ever saw an exhibition of) whose quiet, low key, small scale, oil paintings depicted eggs, grapes, wine, and pots!
AGD boldly, though probably correctly, claims Cezanne, and later Cubism, sprang from Chardin. Chardin painted both what things looked like and what, to him, the world itself looked like. Proust likened his 1728 Ray to "the nave of a polychromatic cathedral", an echo of Suger's Basilica of St Denis. Chardin, like Diderot, opted to live a simple life. They saw a well lived virtuous life as being better than one filled with wealth and luxury. A mild mannered man Chardin said "you use colours but you paint with feeling".
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin - Still life with a basket of peaches, white and black grapes
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin - The Ray
Under Louis XVI France was facing bankruptcy. He knew but he did nothing about it. Jacques-Louis David has been commissioned by the king to make Roman allegorical paintings instructing, coercing even, his citizens to loyalty. The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons was perhaps not what he had in mind. Brutus had done his duty but his body is knotted in agony and the basket full of sewing hints at a home, or a country, ripped apart.
Jacques-Louis David - The Lictors bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons
David was conflicted. Within weeks the Bastille had been strormed and by July 1789 there was no more aristocratic power, no more monarchy, and no more Catholic church. Under Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, David, the reluctant propagandist, had become a revolutionary painter.
The tricolor was raised. There was a new calendar. There was new architecture. AGD visits the Pantheon, turned by revolutionaries from a church to a secular sepulchral temple to humanity. Yay. Rosseau and Voltaire were dug up and reinterred there but the revolution splintered into factions and David, himself, had become an extremist backing the guillotining of his former patron Louis XVI in la Place de la Revolucion.
Under the Terror hundreds of people, many of them earlier supporters of the Revolution, went to their deaths. AGD warns us, in the age of Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen, that all revolutions, eventually, eat their own children. David's The Death of Marat shows the terror in microcosm. Marat was a violent man murdered by a young woman who could no longer bear his tyranny. He was an ugly leper who spent all day in the bath wearing a vinegar soaked turban. David made this encapsulation of terror in human form a new Christ to rank alongside Michelangelo's Pieta. Marat was martyred but the killing went on.
Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Marat
Nicolas-Antoine Taunay - The Triumph of the Guillotine in Hell
Black flags similar to those of ISIS appeared. Stray dogs lapped up the rivers of blood that ran though the streets of Paris. There were rumours of cannibalism. David's portraits of the time are particularly disturbing. He was thrown into prison and only escaped the guillotine when a demagogue stepped in.
That man was Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon established the second great rule of revolution. Turn its energies elsewhere. Find new enemies to fight. AGD has a go with ol' Boney's bicorn hat and spyglass but really, like so many populist leaders, he was not a man to be admired. He stole art and antiquities from Venice, a Venice that'd enjoyed its independence for over one thousand years until Napoleon's army marched in and conquered it.
Napoleon, now the most powerful man in the world, was liberating art from religion and the past. He renamed the Louvre after himself and made an exhibition (literally) of himself too. David's Napeoleon at the St Bernard Pass is asking us to see the noble horse as the French people and that they're being taken for a ride by the short-arse on their back. It was a call to arms as much as anything else.
Jacques-Louis David - Napoleon at the St Bernard Pass
Napoleon was obsessed with Egypt which he, of course, invaded. It was as if he was starting to see himself as an actual pharaoh. The Egyptian prints that were made at the time are now in the Sorbonne. The excavations carried out acted as an early form of archaeology. David was too old to join the Egyptian camp but his student, Antoine-Jean Gros was not.
Napoleon wanted glorifying but did Gros do that? Like David had once been Gros was conflicted and was seeing both heaven and hell in the world he lived in. In 1804 Napoleon, in Notre Dame, crowned himself Emperor. He was no longer just the most powerful man in the world but the most powerful man who had ever lived.
Antoine-Jean Gros - Napoleon in the Pesthouse at Jaffa
Ingres, like many others, was equally attracted and repulsed by Napoleon. Napoleon on the Imperial Throne waves around symbols of powers like a pair of morons in a gold plated lift. Napoleon had the face of a giant baby but a giant baby with a God complex. I ask for the last time. Does this remind you of anyone?
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - Napoleon on the Imperial Throne
The painting was despised and rejected possibly because it spoke the truth and Napoleon, like so many demagogues, was no fan of truth. Also like so many demagogues Napoleon was eventually defeated. First in the frozen wastes of Russia and then, as any Abba fan knows, in Waterloo. Again a void followed a dictatorship and France was fucked once more. They'd stupidly been taken in by a violent, self-obsessed, thin-skinned lunatic who cared only about himself. Some would say they got what they deserved.
The monarchy was back in the form of Louis XVIII. Gericault's Raft of the Medusa helped usher in the Romantic era. It depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Medusa which ran aground off the coast of today's Mauritania in July 1816. All but 15 of the 147 people on board died and many, if not all, of the survivors kept alive by practicing cannibalism. Was it the ship, or France herself, though that Gericault was saying was lost at sea?
Theodore Gericault - Raft of the Medusa
Gericault died of 'consumption' aged just 32 but the Romantic movement prospered. The poet Baudelaire haughtily intoned "Everything is me and I am everything". Delacroix's work was either despondent or frenzied. What a violent picture the Death of Sardanapalus is. Despite having written about it before I hadn't realised. It goes to show the benefit of revisiting works as we age. Great art changes as we do.
Eugene Delacroix - Barque of Dante
Eugene Delacroix - The Death of Sardanapalus
Eugene Delacroix - Liberty leading the People
Paul Delaroche - The Artists of all Ages
Liberty leading the People was a rare image of hope from Delacroix. Paul Delaroche's Artists of All Ages looks back to ancient Greece and yet forward to modern Paris at the same time. It's a veritable roll call of Greek heroes. Yet, as this Romanticism prospered, in 1861 French art split as never before and Ingres, at the venerable age of 82, was the unlikely source of this split. His lesbian, tit-filled, Turkish Bath would come to be regarded as a masterpiece by no less an artist than Picasso himself. It was a break from tradition.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - Turkish Bath
Ingres was a classicist at heart but it was Baudelaire's 'me me me' individualism that won out. Baudelaire decreed, as seems to have been his wont, that painters should leave their studios and enter the city in search of modernity no matter how ugly it may be.
Manet shocked his audience with his boldness but Courbet went further still. Courbet dared to think the unthinkable and paint the unpaintable. He was not afraid of, in fact he savoured, shocking people and in L'origine du Monde he showed us that we didn't come from clouds, water, or religion. We came from vaginas and to prove it he painted a hairy fanny - and quite a nice one at that.
Edouard Manet - Music in the Tuileris
Gustave Courbet - L'origine du Monde
Born from the impressive cultural vagina of Paris was the greatest art development since the Renaissance. The programme makers list a few of the big names, Picasso, Dali, Monet, Matisse, Degas, as The Cure's Pictures of You plays. It's getting like an indie disco as the next track up is The Jam's This is the Modern World which gives AGD a chance to talk about the industrialisation of Paris and the accompanying hookers and rivers of booze.
Outsider artists were sick of classical Salon approved art. They wanted to paint modernity. In 1874 Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir (along with some others history's been less kind to) showed their works at the Boulevard Capucin. The month long show was a flop but out of it came the name Impressionism. Named after Monet's Impression:Sunrise painted at his home in Le Havre.
Camille Pissarro - Boulevard at Montmartre
Edouard Manet - The Gare St Lazare
Pierre-August Renoir - Gust of Wind
Claude Monet - Poppies
Inspired by Claude Lorrain it took him just 46 minutes to complete. Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life had become a manifesto of sorts for these new upstarts and, accordingly, Monet had replaced Claude's classical elements with factories and gantries. Wonderful, and iconic, painting followed wonderful, and iconic, painting.
Degas' Absinthe shows two drunks. They're nominally together but really quite alone. From our perspective ballet is a high, and noble, art but in those days ballet dancers were called the 'rats' of the opera. Degas' ballerinas imbued them with a dignity society did not. This Impressionist group was loose, though, and comprised of very different people. Degas and Monet didn't have a lot in common. Degas even going as far as to say all plein air painters should be shot.
Edouard Manet - Absinthe Drinkers
Claude Monet - Cliffs at Etretat
Claude Monet - Manneporte
Monet looked towards Turner, Chinese scrolls, and Japanese prints for inspiration. Berthe Morisot (a woman artist was still very rare at the time) celebrated the ordinary, if somewhat bourgeois, materials of life. At The Ball shows the vulnerability and sadness often experienced in these stratified echelons of society. I can imagine Drake or The Weeknd empathising.
Berthe Morisot - Children with a Bowl
Berthe Morisot - At the Ball
In 1889, the same year the Eiffel Tower went up, the Moulin Rouge opened. You'll not be surprised to learn which of these attractions became of most interest to the artists of the time. To the strains of Je Ne Regrette Rien we get to see lots of boobs and quite a few erect cocks as well. Oh, and Offenbach's Can Can. Toulouse-Lautrec became pretty much the house artist at the Moulin Rouge.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Lautrec, at the Moulin Rouge
Georges Seurat - Eiffel Tower
The Post-Impressionists, Seurat and Gauguin, appeared in the wake of Impressionism. They also produced their fair share of iconic and beautiful work. AGD considered them to convey 'profound alienation'. Cezanne, the most influential of all, and later praised by Picasso for his anxiety, painted murder and rape. But this was too easy. He claimed he wanted to shock Paris with an apple. What he was saying was it wasn't the subject matter that should be shocking but the work itself. It should be HOW he paints not WHAT he paints that the viewer is looking at.
Georges Seurat - Bathers at Asniere
Paul Gauguin - Fruit Harvest
Paul Gauguin - Her name is Vairumati
Paul Gauguin - Are you jealous?
Paul Cezanne - Avenue of Chestnut Trees
Nothing we see in Cezanne's hugely important work is still. That's because we are never still. Cezanne wanted to show us things from all angles at the same time. It was Cubism in all but name. When Picasso arrived in Paris he took the ball from Cezanne, and Gauguin and Matisse too, and ran with it. He ran harder and faster than anyone else in the whole of the 20th century.
Paul Cezanne - The Murder
Paul Cezanne - The Rape
Paul Cezanne - Apples and Oranges
Paul Cezanne - Bathers
Paul Cezanne - Mont-Sante Victoire
Pablo Picasso - Au Lapin Agile
Cubism now had its name and Picasso, along with Georges Braque, was the poster boy for it. Matisse, who enjoyed a love-hate relationship with Picasso, was forging ahead in another direction. He was taking his cues from the same places but what Picasso was doing for line Matisse was doing for colour. This would come to be known as Fauvism.
Pablo Picasso - Three Women
Pablo Picasso - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Pablo Picasso - Bottle of Pernod
Pablo Picasso - Guitar and Violin
Henri Matisse - The Dessert:Harmony in Red
Henri Matisse - Goldfish
Henri Matisse - Pink Studio
When World War I broke out La Belle Epoque was over. Initially Monet's Water Lilies seems an odd response. Was he so secluded from events that he didn't care? Au contraire. He cared deeply. He painted them as 'a space of tranquillity, a refuge' in the hope of helping to cleanse the troubled souls of men who'd seen more than men ever should. When he died he left them to the nation. Monet was perhaps the first of the French artists to really get Turner, really understand what he was trying to do.
Claude Monet - Water Lilies
Not all artists responded to the horrors of war with such grace. The surrealists rejoiced in the macabre. Dali, Man Ray, and Magritte had sex and death very high up on their agendas. Even Picasso painted murderous scenes but Picasso, as ever one step ahead of the game, knew that he had to escape the dark misogynistic fantasies that were becoming lingua franca in the Paris art world. He had to forge ahead with something bolder and better. With works like the sun drenched Figure at the Seaside Picasso found a way out of the darkness.
Salvador Dali - Swans reflecting Elephants
Marcel Duchamp - Fountain
Marcel Duchamp - L.H.O.O.Q.
Pablo Picasso - Murder
Pablo Picasso - Figure at the Seaside
It didn't stay light for long. As Germany and Russia started flexing their muscles in the 1930s Picasso found, in the Nazi bombing of Guernica, in the Spanish Civil War the inspiration for his, and therefore anyone in the last one hundred years, masterpiece. Guernica is one painting that really needs to be seen to be believed. My favourite anecdote is the one about a German officer asking Picasso if he'd done that. Picasso had replied 'no, you did'. Right on, brother!
Pablo Picasso - Guernica
Hitler and Picasso were both in Paris at the same time but that quote, and even a perfunctory look at Picasso's Charnel House, makes it very clear they were not friends. After the war was won Europe was in a mess and would take decades to repair. Over the strains of Joy Division's Atmosphere we learn about existentialism, Sartre's Being and Nothingness, and the last image we see is one of Giacometti's emaciated sculptures. Almost like a victim of the concentration camps.
Pablo Picasso - Charnel House
Alberto Giacometti - Walking Man II
Much more important things (lives, entire towns, trust) had been lost in the war but Paris surely enough lost its place as capital of the art world. That went to New York where it pretty much remains to this day. Giacometti had once designed the stage sets for a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Anyone waiting for Paris to return to its heyday may have an equally long, and fruitless, wait. Hopefully those of us waiting, and looking forward to, AGD's next prismatic look back at art history won't be so unfortunate. Un triomphe monsieur.