painting by Giovanni Boldini
Cleo de Merode
The Belle Époque refers to a 30-year period at the turn of the last century. It was perceived to be an optimistic era of economic wealth and political stability that collapsed with the First World War. In the 1890s, European-based portrait painters, led by the North American John Singer Sargent, enjoyed numerous commissions and with their status in society secure, dared to experiment with personal artistic style. The Italian Giovanni Boldini used lithe brushstrokes that brought breezy abandon to ladies’ gowns. Sargent gave gentlemen’s foreheads a slight sheen, making stuffy society figures seem impassioned. Even Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla’s garden settings had their wild side, suggestive of the exciting inner emotions of the figures immersed in them. Yet embedded within the burgeoning individualism of the Belle Époque were the seeds of its decay: a confrontation with personal responsibility that was to turn 19th-century self-confidence into 20th century horror.
In room one, self-portraits jostle for attention, reminding us that art history isn’t just about who was best, but how they became so. While Sargent, the son of an eye surgeon, was the most skilled of the painters, it’s only in the context of other portraitists that the new artistic ambition to capture the human spirit emerges. The composer Edvard Grieg or the dramatist Anton Chekhov became the preferred subject matter for Norwegian painter Peder Krøyer and the Ukrainian Osip Braz, who sought to associate humanity and creativity, as if it were a candle flame bringing light to gloomy surroundings.
Soul searching brought uncomfortable truths, however, and not just in art. The stability of the Belle Époque was deceptive, conflict had moved to Africa where aggressive colonisation foreshadowed further atrocities of the First World War. Key literary works of the period, Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, unpeeled human nature, revealing it to be a bestial, bloody affair.
Four grimy works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, boxed off for full impact, mark the crossing point from one century to the next. Then, more a case of the lights going up than the lights going out, artists seemed suddenly to take fright. Blinded by Ernst Kirchner’s gaudy colours, terrified by Hermen Anglada-Camarasa’s demonic women, or pinned to the canvas like Egon Schiele’s poet, suddenly they were seeing too much.
CaixaForum, until October 9th, 2011