Thursday, 12 June 2014

Père Lachaise – on the trail of famous painters

Amanda Vickery was on TV recently, filmed in the cemetery at Passy and deploring the modesty of Berthe Morisot’s gravestone compared with that of Edouard Manet (The Story Of Women And Art, BBC2). Off-topic digression – at the risk of sounding like Brian Sewell, for how many of the 60 minutes in each episode was Dr. Vickery off-screen? Not nearly enough for me. The constant in-your-face intrusion of the presenter, the arms that never cease from semaphoring and the wildly declamatory oratory contribute nothing to understanding and test the patience of even the most saintly viewer like myself. Back to the topic – it is surely misguided to equate the achievement of the deceased with the grandeur of their tomb. A recent walk around Père Lachaise on the trail of famous painters produced some interesting examples. 

At the top is the grave of Georges Seurat – an austere family vault, a space-saving design of the type supplied by any of the monumental masons whose premises line the boulevard de Ménilmontant. Movie buffs may recall young Georges, perched on a stepladder in front of La Grande Jatte, discoursing on Divisionism to an excitable Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) in Minnelli’s Lust for Life bio-pic. When Seurat died at the age of 31 he left behind some of the most significant and beautiful paintings of the 1880s and a career trajectory of immense potential that was cruelly truncated. The relative anonymity of his grave seems in keeping with his famous sense of privacy which has ensured that his biography is a scanty affair. 

The tomb of Delacroix is more substantial and a simple inscription is left to speak for itself. That of Ingres includes a suitably severe portrait bust set into an alcove in a Neo-Classical plinth. Together they set a benchmark for dignified commemoration. Théodore Géricault died in 1824 at the age of 32 after a short but explosive career in which he developed a taste for visual melodrama on a grand scale that peaked in 1819 with Le Radeau de la Méduse, equally vast in terms of ambition and influence. This painting can be seen, modelled in relief on the side of Géricault’s memorial, on top of which his carved likeness lounges, paintbrush at the ready, in the manner of a sultan in his harem. This is a more grand affair with more than a little theatre about it, but compared with what follows, it’s a model of restraint. 

For the full symphony of bereavement we turn to the last resting place of Paul Baudry, an academic painter held in high esteem by his contemporaries whose reputation has not endured. History painting and classical subjects make up most of his surviving work but his real passion was for painting rear views of reclining female nudes with classical credentials to silence the prudish. The disembodied and moustachioed head of the artist rises from a plinth, cradled by an angel’s wing while a female figure, shrouded in mourning, sobs in silent despair at the base of the structure. What seemed appropriate and fitting in 1886 now appears disproportionate, extravagant and absurd in the light of history’s revaluation. 

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