Fine art: Delicate Delacroix can’t compete with Brutalists

Lion Hunt, by Delacroix (1861)

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art
National Gallery, London, until May 22

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, at the National Gallery, examines the influence Eugène Delacroix has had on the art of the late 19th century and 20th century. For me, Delacroix has always been a myth – my parents inherited a work by him – and once, when I was depressed, I accidentally dropped the painting, putting a hole through it. I still feel bad about it, even though it was repaired. Delacroix has always represented delicate paint-dabs to create the profile of a beautiful woman; a miniaturist ability to create interplay between figures; and a use of dark to infer form – the painting my parents have is mainly dark, of a man and a woman looking out of a window.

I later went to the Musée Delacroix in Paris, and discovered small, tentatively soft easel-sized paintings, again with power in the miniature, like small set-pieces. There was also a self-portrait showing a good-looking, young moustachioed man, black hair, angular, an all-rounder.

Nearby in Saint-Sulpice, my father showed me Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. The angel looked like Neo from The Matrix, dodging Agent Smith’s bullets: choreographed; holy; pure grace; somehow defending himself against Jacob’s anger. I tried to show the painting to an intellectual school friend, who now works for Sotheby’s in Old Masters, but he stubbornly looked at the painting on the opposite wall!

I was shocked on a trip to Bordeaux when I saw Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, Delacroix’s ode to Byron’s death, coming as it did in the Greek wars of independence. There was a “grand machine” of his, an unwieldy, allegoric work, similar to his seemingly unreal Liberty Leading the People, with its iconic Tricolore.

Delacroix has always been a painter fully fledged in Romantic fantasy. He is said to have borrowed from Byron in every year of his professional career. Sadly, however, my youthful impressions of Delacroix are not quite art-historical fact. He is said to have created a plasticity of form, a freedom allied with bright, sometimes lurid, colours that made him a protean figure for Impressionists.

Pictures like the Convulsionists of Tangiers have a mobility in form which presaged that of more free-hand painters such as Cézanne and Van Gogh. In paintings like Lion Hunt you can imagine his figures as Plasticine models, standing in the perspective, with their twisting, tenacious movements of the body. Would it be too much to say, also, that freedom of the mane in the foreground lion reminds me of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers?

All in all, I felt that the show could have benefited from more of the smaller, more harmonious pieces that are hanging in the alcoves of the cosy Musée Delacroix. Maybe these chamber pieces, such as

The Bride of Abydos, might bring some constraint, some relief, to those stressed by the bulldozing violence of London’s cityscape. Right now, however, Delacroix’s paintings may not seem full of interest for the British public. Brutalist art seems to be in vogue: art that can efface the problems of monetary oppression, inequality, consumerism and looming war.

If art is a “way through”, then what comfort can Delacroix’s twisting, plastic visions of Moroccan soldiers in the dust, or free-hand 1830s flower paintings, bring? What relevance does referencing the Impressionists, again, have? None, perhaps. Our current obsession with Monet is a sign of a sick society.