ARTS / Right of Reply: Richard Thomson, curator of 'Monet to Matisse', answers the charge that his show was flawed by its sociological context

Richard Thomson
Wednesday 24 August 1994 23:02

FOR ME, a successful show not only displays beautiful and intriguing works of art, but also presents them in ways which prompt visual curiosity and intellectual debate. With 'Monet to Matisse' I elected to take landscape as a central theme in a fresh exploration of painting in turn-of-the-century France precisely because - pace Andrew Graham-Dixon in his review ('Making molehills out of mountains') on the Visual Arts page - it was practised by both the most reactionary and the most experimental of artists. Instead of a sequence of rooms based on movements - Impressionists, then Symbolists, Fauves, Cubists - the hang of 'Monet to Matisse' credits the visitor with a little knowledge and, instead, juxtaposes works diverse in style but linked in subject. Such thematic groupings are intended to stimulate the spectators' eyes by challenging their preconceptions. The show is divided into three clearly labelled sections: different sites, the landscape as vehicle for the imagination, and variations on categories such as the panorama and the nocturne. Not 'incoherent' or 'insensitively hung', then,

but lucid, provocative and ambitious.

Neither the selection of works nor their display bear out the charge that my primary interest in painting is sociological. In my book I do discuss the spread of coalfields or Franco-German rivalry, because they are pertinent to the discussion of landscape as a cultural phenomenon. But I also discuss paintings from other crucial viewpoints, not least as an expression of the artist's emotions and as a crafted object of beauty. I describe the textures and colours of the Cezanne, Gauguin and Matisse paintings Graham- Dixon picks out as 'succulent', 'sensuous' and 'sappy', yet stand accused of Puritanism] He is right to say that trio makes a 'radiant wall'. I chose them to do that.

It would be disheartening to unpick an unreceptive and offbeam review point by point. But nowhere do I mention van Gogh's attitude to the agrarian poor. There are four Cubist works (there would have been more but for rival shows) and other pictures from the pre-1914 years which show the company Cubism kept.

Quality and daring seem to be appreciated in Edinburgh; 2,500 visited 'Monet to Matisse' on its first Monday. What a shame they are not appreciated by Andrew Graham-Dixon.

To 23 Oct, National Gallery of Scotland. Tel: 031-556 8921

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