The National Gallery has four works by 19th-century French realist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, but who sees them? Three are in storage, the fourth, “The Beheading of St John the Baptist”, hangs over the vestibule where crowds march past, oblivious, to the Wohl galleries’ popular Impressionists (see right). But Puvis’s decorative formalism and radical simplifications liberated many within that show: Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat, Van Gogh all looked closely at his finely calibrated compositions of interlocking forms. Yet Puvis, classicist, allegorical storyteller, was also a throwback who stood outside avant-garde trends, and never found a certain place in art history.
Michael Werner’s show is only the third Puvis exhibition in the UK, and the contemporary gallery context is intriguing: narrative impetus and the decorative are lively veins in current painting, with which Puvis’s harmony of the ethereal and naturalistic strikes a chord.
“Le Bûcheron”, a flattened, frozen, compelling figure of a woodcutter in action, in matte-white tones, has a melancholy airlessness prefiguring surrealism. Watery pastorals in bleached-out hues – “Rivage”, “Vision Antique” – are calm, dreamy, eerily still. Religious figures – “Le Christ aux liens”, “Sainte Solange” – linear, delicately lit, display perfect balance.
The classical sensibility increasingly tends to stylisation and the austerely sculptural, casting influence far forward; the catalogue highlights correspondences between a semi-draped female torso here, “Esquisse pour l’Automne”, and Picasso’s monumental 1923 “Femme Assise en Chemise” (Tate). Clear too is how, in Puvis’ murals, the silent figures arranged in graceful groups, with a sense of gesture arrested and time suspended – as in the preparatory charcoal landscape with bathers for “L’Été” and the oil sketch “Baigneurs dans un sous-bois” here – established a melodic pattern whose determined serenity would powerfully influence Matisse and the future of abstract painting.