Thursday, 4 September 2014

Adoring Doré

Saute-Mouton (Leap Frog), a small sculpture by Doré which might have been inspired by a tale by 16th Century writer François Rabelais
I've been trying to balm myself (as opposed to embalming myself) with things I've saved for after our return to Hades in late August.  One of those things is the Gustave Doré exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada.
Actually, when I first got wind of the exhibit last spring, it was all I could do to keep myself from running down to the National Gallery right away.  I've mentioned my teen obsession with Doré's wood engravings of Dante's Inferno before.  Last week, I took younger daughter to the exhibit, and she enjoyed the various screens showing clips illustrating how Doré's art influenced film in the twentieth and twenty-first century.  (She particularly enjoyed the links to Shrek II and Oliver!)  However, she has her limits, so I cast quick glances at what I could, and made a mental note to return when she was back in school.

That day was today and I am so glad I did!  The exhibit is so rich and dense, I could probably go back a couple of times more and still make discoveries.  (But I won't.)

I had a little more time, but really not that much more staying power than younger daughter, so I made a bee-line for the end of the exhibit and worked my way backward - which is also a great way to see some works without crowds, as people tend to cluster in the first few rooms.  I remembered what I'd already seen and zeroed in on what I'd skipped, sitting down on the very low benches and dialling in the requisite numbers on my audio-guide.

For example, this painting -- Doré sketched, sculpted, and painted in oils and water-colours -- was one featured in most advertisements for the exhibit.
It's a strange, dark, and disturbing scene (like rather a lot of the pictures in this exhibit) of a devastated battlefield.  It's difficult to see in this small example - most of Doré's paintings are huge, and I think you can click on it to enlarge it - but there are bodies, including that of a mother and child, piled in the foreground, and the Winged Victory, representing France, has thrown her arms around the neck of a Sphinx who gazes back into her eyes impassively.  The painting is called Enigma and it's on the wall with two other allegorical paintings with the Winged Victory in similarly desperate situations: The Black Eagle of Prussia and The Defence of Paris.  I learned from the audio guide that these three paintings formed a triptych as part of Doré's response to the Franco-Prussian War, and that they have not been seen together since 1885, two years after the artist's death.

I moved through the galleries and focussed with a purpose on wild Scottish landscapes (Doré was an avid climber), book illustrations, and paintings ranging from the disturbing to the sentimental.
This watercolour is entitled Christmas Eve and shows the German Christkind who delivers the gifts in Germany.

I also spent a chunk of my limited time looking at wood engravings of scenes of London, from Doré's collaboration with Blanchard Jerrold entitled London: A Pilgrimage.  There were a limited selection of what had been scores of wood engravings portraying the destitute and the wealthy of London around 1870.  (The book was published in 1872.)

Apparently, Doré did hundreds of surreptitious sketches and incorporated them into scenes in streets, parks, theatres, and even opium dens.  For someone who had ancestors living in London in the 1860s and 1870s, it's quite an eyeful.  As the film presentations around the galleries demonstrated, pretty well every film version of a novel by Charles Dickens has scenes lifted almost directly from these pictures -- although Dickens himself passed away in 1870.

This engraving was featured at the exhibit and is entitled Asleep Under the Stars. 
Finally,  I couldn't resist entering one of the screening theatres to see a fairly lengthy but utterly delightful French documentary on Doré, which began with a series of his drawings from ages five to eleven (prodigious, of course) and ended with even more film parallels (with rather a lot of scenes from various editions of King Kong.  The interviews included Tomi Ungerer, whose books formed a weird and wonderful part of my daughters' childhoods.  He described the drawings he remembered best from Gustave Doré's works.

It explained a lot.

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