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Impressionists on Paper review – Van Gogh sets this rambling show on fire | Art

Impressionists on Paper is a bitty ramble of a show, despite some drop dead masterpieces. Its title betrays its lack of purpose. Impressionists! On paper! For as the curators assume we all know, the French artists who shocked conservative taste in the 1870s are renowned as painter’s painters. They put their easels in the open air and caught the changing light. Yet here they draw. But that’s not a revelation at all. Renoir’s drawings of women are just as bland as his paintings.

Claude Monet, Cliffs at Etretat: The Needle Rock and Porte d’Aval, c1885.
Dreamlike … Claude Monet, Cliffs at Etretat: The Needle Rock and Porte d’Aval, c1885. Photograph: Jessie Maucor/National Galleries of Scotland.

Only one drawing in the first room grips me. A sketch by Manet of people fleeing the rain in a Paris street is full of the unexpectedness of actual life: it’s a dynamic “impression”, apparently drawn from a window, of hunched pedestrians in hats making for shelter. There is also a powerful portrait by Manet’s student Eva Gonzalès. Called The Bride, this pastel in a sharp, fast style shows a young woman sunk in despond, unhappy with her allotted role, the flowers in her hair a sad joke. But where’s the flux and flow of impressionist art in other sketches? Monet contributes two dreamlike pastels of surreally shaped seaside cliffs and rocks, but they don’t change how you see his paintings.

In fact the exhibition proves that the original impressionists, apart from Degas the human pencil, did comparatively little important work on paper. They really were painters or nothing. Instead, the exhibition makes you see the intelligence and passion of the artists who were provoked by this movement to create radical new images in late 19th-century France – the so-called post-impressionists. Why call a show that’s really about them Impressionists on Paper? Presumably for marketing reasons.

A drawing of an armless plaster cast of a Renaissance youth in a tight cuirass caught my eye. Even though it’s an “academic” study of the type every art student in 19th-century Europe was obliged to draw, it has a peculiar intensity, even tragedy, as if the artist identifies with this broken figure imprisoned in armour. It’s by Vincent van Gogh, of course. Here’s an artist for whom drawing is not an exercise but a way of confronting a baffling world. Bare black trees with just hints of spring buds painfully scrape the yellow paper sky in his sketch Thatched Roofs. A peasant woman with a face like a bereft elf struggles along in clogs with her skirt held up to carry a pile of cut wheat in another early Van Gogh sketch. They almost make you wish he’d never discovered colour, but then, in an 1887 landscape of the edges of Paris, he uses watercolour to make the empty sky over the pale waste ground a heartbreaking blue.

The human pencil … Edgar Degas’s Dancers on a Bench, c1898.
The human pencil … Edgar Degas’s Dancers on a Bench, c1898. Photograph: Kinnear/© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The emotion of Van Gogh finally kindles this damp show. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec shares his lust for life – but with more lust. Two women lie on a bed together in Toulouse-Lautrec’s raw yet sensitive sketch Les Deux Amies, which the Royal Academy translates without its gendering as Two Friends. They are workers in a late 19th-century Paris brothel. Toulouse-Lautrec painted a series of these intimate double portraits of his female friends in the sex establishments of Montmartre, away from their clients, consoling each other. But maybe this is the most explicit. One woman lies back, breasts bared, a stockinged leg raised while, under the pink cloth ruched over her hips, her friend is busy with her hand. Their eyes meet softly, the face of the shirted, short-haired friend attentive, the other turned away from us.

The empathy of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of Paris women is made all the more evident by the Royal Academy’s decision to hang his characterful art opposite the late pastels of Degas. This pioneer impressionist who worked as intently on paper as canvas, is meant to be the star of this show, but Toulouse-Lautrec steals it. That’s partly because that moment of love in an establishment purveying commodified sex shows up the chilly gaze of Degas, always getting dancers and models to hold some difficult pose while he studies their backs, necks, breasts.

In his big charcoal study Woman Combing Her Hair, Degas’ model has to sit on a bed with one leg raised high and crossed over the other as she works a steel comb through her long hair, which is arranged to expose her right breast. It’s very specific and complex. You can imagine him as a Hitchcock-like director, ordering her to comb her hair even harder: “pull at the hair, push with the comb until it is agony!” I actually find the depraved voyeuristic late drawings of Degas eerily modernist, usually. But this exhibition freezes him as a deluded old perv.

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Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec save it from sterility. Who cares if art was done on paper or canvas, with gouache or watercolour? Professional artists of a certain kind. The Royal Academy is a club for artists who fuss snobbishly about technique. This one’s for them, you suspect.

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