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The man behind the iconic art: How the National Gallery plans to make Gustave Doré a household name Add to ...

The jazz journal Downbeat has this long-running awards category it calls TDWR – talent deserving wider recognition – wherein critics each year are invited to name artists who they feel have been heretofore neglected or ignored, who should be registering more strongly on the public esteemo-meter.

In fine art, Gustave Doré is a TDWR. Except in his case the R could stand for rediscovery, too. After all, at the time of Doré’s death in 1883, at the age of 51 in Paris, he was one of the world’s most famous and popular artists, known especially for his striking, often fantastical illustrations for editions of the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, Don Quixote, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and numerous fables and fairy tales. Even today, an argument could be made for his continuing influence, particularly in cinema, comics and the graphic arts. H&M recently ran ads for David Beckham’s new line of swimwear showing the bare-chested former soccer star with a Doré New Testament engraving (The Agony in the Garden) tattooed on his right pectoral.

However, it’s an influence exercised, it seems, more as the result of serendipity than any ongoing engagement with the artist. We know the work, in other words, but not the man who made it.

Paul Lang is hoping to begin changing that this year. Chief curator and deputy director of the National Gallery of Canada, he’s overseeing the installation in Ottawa of some 100 works by Doré, including illustrated books, posters, sculpture, drawings and paintings.

The Enigma (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Co-produced with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Gustave Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination is the first retrospective devoted to the prodigious artist – a workaholic before the expression was coined – in more than 30 years. Its three-month run at the NGC, starting June 13, is a North American exclusive. Master of Imagination is an ambitious exhibition, at once affirmation and rectification – affirmation in that it reiterates the unassailability of Doré’s illustriousness as an illustrator, a rectification in its attempt to present Doré not just as a brilliant draftsman and caricaturist but as a major painter of the 19th century, especially of landscapes, and a superior sculptor. As if to bolster the argument, the NGC and the d’Orsay have assembled a full-colour, 336-page, oversized hardcover catalogue, while the NGC has organized the collection into seven themed galleries with titles such as Picturesque and Sublime Landscapes, Painter-Preacher: Doré and the Revival of Religious Art, and Visions of Spain and London.

Lang, 56, former chief curator of the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva and a specialist in neoclassical European art, sees the exhibition as a companion piece of sorts to another three-month retrospective the NGC hosted 15 summers ago. This was dedicated to Doré contemporary and fellow polymath Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), sometimes called “the Michelangelo of caricature.” Packaged with a show of flowers painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1889-90, it drew 146,000 visitors.

In a recent interview, Lang acknowledged Doré “is not a magic name like [Pierre-Auguste] Renoir and van Gogh” for the public at large. But he’s convinced that once a visitor crosses the exhibition’s threshold, there will be a shock, perhaps several shocks of recognition: “Oh, he’s the guy who did that! And that!” Certainly this was the case in Paris where the exhibition had its debut last February at the d’Orsay, and in drawing an average of 5,000 visitors a day, it prompted the museum’s head to deem it “an unexpected success.”

Souvenir of Loch Lomond (French & Co. LLC)

Doré saw himself as sort of thwarted success. A largely self-taught enfant prodige, he became, at 17, the chief breadwinner for his family upon the death of his father in 1849, and his illustrations and caricatures quickly brought fame and commissions and the approbation “kid genius.” But, says Lang, Doré was “very conscious of the hierarchy of media.” For all his prowess with pencil, pen and ink brush, he knew real artistic glory resided in painting and sculpture, not “mere” illustration, however lucrative and widely disseminated that medium could be.

While Doré did have some success as a painter – he earned the considerable sum of £2,000 ($3,660) from a British dealer for his epic canvas Christ Leaving the Praetorium (1874-80) – the recognition was never sufficient to establish a reputation primarily in that realm. The same was true of his forays into sculpture. Unsurprisingly, he grew increasingly depressed, even suicidal, as a result. Observed one critic at the time: “One could not talk to him of his success as an illustrator, for it was precisely this that caused him the greatest agony.”

Exacerbating this misery was the lack of the love of a “good woman.” Doré had an urgent wish to marry, “to find,” as he told his beloved mother, “in the heart of a woman a refuge from the cruelty of men.” This never occurred, however, and during his brief lifetime he had to content himself with many affairs, including tumultuous ones with the famous actresses Alice Ozy and Sarah Bernhardt.

Oceanids, or Naiads of the Sea (The National Gallery of Canada)

It’s easy to imagine Doré being pleased with what the NGC and the d’Orsay have wrought. For one thing, the showcase is organized by theme rather than medium. For another, it robustly honours his paintings and sculptures, situating those works (“deeply, organically,” says Lang) within the broad but interrelated spectrum of Doré’s creativity – a creativity that produced, by some accounts, more than 100,000 individual works.

Nowhere is this panoptic embrace better illustrated than in the exhibition’s first room, titled Between Heaven and Earth: Ambitions and Downfall, conceived by Lang as “an operatic overture” for the overall exhibition. Here the viewer finds representations of pretty much the entire Doré oeuvre – three drawings, including the spooky Self-portrait: The Death of Doré (1880), one print, three paintings and six sculptures, including the large, tellingly titled plaster Fame Stifling Genius (1878) and the monumental Poem of the Vine (1882), four metres and 2,700 kilograms of swarming humanity ascending and descending the surface of a bronze vase. There’s also a photograph of the artist in his mid-20s, the picture of determination, taken by the legendary Nadar.

Intriguingly, though much photographed, Doré had, unlike many of his fellow artists, little interest in photography and scarcely used it in his own work. Yet it’s his cinematic eye that, in the words of one scholar, “engraved [itself] on the 20th-century imagination,” and continues as his major influence into the 21st. Observes Lang: “There’s really no film about the Bible, for instance, or the life of Christ that doesn’t pay tribute to Doré … Even though we may have forgotten his name, he invented a vocabulary of images that is really part of our identity and our culture.”

To illustrate the point, Lang has installed three film “stations” in the exhibition that reference Doré’s impact on auteurs past and present, among them Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon), Merian Cooper (King Kong), Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast), Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments), Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose) and Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen).

For Lang, the story of French art in the second half of the 19th century is, without doubt, the story of Impressionism – “but,” he cautioned, “not only Impressionism.” It was Doré’s fate, perhaps even misfortune, not to have associated with the likes of Claude Monet and Renoir, nor to have cast his lot with the naturalists and symbolists. There’s strength in movements, and art histories have traditionally been kinder to artists with such affiliations than to “complicated, solitary, lonely, self-trained figures” such as Doré.

Ours, however, is a remarkably movement-free era, arts-wise; it’s enamoured of the individual talent, the multidisciplinary practitioner. Perhaps it will give Gustave Doré his most hospitable reception yet.

The Deluge (Phoenix Art Museum), The Triumph of Christianity over Paganism (Art Gallery of Hamilton)

Gustave Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination opens June 12 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa for a run ending Sept. 14.

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