“Ingres and the Moderns” at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec sets out to celebrate the artist while also tracing his influence across modern and contemporary art. This is no easy feat—if too much emphasis is given to the interpretation of Ingres through the work of others, then the source of inspiration ends up seeming like a cliché, flattened out by the weight of its own legacy. If the curatorial approach leans too far in the opposite direction, it becomes difficult to shed new light on the artist’s oeuvre or to assert his ongoing relevance. Thankfully, this outstanding exhibition perfectly balances sharing fresh insights on Ingres with establishing the breadth of his influence.
The reference to “moderns” in the title is somewhat misleading, as the supporting cast extends far beyond those who have an acknowledged debt to Ingres, such as Pablo Picasso and Edgar Degas. The modern and contemporary works included are far-reaching and feature an unexpected mix: Man Ray, Cindy Sherman, Francis Bacon, Orlan and Robert Rauschenberg. The first work to greet the viewer is Robert Mapplethorpe’s Donald Cann, a sculptural black-and-white photograph of a male nude that functions as a homoerotic counterpoint to Ingres’s take on this classical tradition. The exhibition also ambitiously sweeps across art movements and histories from the feminist movement to abstract expressionism, surrealism through to impressionism and pop art. While at times this annotated art history seems complex, its strength lies in the way it draws attention to Ingres’s character by exploring the nuances that underlie his sensuous style, expressiveness and interest in linearity.
Overall the exhibition is elegantly curated and showcases a succession of 26 key works by Ingres that are installed across the centre of the room. The contemporary and modern art is displayed along the exterior perimeter, which stages a confrontation between past and present. The more recent works are deliberately positioned so that they mirror their Ingres reference point. This engenders a constant dialogue between the “the master” and how he inspired homage, critique and shameless appropriation. The show is a dazzling experience as one jumps from undistracted, up-close encounters with the originals to Ingres-inspired contemporary renditions that beckon for a closer re-examination of their reference point.
Especially memorable moments include David Hockney’s Twelve Portraits after Ingres in a Uniform Style, a drawn series of museum guards that pays tribute to Ingres’ emotive pencil-drawn portraits. Another high point comes from the studies that Ingres produced while working on The Turkish Bath. They reveal how the artist intentionally cropped out an intriguing, sleeping female figure by opting for an oval-shaped picture frame. This series of sketches also discloses an unusual three-armed woman amidst his iconic harem scene. While this earlier experiment has been reworked and adapted in the final version, it stresses Ingres’ willingness to embrace expressive anatomical distortion for the sake of evoking the right mood. This tightly woven exhibition is bound to captivate those with a longstanding interest in Ingres, as much as those visitors who have yet to encounter his work. (Parc des Champs-de-Bataille, Quebec City QC)