Degas’s Après le bain, femme s’essuyant la jambe 1900–5. Photograph: Private Collection
“David to Picasso – stellar cast helps Ashmolean chart rise of Modernism”
Ursula and Stanley Johnson’s remarkable collection of more than 100 works goes on public display whole for first time in Oxford
By MARK BROWN
Drawings and paintings by artists including Degas, Cézanne, Manet, Monet and Picasso are to go on display for the first time in the UK in an exhibition telling the bumpy, complex story of the rise of Modernism.
More than 100 works by more than 40 artists are part of a show opening on Friday at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, all from the private collection of the Chicago art dealer Stanley Johnson and his wife, Ursula.
It is the first time the works have been shown in the UK and the first time anywhere that the collection has been exhibited as a whole.
The museum’s director, Xa Sturgis, said in some ways the show was telling a well-known story, “a story of extraordinary artistic invention and experiment” in the 150 years leading up to the second world war.
“What is exciting about this show is that though the story might be familiar, very few of the works themselves are. There are so many exciting discoveries to be made within the exhibition and that is because it is told through the prism of a private collection.”
Referring to the exhibition, Ursula Johnson said for her and her husband it was like they were seeing the works for the first time.
“Because they are hung so differently, the light is different, the relationships between the works are so different. I am making connections and thinking, ‘How did I never see that?’” she added.
German-born Ursula Johnson met her future husband, American-born Stanley, in 1957. They were students in Paris in the 1960s when they began collecting what are some of the biggest names in art.
Some works were affordable, others less so. “We actually worked one full year in order to be be able to afford that little thing,” she said, pointing to a small but dramatic and violent Géricault watercolour of a lion fighting a tiger.
The remarkable collection has been steadily built up by the couple. “The discerning eye is a big part of the deal,” said Stanley Johnson. “We are dealing with European art so who are our competitors? They are European dealers, European collectors, so we had to beat them at their own game. We had to be more sophisticated, more knowledgable and have a better eye.”
He said it was always the collection that decided what was going to be bought next.
“People might say what a wonderful collection you have but we wouldn’t see it that way. We’d see it as a collection of works in which there is one horrible, hideous, ugly, gaping hole which must be filled … so now we are beating the pavement finding the work that we need to have to fill the hole.”
The exhibition aims to plot a course from neoclassical and romantic artists such as David, Ingres and Delacroix to impressionists and post-impressionists such as Degas, Monet and Seurat – and then on to the wild and game changing experiments of Braque and Picasso.
The David drawings include one of an old man and a young woman which was once owned by Henry Moore; while the Picasso works include an early study for his monumental Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which hangs in MoMA’s permanent collection in New York.
• Degas to Picasso, Creating Modernism in France 10 February to 7 May.
By Mark Brown, Reprint from TheGuardian, 9 February 2017, © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies..