Ashmolean curator Colin Harrison talks to Katherine MacAlister about his new exhibition

When Colin Harrison arrived at the designated apartment in Chicago, he discovered an art historian’s dream – the walls graced with work by Cezanne, Picasso, Degas, Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Matisse, Dufy, Chagall, Leger, Renoir, Braque, Gris and Seurat covering every wall, a veritable who’s who of the French art world in front of him.

Silenced by the treasured art works around him, the Ashmolean’s curator of European art knew that if he could bring the collectors on board, the museum could host an exhibition to really shout about.

“Yes, it was my idea. I had met the collectors and knew they must have some wonderful art but I didn’t know what to expect until I walked in; pieces that had been seen on the art market, and then disappeared,” he said in excitement.

“We made an initial selection last year and then I flew home to discuss it with the Ashmolean, so I’ve had rather a crash course in cubism in the last few months,” he smiles.

Walking around the resulting Oxford show as the museum applies the finishing touches, Colin’s pride is tangible. It is a fait accompli.

‘Creating Modernism In France: Degas to Picasso’ is a triumph for Oxford, not only in scope and ambition but also in depth and introspection. If au fait with the greats, few have the privilege of putting them in such a visual context, something the Ashmolean is particularly good at.

But how to curate such an impressive French modernist collection and then divide it into three separate rooms was a puzzle

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that Harrison relished.

The resulting sketches, etchings, drawings, lithographs, prints, pastels, oils and watercolours are loosely based around cubism, while demonstrating ably how these masters prepared for and produced their work, Colin finding a pattern that reflects both the artists’ historical influences and individual development alongside current affairs, changing styles, trends and pretentions.

Where else can you see Picasso’s sketches in preparation for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, alongside a rare Degas watercolour, Metzinger’s Study For the Cyclist, Monet’s charcoal of a beach near Le Havre, Millet’s The Seaweed Gatherers following his mother’s death, work from Picasso’s Malaga period, Gleizes’ portrait of Stravinksy as a metronome, Gromaire’s inked war drawings from the front, the black lines of Rouault’s paintings, Matisse’s almost expressionist woodcuts, Van Gogh’s Doctor Gachet, co-existing happily with the more mainstream and recognisable works such as Degas’ Bathers, Gris’ The Guitar, Cezanne’s Study Of Pine Trees, Leger’s Mother and Child, Pissarro’s Workers In The Fields, the theme of the nude running throughout with bathers by Cezanne, Degas, Renoir and Picasso all evident.

Or find impressionists, post impressionists, surrealists, realists, futurists, neo classicists, fauvists and pre-raphaelites all rubbing shoulders with a common theme?

“It’s about looking at cubism in different ways. Beginning with the history of 19th century French art with evidence of the strands that pulled it all together, the complete story coming together in this one collection, to make it a story through these wonderful works of art, so that people go away with a proper understanding of 20th century French art and the artists working in Paris at the time - the capital of modernism.

“Take this painting here,” Colin says, “Degas hardly ever used watercolours, and this Pissarro was the one that got away before his widow bequeathed us his work,

“And this one is a bit rude, so we nearly didn’t include it,” Colin says, standing in front of Picasso’s ‘Female Nude’.

“Really?” “Of course not,” he chuckles.

So why so educational? “This is a museum full of little creatures,” he says as another party of school children scurry past, as if to prove his point, “all here to look at works of art.

“And while you can look at art purely aesthetically with no knowhow, it enhances the experience to explain how and what was done, rather than just looking at things in isolation.”

“It’s not just about the juxtapositions, but about the conversations that run through them

“So it is quite like a puzzle; piecing everything together.”

Does he feel a sense of responsibility then for the exhibition’s success? “Yes, it’s my baby” Colin says nonplussed “but in terms of rythmn and space, the collection works extremely well here and I find it all rather thrilling.

“ I am slightly apprehensive, but if nothing else, the exhibition will give you a good sense of French art without knowing the first thing about it.

“And it’s a story that can’t be told anywhere else but The Ashmolean,” Colin says firmly. “We don’t have limitless amounts of space, but to compensate for that, borrowing art from private collections is both practical and advantageous.”

Until May 7