Showing an innovative artist in his own right

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Gustave Caillebotte: The Unknown Impressionist, Royal Academy until June 23

Gustave Caillebotte has been largely remembered as a discriminating and, in the case of his painter friends, courageous collector. Until recently students were far more likely to have learned about the outrage when his collection of Impressionist pictures passed to the French nation in 1894 than about his own paintings which he preferred not to include in the gift. But he was not only a major contributor to most of the group shows but a talented and even innovative artist in his own right, as this Royal Academy retrospective exhibition will confirm.

The most striking aspect of Caillebotte's paintings during this period is their highly novel compositions in which plunging perspectives, tilted planes and cropped imagery convey the then radically new sensations of modern life. If "The Traffic Island, Boulevard Haussmann" contains the most precipitous viewpoint; the scene from an upper balcony in the same road is hardly less so.

"Le Pont de l'Europe", however, best epitomises this shift in sensibility. Set at the heart of a new quartier constructed during the Second Empire and the one in which Caillebotte lived, the radial bridge itself was already a self-conscious image of industrialised urban progress, linking the railtracks in and out of the Gare St Lazare with the intersection of six regularised streets all named after European capital cities.

But within this already dehumanising environment, the artist places a disconnected cross-section of social types made all the more telling by the ambiguous relationship between the off-centre man and woman skewered in the criss-crossing lines of the overall composition.

With the exhibition researched and selected by MaryAnne Stevens, the RA's education secretary and chief curator, teachers and tutors can be assured of appropriate supporting material. "Pointers for Primaries" is aimed at the youngest visitors.

"Encountering Caillebotte", an 18-page illustrated guide offered free to 12 to 16-year-olds, is a model of its kind. Beginning with notes on Caillebotte's technique, Impressionism and 19th-century Paris, it focuses on nine exhibited pictures, the detailed commentaries using contemporary critical reactions and comparisons with related works by other artists.

There is much to interest students of all ages. Caillebotte's range embraces portraiture, family life, working men, leisure activities and some extraordinay still-lifes in which the objects appear in the most matter-of-fact way. Even more unusual is his "Man at his Bath", a full-length nude male neither heroic nor arcadian but simply drying himself. Together with the concurrent Cezanne and Leighton retrospectives and soon to overlap Degas show at the National Gallery, there can be no better moment for teenagers interested in representations of the human body in the late l9th century.

A private view and introductory lecture for teachers is on Friday April 26. Pre-opening time guided tours for primary, secondary and full-time students take place on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For further information, telephone 0171 494 5733

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