LONDON — Group shows are often multi-tentacular affairs, squirming around in so many different directions at once. In short, pure octopi. Or, as someone or other is once said to have remarked of Life (was it Mark Twain or Winston Churchill or Arnold Toynbee? Your guess is as good as mine): It’s just one damned thing after another … 

But surely this can’t be the case with After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art, the show that recently opened at the National Gallery? Isn’t this exhibition all about the legacy of Impressionism? Not really. Not quite. The chronological span is (relatively) clear enough: the three or so decades between the end of Impressionism and the First World War. But the underlying argument feels much less clear and much less focused. It often feels like a breeze, at breakneck speed, through much of what came after (and some of what came before, too), without caring too stringently about the legacy business.

Why, for example, is this blowsy nude by Lovis Corinth part of the mix? What’s he doing here? Ah yes, it’s because a curatorial decision was made to pull in what was happening in a few capital cities other than London and Paris over these very same decades. It must be all right then …. Or is it?

There’s another problem, too, though. Impressionism didn’t end in 1884, did it? They weren’t all dead by then, were they? Wasn’t Monet, for example, chuntering on for decades, in fact getting better, and becoming less of an Impressionist perhaps, as his eyesight began to fail? Why is Monet not included in this show? Why did he get left out?

Emile Bernard, “Pardon, Breton Women in a Meadow” (Le Pardon, Les Bretonnes dans la prairie) (1888), oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris (© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt)

What is undeniable, as I try to fight my way in through the crowds, just one day after it’s opened to the public, is how popular this show is proving to be. Isn’t that wholly unsurprising, though, since it’s packed to the gills with paintings by all those crowd pleasers we just know we love to love, such as van Gogh and Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso and Matisse and Kandinsky? 

So let’s set out the difficulties of this project. One is to do with the National Gallery itself and its available hanging spaces. Its Sainsbury Wing is closed for renovation for the foreseeable future. This means that those little-loved subterranean galleries, where most of the big traveling shows are usually put on, can no longer be staged there. At least those galleries had a real sense of flow-through. How to make up for that loss? Other spaces have had to be commandeered upstairs, mostly those occupied by the permanent collection. This means that individual marvels are living much more hugger-mugger these days — just take a look at the crowded company that Giovanni Bellini’s “Doge Loredan” is currently keeping.

That sense of calm and manageable flow-through is absent from After Impressionism, which begins in a gallery whimperingly small, and then opens out into various other spaces that are subdivided by the odd party wall as needs must — an awful lot of works have to be accommodated. The catalogue lists 96 of them, including sculptures by the likes of Rodin, Camille Claudel, and Medardo Rosso. In short, the staging all feels a bit impromptu and make-do.  

But what of the content? Let’s rewind for a moment. That first gallery shows off two freestanding works by Rodin, one of which is that monstrous public tribute to Balzac, which the burghers of Paris rejected out of hand. It has been posthumously rehabilitated, if not sanctified, of course. But aside from the fact that any sane person would agree with those burghers, what exactly are two very large Rodins doing here anyway? Why is he to be regarded as a representative of those generations that came after Impressionism? Where is the link? Where is the reasoning? Well, the reality is that he deftly slotted himself in, chronologically speaking, both before and after the Impressionist Moment — if we can agree to call it that. He was born in 1840 and died in 1917. Is that any sort of an answer? Replies on a postcard.

Edvard Munch, “The Death Bed” (Ved dødssengen) (1895), oil on canvas. KODE Bergen Art Museum (© Dag Fosse/KODE)

The next room is full of great painters partying with each other. Here they are, almost all at once, all those we came here to see, those we have come here to report having seen, later, over various dinners with less fortunate friends. Less fortunate? Why? Because they will probably never make it. I have already been told by the press department that the exhibition is almost sold out. Such is the pull of that magical word, Impressionist, where everything once so truly revolutionary is now so lovable, so sunnily embraceable, by everyone … 

Picasso, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch, Gauguin, van Gogh, blah, blah, blah …. Quite a few of these paintings are on loan from private collections, so we have not seen them before. What a boon, Charlotte! 

This space is also a nightmare to walk through. Toward the back are a group of freestanding sculptures and an unusual painting by Picasso that must be seen on both sides (because he painted it like that), and a party wall separating you from the back wall of the gallery. All these cack-handed decisions have contrived to make passing in front or through, and then along and round, with relative ease, completely and utterly impossible. 

And this makes for a terrible log-jam of bodies. No one can can really strain over even to see the little Breton Gauguins on the back wall at all. But no one seems to mind very much. In fact, I recognize as I stand there and contemplate the scene, and listen in to all the excited chat, and watch the camera phones in all their smooth risings and fallings, that everyone is really having a wonderful time of it. And that is because they are all really here — in person, in all the maddening, exasperating, muddlesome elbow-clash of what is surely proving to be a very memorable occasion for so, so many, among all these post-Impressionists (if that is what they are) and all the rest — and talking with such passion to friends, as if it were not so much an exhibition at the National Gallery as a tremendous bazaar or expo, where socializing is all a part of it. 

And so it is. You just have to grin and bear it. And, when having reached journey’s end, you wilt forward into the shop, you then watch yourself carrying off a catalogue, to be quietly consumed over more contemplative hours, very much elsewhere, very much not here.

Paul Cézanne, “Ambroise Vollard” (1899), oil on canvas. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris (© RMN-Grand Palais / Agence Bulloz)
Isidre Nonell i Monturiol, “Hardship” (Misèria) (1904), oil on canvas (© Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona) 
Lovis Corinth, “Nana, Female Nude” (Nana, weiblicher Akt) (1911), oil on canvas (© The Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, Bequest of Morton D. May)
Auguste Rodin, “Monument to Balzac” (Monument à Balzac) (1898), plaster (© Musée Rodin, Paris)
Pierre Bonnard, “Madame Claude Terrasse and her son Charles” (Madame Claude Terrasseet son fils Charles) (1893), oil on cardboard. Private collection (© Photo courtesy the owner)
Pablo Gargallo, “The Couple” (La pareja) (1904), bronze (© Pablo Gargallo Museum, Zaragoza City Hall)
André Derain, “Madame Matisse in a Kimono” (Madame Matisse au kimono) (1905), oil on canvas. On loan from a Private Collection (courtesy Nevill Keating Pictures, © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023 / photo courtesy the owner)
Vincent van Gogh, “Houses in Saintes-Maries de-la-Mer” (Mas à Saintes-Maries de-la-Mer) (1888), oil on canvas. Private collection (© Photo courtesy the owner)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Tristan Bernard au Vélodrome Buffalo” (1895), oil on canvas (© Private Collection, courtesy Agnews Gallery)

After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) through August 13. The exhibition was curated by MaryAnne Stevens and Christopher Riopelle with guest associate curator Julien Domercq.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...