Thursday, April 20, 2006

Impressions of the Impressionists, or Mo' Monet!

I'm the only person in the Western World who hates the impressionists. I will admit up front that statement is designed as an attention-grabber in that I don't really hate the impressionists. I simply hate the cultural context into which the impressionists have grown. That context is this: The typical conversation I have with other casual art fans (I number myself among them) usually consists of how they love the impressionists, but don't "get" the abstract art of the 20th century.

That context fails to take into account a few things. First of all, the impressionists were the abstract artists of their time. They were often sneered at by the critics and the public of their time. Furthermore, by breaking away from portraiture, by developing new painting techniques, by painting in the outdoors, by separating color from shape--in essence, becoming the first artists to paint "outside the lines"--they unleashed some creative forces that naturally made it possible for the expressionist, cubist, surrealist and other forms of abstraction to thrive in the 20th century.

That's a long way of introducing some impressions I took away after Mrs. W and I visited the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, in which I came to realize that the impressionist ouevre contains some of the most perfect paintings in the history of art. This was my first opportunity to see such a condensed exhibition of their works--I'd seen many parts of the Monet "Haystacks" series and Seurat's "Le Grande Jatte" at the Chicago Art Institute, for example--and getting such an exposure to them has deepened my appreciation for what the impressionists accomplished. ("Look, over there, it's the cover of my college French textbook. And over there is the back cover!").

When one looks closely at a Monet, for example, the use of color to signify shape, light and shadow in the form of paint blobs is simply astounding. It wasn't an outrageously famous work like "Water Lilies" ...
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... that astounded me. It was not a particularly famous piece--I don't even remember its name, to be honest--but the painting was of a lake, with a house and a sailboat on the shore. In the painting, everything is rendered so perfectly--down to the way the reflections of the house and sailboat rippled with the waves in the lake--that I simply couldn't stop looking at it. I wanted to know how they could do that without outlines, without mixing the pure hues of the oil paint.

I still wish that the impressionist-loving, abstraction-hating art fans appreciated the links between the schools. I'm still frustrated by the attitude. But I now realize the adoration of the impressionists is more than deserved.

5 Comments:

Blogger Middle Kid said...

Gee, I always thought that the impressionists just needed glasses.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous pseudonymous in nc said...

Ugh, spammers.

Giverny's not far from Paris: there's a train. And there's also the RER to Versailles, and the Orangerie, where Monet takes pride of place.

I like the line that the impressionists realised that photography put realist painters out of business, as far as serious art was concerned. Plus, the invention of synthetic pigments meant that they could get blues without grinding lapis, and paint that kind of French sky in cobalt blue rather than the bleached northern skies that lent themselves to Prussian blue. (Alas, aniline pigments haven't stood up to the test of time, meaning that some painters' works have suffered.)

What's missed from the print-lovers is the sense of scale. And texture. The unpainted canvas at the corners.

3:27 AM  
Blogger Smitty Werbenmanjensen said...

Pseudonymous,

Funny you should mention l'Orangerie. We got to d'Orsay about 3:30 on the afternoon of Saturday and saw a line that looked about 90 minutes long, so we went to Plan B, which was to go over to l'Orangerie. Turns out it's under some major reconstruction and the whole damn thing is closed. At least, none of it appeared to be open to me.

6:53 AM  
Anonymous fatslug the impetuous said...

I took the train to Giverny once, years ago. You take the train from Paris to Vernon and a cab to Giverny--it's only about three miles from the Vernon station. I was there on a hot, sunny July day, and it was lovely.

It's interesting you bring up people who don't get any painting except the Impressionists, because the big Cezanne exhibit is at the National Gallery till May 7. Cezanne was a contemporary and friend of the Impressionists, but not really of them; his later paintings in particular break landscapes down into their geometric shapes to a degree you think would have had art lovers rioting in the streets in 1890. The Impressionist-lovers should take a look at Cezanne, if they want to start gaining an understanding of modern painting; it's all there in chrysalis. If there had been no Cezanne, there would have been no Picasso.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed a lot! »

12:51 AM  

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