A WORLD OF REFLECTIONS
THE Musee Marmottan in Paris was not originally a museum of impressionism but was transformed by the bequest in 1966 of a large number of works by Claude Monet’s son Michel. The collection included the picture that ended up giving the movement its name after a journalist made a disparaging remark about it — Impression, Sunrise (1872) — a reminder of how contingent such appellations are. The futurists and surrealists, for example, trumpeted their movements in manifestos, while mannerism and the baroque were named retrospectively and gothic was originally an expression of scorn.
Impressionism, as it turned out, was the first of many modern movements to pass through a life cycle of initial opposition followed by increasing acceptance and eventual canonisation, a cycle that after many iterations has now been shortened dramatically so the phase of opposition has reduced to a rhetorical trope of publicists — work is routinely described as controversial — followed by the immediate embrace of an eager market.
It seems odd now to think impressionism could ever have been controversial: it is in many ways the most accessible and even indulgent of styles, requiring much less active engagement, prior knowledge or even visual sensitivity than the art of the 17th century, for example. There perhaps has never been a style that seems to offer itself so readily as the object of undemanding pleasure, which accounts for its popularity even today, while it is often justified within a progressivist view of the history of modernism as the precursor to abstraction. Both the ease of enjoyment and the spurious vindication, in the end, can get in the way of appreciating the true qualities of the best impressionist pictures.
To understand the initial opposition to impressionism, one has to realise two things. One is that the French for centuries have taken their national culture very seriously, from the Academie Francaise established under Cardinal Richelieu for the improvement of the French language to the post-war cultural initiatives of Andre Malraux as Charles de Gaulle’s minister of culture. The other is French history in the 19th century. Indeed just as the artistic movements of the 20th century evolve around the historical armature, as it were, of the two wars, the Depression and post-war tensions, 19th-century art unfolds during the period from the fall of Napoleon in 1815 to the beginning of World War I in 1914, punctuated by the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the unification of Italy in 1860 and the event most relevant to impressionism, the Franco-Prussian War and its consequences in 1870-71.
This was a conflict in which France became collateral damage in the unification of Germany — or the takeover by Prussia of the other German states, apart from Austria — as a result of which Napoleon III was forced to abdicate, while Paris was occupied briefly by the revolutionary Commune before its bloody suppression by the army of the new republic. France, for centuries the great power of the continent, was mortally humiliated by this defeat, which is why it was so ready to take up arms again in 1914. And when, only a few years after the Franco-Prussian War, the impressionists held their first exhibition in 1874, the apparent facility and indulgence of the new style were shocking because they seemed evidence of a general deliquescence of the national spirit.
It didn’t take long for the public and the market to adjust to the new style, and impressionist pictures became ever more popular and sought-after by rich collectors, including an impressive number of Americans, towards the end of the century and the beginning of the new one.
The market has continued to rise since, and the Musee Marmottan was the object of a dramatic raid by armed bandits in 1985, when several works including the eponymous Impression, Sunrise itself was stolen. Eventually the criminals were uncovered and the pictures were recovered at a villa in Corsica in 1990.
A selection of works from the Marmottan constitutes the greater part of this year’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition under the title Monet’s Garden. The Marmottan is one museum in Paris that I have never visited, so it is hard to judge the collection by what has been sent to Melbourne, but one senses the same sort of problem that there is with the Musee Picasso, whose exhibition was in Sydney last year. The trouble with collections based on the contents of an artist’s studio, or the works they left at their death, is that they tend to be a mixed bag. The positive spin is they are the pieces the artist kept; the