A WORLD OF RE­FLEC­TIONS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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