The Colours of Impressionism Art Gallery of South Australia. Until July 29.
On the face of it, there are few styles of art more detached from the historical and political circumstances of their time than impressionism. Neoclassicism in France was deeply engaged with the 1789 revolution and the Napoleonic adventure; romanticism was particularly sympathetic to struggles for freedom, from the Greek war of independence to the anti-slavery movement, and was also involved in the rise of cultural nationalism in various parts of Europe. Realism represented the lives of workers and peasants, as well as the new conditions of urban existence and relations between the classes, as we see in Manet.
Impressionism, in contrast, alludes to the differences of urban and rural life, but emphasises leisure more than work, and tends to show members of different classes mingling in places of entertainment, such as cafes and theatres, rather than pointedly marking differences and tensions as Manet does in both Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863) and Un bar aux Folies-Bergere (1882). Above all, it avoids any reference to the greatest national disaster of its time, the shamefully swift defeat of France by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
This war, trumped up by Bismarck as a pretext for rallying the diverse German states behind the leadership of Prussia, was an enormously important historical event, unifying Germany and ultimately helping to set the scene for the Great War. It led to the abdication of Napoleon III, the siege of Paris, and then the Paris Commune, when political radicals imagined they could create a new government without the support of the rest of France. The farce of the Commune turned into tragedy when the French army retook the city in a systematic and ruthless sweep in May 1871. These events must have traumatised all who lived through them, and yet the impressionist style, which developed before and flowered after the conflict, seems a deliberate turning away from history.
This apparent anomaly can perhaps be explained by two related developments, which also help to illuminate features of later modernism: the first is the loss of a language with which to address a broader public, and the second is an increasing concentration on personal, intimate, and increasingly on idiosyncratic experience.
In regard to the first factor, a decline in shared beliefs and cultural references can be traced back to a surprisingly early period, and is visible even in the art of the late 17th century. A continued decline, in the 18th century, of religious art and of the secular, historical and mythological subjects that were the vehicle of philosophical and political allegory, is masked by a temporary, though often merely rhetorical, resurgence in the neoclassical period. But by the early and mid-19th century the problem is acute: religious faith can no longer be taken for granted, nor does the new middle class have the depth of education to feel at home in the traditional canon of secular subjects.
The other factor, the turn towards private and intimate experience, seems to arise as a response to an anonymous and utilitarian mass society. This is how we can understand the central concern of impressionism with fleeting sensations and transient effects of light and weather. In a world of mass conformity, anonymity and social regimentation, only the immediate and momentary personal experience can be authentic. Art can no longer address matters of public concern, but it can address us separately, individually and intimately.
The present exhibition from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris is rather mixed in quality, relevance and structure, and includes many artists not usually considered part of the impressionist movement, but it does contain some very fine works, and even the less remarkable pieces can play a part in providing a context.
Thus several cityscapes, whether impressionist or not, evoke the new realities of life in enormous modern cities such as Paris or London. And Manet’s strangely sinister Moonlight over the Port of Boulogne (1869), with its Goya- like ambience of irrational menace, reminds us of dimensions of feeling and reference that we won’t find in the painting of the impressionists.
The first great painting in the exhibition, and arguably the most compelling and mysterious of all, is Monet’s The Magpie (1868-69), where the bird, perched on a rickety gate in a snowy landscape, is the darkest note in a composition filled with subdued luminosity. Monet reminds us that the effect of light in a painting is nothing to do with the use of bright colour or a highkeyed palette, much less the abuse of white. It arises from contrast, but not necessarily from extreme contrast; the most powerful effect sometimes requires the subtlest of means.
Monet’s secret is a combination of understatement and a harmonisation of tone and hue. His darks are not particularly dark, and even the snow is many shades darker than a sheet of paper. But these lights and darks are suffused with colour: the snow a soft warm hue verging on orange, from the sun; and the shadow of the fence, by virtue of the principle of complementary colours, a soft grey just tinged with violet.
But the result, which is impossible to convey even in the best reproductions, is akin to an effect of movement: it is as though we can feel the light propagating itself through space, emanating from the light haze of the background and pouring through the rickety fence towards us, bathing the whole snowy foreground in a paradoxically warm glow.
Another high point of the exhibition is in the following room, where three smaller paintings, by Sisley, Pissarro and Monet, have been oddly of Boulogne
MONET SEEMS TO BE ABLE TO SEE THE WHOLE RANGE OF LIGHTS AND DARKS SIMULTANEOUSLY
Clockwise from top: Camille Pissarro’s Tour-du-Jongleur Lane and M. Musy’s house, Louveciennes (c. 1872); Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: the portal and Saint-Romain tower, full sunlight (1893); Edouard Manet’s Moonlight over the Port