Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

(1869)

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