Culture

Art

‘Colours of Impressionism’: a fascinating showcase of the ephemeral

By Miriam Cosic
Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay at the Art Gallery of South Australia

Colours of Impressionism, a collection of excellent Impressionist paintings lent from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay to the Art Gallery of South Australia, has recently opened in Adelaide. Many sophisticated art lovers simply shrug when such exhibitions arrive, no matter how high-quality the content. Impressionism? “Pretty”, “chocolate box”, “clichéd”: plenty of words deride the movement.

Yes, we know it was radical in its time and was excoriated by conservative critics. We might even know the degree to which it was influenced by the burgeoning modernity of the late-19th century, and the massive changes in technology, means of production, social and political arrangements, and more that accompanied it. But still.

It may have been some time since we really looked, however, and that is the great appeal of a “blockbuster” exhibition such as this. It’s okay for aficionados who are constantly travelling the world to roll their eyes, and many highbrow critics do. The worst recent example, perhaps, was the response to the 2008 Picasso and the Masters exhibition, held across the Louvre, the Grand Palais and the Musée d’Orsay, which one French writer derided as artistic “bling” and an American critic called “dazzling but fatuous”.

And yet, for most people with modest lifestyles, seeing so many masterpieces gathered in one place is not only dazzling, it allows them to really examine a genre or a theme, to compare and contrast, and to see it anew.

The theme of this exhibition, which contains 67 paintings and, interestingly, three artists’ palettes, is the Impressionists’ use of colour, which is hardly as radical a view of it as the French visitors tried to suggest at the media preview. Yet it remains fascinating. The importance of line (disegno) versus colour (colore) had long been debated in European art, starting with arguments between the Florentine and Venetian schools during the Renaissance, continuing with the famous querelle de coloris in 17th century Paris, and reaching an inflammatory high point with the public disputes between Ingres and Delacroix – the Neoclassical versus the emerging Romantic – in the mid-19th century.

The poet Baudelaire, a huge supporter of Delacroix, identified the emphasis on colour with modernity, as the Adelaide show’s curator, Paul Perrin, points out in the catalogue. Baudelaire identified a lot else with modernity, in word and image, including that wonderful phrase, “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” – a perfect description of the look of Impressionism.

The Adelaide exhibition is arranged in a number of rooms, each having its own colour theme: “From black to light”; “White, a snow landscape”; “Of greens and blues”; and more. Even just by reading the well-scripted wall texts, we learn how the Impressionists came to see black and white paints, not as the aggregate of all colours, or the absence of them or as mixing bases, but as colours in themselves. We learn how the wonderful snow paintings allowed the painters to let go of line – and colour – to concentrate on depictions of light and shade in the accumulation of brushstrokes, and to use blue as the shading colour, truer to what the eye sees than the more obvious black. They leaned that way in their landscapes too.

As one early and irritated critic wrote, “that the sun sometimes projects blue shadows may well be true; but that all landscapes, water, the interiors of houses and cafes, balconies and still lifes are uniformly and eternally enveloped in a blue atmosphere is too much”. Renoir’s painting of a still-black-haired Monet at work and Monet’s Un coin d’appartement are good cases in point. The black of Monet’s coat and the shadows of the apartment are shaded in deep blues, which seem less decorative than descriptive: they simply read as dark.

We also learn how they used strokes of green and blue to depict ordinary landscapes and everyday scenes, characterised by close botanical observation, and eschewing the grand historical themes that subordinated landscape in their predecessors’ work. Monet’s and Pissarro’s gardens are lovely examples. With their plein air method (painting in the open air), and their return to familiar locations – Monet’s garden, for example, and the meadows, paths and farms surrounding Pissarro’s various houses – we get to see the parade of vegetal colours in the changing light of days and seasons.

We’re so used to seeing pictures of Monet’s garden at Giverny, however, that we forget the breadth of his experimentation in colour and theme. The Adelaide exhibition contains one of his Rouen Cathedral series, all blue and white with light browns for depth of shadow. Also featuring is Monet’s marvellous painting of the boats at Argenteuil (1872), with barely any foliage – and what is there is barely green– to be seen. Another of his tranquil boat scenes is part of the May triptych of landscape paintings by Sisley, Pissarro and Monet. The tranquillity of these pictures comes above all from Monet’s softly rippling water, mirroring the scenes above it.

We see Cézanne, too, in a different light. Alongside some examples of his influential ochre and soft green paintings, where the hills and rocks appear as blocks of colour that rearrange distance and perspective, are his paintings of Mediterranean inlets, like Le golfe de Marseille vu de L’Estaque. Those were painted almost 800 kilometres due south of Monet’s River Seine pictures and use a completely different palette of yellow light and Mediterranean blues.

Above all, perhaps, getting up this close and personal with the pictures allows us to the see the magical construction of those “chocolate box” images: the direction of the brushstrokes, the juxtaposition of fragments of colour, the varying thicknesses of paint applied – all those things that made critics call them “unfinished” when they first appeared. In a later room, we see how the fragmentation of brushstrokes led to the pointillism of neo-Impressionists such as Signac and the Belgian Théo van Rysselberghe. The latter’s cool L’entrée du port de Roscoff – all tiny blobs of white and various shades of blue, the shadows flecks of green and yellow – is so intriguing it beckons from across the room.

The Orsay’s curator of Impressionism, the young, personable and intellectually persuasive Paul Perrin, pointed out in Adelaide how some of the painters, particularly Cézanne, influenced the Cubism of Picasso, Braque and others in the early 20th century. Less is generally made of the clear lineage to other aspects of Modernism, such as abstraction. When one gets up close to inspect the brushstrokes, it is clear how each step backwards resolves the canvas from swirls and drips and strokes to what the eye can recognise as what’s out there in the world. Order emerges out of chaos, which could be a description of abstraction: think of the systematically disorganised paintings of Jackson Pollock.

Lean in to the buoy in Signac’s La Bouée rouge and the lower half of the canvas, with its fractured blue and yellow water reflections and its red-yellow rectangle, is all mood and no content. “The ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” indeed. As we step back, the outlines of boats and houses on the boardwalk emerge. The buoy is a clearly a buoy only because we are told it is.

The portraits in the show are interesting for how they address the dark colours and black of Victorian-era dress within the movement’s thematic focus on light. The mood is modest, when not austere. Henri Fantin-Latour’s La liseuse is charming in its depiction of a young woman, her eyes cast down to her book, dressed in a high-necked dark dress with a white collar.

That Degas is not in the show precluded a voyeuristic picture or two of a teenage dancer. But, turning a corner to be confronted with two of Renoir’s paintings of weighty bare-breasted women, lounging about on display, comes as a shock: the sleazy male gaze on ripe fruit waiting to be plucked re-emerges, unmitigated by beauty or elegance. Who knows, but it seemed a deliberate act to hang them alongside Berthe Morisot’s portraits of women, not chaste necessarily but not objectified: the schoolgirls reading on a bench in the Bois de Boulogne have nothing suggestive about them, and even the décolleté of the woman at the front of L’hortensia seems to be more about fashion than about sex.

Art, of course, does reside in the eye of the beholder, whether it comes via impressions on the retina or the politically, socially and aesthetically analytic part of the brain.

Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay is at the Art Gallery of South Australia until July 29. Miriam Cosic travelled to Adelaide as the guest of AGSA.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Paul Signac, La bouée rouge (The red buoy), 1895, oil on canvas, 81.2 x 65 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France © photo Musée d’Orsay/rmn

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