October 06, 2010

The Ubiquitous Impressionists

Magpie, my favorite Monet
Earlier this summer I mentioned, briefly, that I visited the first of two shows at the De Young Museum in San Francisco featuring the art of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris (which is currently being renovated).  The Musee d'Orsay specializes in the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work of Paris in the 19th and early 20th century. And this exhibit was astounding.  The first room was dedicated to the so called "academic" paintings of the established schools of art.  Following that were several pieces by Manet (which I can not even begin to describe: they were so powerful, so alive, so forceful, so passionate, so brilliant, so beautiful).  The last three rooms were dedicated to the Impressionists.

Progressing in essentially chronological order, I finally understood how truly revolutionary the Impressionist school was.  Compared to the almost sterile (albeit lovely) rigor of the Academic paintings, Impressionism was vibrant, alive, at times tender at times dirty and hard.  It created an new language of light and form, and turned all the rules upside down while remaining beautiful.

Perhaps the biggest victim of the popularity of Impressionism is Claude Monet. He is, first and foremost, lovely, luminous, eloquent and emotive.  But with his waterlilies plastered on umbrellas and tote bags and mouse pads (do people still use those?), and in the bathroom of every quaint bistro from here to San Francisco, one can hardly expect to see these paintings in the revolutionary brilliance of the time.

Unless, of course, you visit a new exhibit in Paris, according to the NYTimes' art critic Michael Kimmelman:

This show, surveying his long career and probing its depths, helps restore something of his original status. He comes across as more than the familiar Impressionist — he comes across as a painter of strange and elusive probity, of memory and reflection, as an artist seeking not just to simulate sun, rain and snow, but states of mind as well. He gave form to “the heavenly pasturage our minds can find in things,” is how Proust once put it.

...Intelligence and sobriety befit an artist too glibly thought of as easy. In the flesh, his best works, it turns out, thwart the problem of their own endless reproduction by being, well, irreproducible. You just can’t grasp the bejeweled, darkling purple and pink light emanating from the moody reveries of Venice he painted well on in his career except by standing before them. They’re views steeped in Whistler, Turner and a kind of exquisite sadness. Only planted in front of “Bathers at La Grenouillère” can you properly get the squinting effect of slanting sun splashing off rippled water, ripe with summer dreams and visual puns, that blurs the silhouettes of figures in the middle distance.
Well, I can't go to Paris, much as I'd like to, but I do encourage you to read the entire review, which is an excellent little meditation on art and popularity, and Monet's rather radical modernism, beautifully written in itself. (And the second page has a fascinating discussion of photography, and Proust too!)

And if you are happening to go to Paris in the next few months, do pop into the show tell me what you saw!  (In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the second Musee de Orsay exhibit at the De Young--this one concerned with post-impressionism.  It runs through January 18th. I'll be going in December.)

Water Lilies, 1914

1 comment:

  1. I've been to the Musee d'Orsay twice and I LOVE it! I wish I could find an excuse to check out this exhibit in San Francisco or get back to Paris. Lovely post. Thank you!

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