Impressionist Art: Room for Skepticism?

When it freezes over people will be able to skate on it. How nice.

When it freezes over people will be able to skate on it. How nice.

I was recently at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, which has been revitalized by its $145 million expansion. The modern architecture by Tadao Ando juxtaposes with the rustic of the Berkshire hills, creating a harmonious space which is surely envied by many other museums. This expansion does place the Clark, if wasn’t already, in the international stratosphere. When I first went to the Clark during its renovation it was cramped and limited with what it could show. I did like some of the touches as seen with their salon-style display of art in one of their rooms upstairs in the old building which is nowhere to be seen anymore. Pity. However, there is nothing wrong with what’s already there and, frankly, the collection is what matters. The Clark is well known for its holdings of Impressionist art. Yes, that movement that I have lambasted before. However, despite my previous juvenile attempt at besieging Impressionism, it was no doubt a necessary art movement. Without it, Post-Impressionism would not exist and thus modern art itself. Yet, I still find the poster boy of Impressionism, Claude Monet, to be awfully contrived. I am always disappointed by the lack of skepticism when it comes to Monet’s oeuvre, and really, Impressionism as a whole. There seems to be no one that wants to voice any hint of displeasure at the pull that Impressionist art has. It also seems that people don’t want to realize how loose a movement Impressionism is. It is not just transient atmospheric effects in a landscape, but rather, the impression of spontaneity itself. This impression of “spontaneity” is not just limited to Impressionist painting. Notable examples can be seen in the works of Rodin and Pollock. The aim to convey the effects of light should not be the final word, but instead, a starting point on evaluating Impressionist art.

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The Rodin sculpture commands your attention.

Impressionism was reacting against a tide of academic supremacy. The aesthetics of academic art that was popular in France before the Impressionists stormed onto the scene is now considered retrograde and stifling in comparison. Artworks by the more popular artists such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau readily show that appealing aesthetic that was admired by critics and collectors alike. At the Clark you can see his “Nymphs and Satyr“, an entirely forgettable painting of three nymphs “playfully” dragging a Satyr into a pond where as mythological tales would seem to suggest, he would die since he is unable to swim. What would have been appealing to Bouguereu’s admirers is the sumptuous beauty of the nymphs. The face of the nymph in the center is so alluring that he makes her almost fantastical. She seems too unbelievably beautiful. Like Rococo art, 19th century academic art is a world that is hard to understand, much less experience. In hindsight, it was uninspiring art and that is what Impressionism had to respond to. (Hopefully, we’ll be seeing art soon that will show up the limits of the contemporary scene as well). At the 1874 exhibition, the Impressionists were mocked and not taken seriously. They did not strive to show form completely. Many would define Impressionism as reproducing the light reflected from a form that is seared into the eyes of the artist who then attempts to capture the effect of that light. Ultimately these atmospheric effects would lend to a warm tone. And that’s where theory on Impressionism seems to end – nothing more and nothing less than the effect of light. I cannot dispute this basis for theory on Impressionist art, but I do think it is dismissing the end result: the impression of spontaneity.

Me gawking at some Rodin's. I have no qualms whatsoever with being unexpectedly photographed

Me studying some of Rodin’s sculptures.

Degas was spontaneous, but not in a black and white sense. He would likely say that his compositions are not a spur of the moment, but instead, a calculated reflection. This is what made him totally different from his fellow Impressionists, yet still Impressionist in the end. Degas was, as John Canaday (former art critic for the New York Times) would point out in his book “Mainstreams of Modern Art”, “(Impressionism’s) finest draughtsman and composer; he is one of the finest draughtsmen and composers of any period”. Degas was coming from a different angle in comparison to other Impressionists who did not put much stock in traditionalism at the beginning. His love for such masters like Ingres would serve him well in the end. He would become the most innovative and important Impressionist because he realized the need to depict the human body with traditional discipline. For that he needed to, “draw lines, young man, many lines”, as Ingres would tell Degas as a young artist. With that advice, Degas was able to eventually create something astonishing. It was an attitude; one highly critical. This can be best seen in “The Absinthe Drinker“. The couples are arranged in a fine display of compositional technique. By doing this Degas is able lend a perspective that is reminiscent of photography, the medium that was the death blow to realistic art and made the Impressionists necessary. Degas was able to do a “snapshot” in art. This makes his artworks more durable than many of Monet’s outputs. At the Clark I can’t help but look on in disbelief at their copy of Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet. The brushstrokes are so encrusted that it distorts any possible solidity of the cathedral. It looks like it is about to collapse. What is left? Well, the idea of light effects. Sometimes Impressionism veers too far towards the abstract that it forgets traditionalism. This is why Degas made the more practical and prudent choice by capturing the human personality in a snapshot: he knew like Rothko, that some dosage of classicism is necessary in abstraction, even if Degas was a more calculated artist. In the end, all of the truly great art should be in dialogue with the past. While other Impressionists like Monet admired J.M.W. Turner, Degas was truly with in tune with both the past and the present.

You didn't expect me to go without the art publication photo rule no. 1: photograph plebs with artworks.

I was amazed how people did not flock around this sculpture. It's spellbinding.

I was amazed how people did not flock around this Rodin sculpture. It’s spellbinding.

As H.W. Janson once commented on Auguste Rodin, he was “the first sculptor of genius since Bernini”. His sculptures, like his famous “The Thinker“, have been misinterpreted. Not misinterpreted in the literary or symbolic sense, but in terms of what it can show in artistic form. You see, any Impressionist connection is going to be suggested by light effects, how Rodin’s sculptures with their “welts and wrinkles produce, in polished bronze, an ever-changing pattern of reflections” as Janson would tell you. But as Janson points out, “how could he calculate in advance the reflections on the bronze surfaces?” Rodin, unless endowed with miraculous artistic vision, could not. Thus, while the connection is by all means correct, it is not wholly right. Rodin, like Degas, was responding to the art that came before him. In his sculptures, there are no rigid mannerisms of classical sculpture. Seeing his life-size bronze sculpture of a man at the Clark shows just how radical he was in his search for a lack of refinement. It is true that he made “of unfinishedness an aesthetic principle”, but I would go even further to say that he made of this an aesthetic action. The sculpture has every makings of a charismatic figure. The pose and hand gestures are more cavalier than anywhere else seen in sculpture. He is definitely on the same wavelength as Bernini. Being in a three-dimensional form, sculptures often only stand there with elegant grace without breathing. Rodin understands that sculpture has to convey an impression of immediacy, as if the figure is going to bust out of its cast. A breathtaking moment of spontaneity, an artistic possibility that is catapulted through precise movement, gestures and modeling. It is not so much how much time it took Rodin to make the sculpture, but how he is able to let you experience the sculpture when you first lay eyes on it.

Another ambush immortalized.

Fast forward roughly fifty years and there was a painter who was tearing up practically every single artistic convention. With the exception of Giotto and Cezanne, there was never a more important and explosive artist. Jackson Pollock really did redefine the purpose of art. His unique style of drip painting allowed for seemingly never-ending dimensions within the webs of his explosiveness. I remember going to the Tate and seeing one of his works along with Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals that were in the adjacent room and, combined, they made for a mind-bending experience. Surely, Pollock suffers in reproduction. His works must be seen, as with any work of course, live, in the flesh. If the paintings did not give you a hint of the physical exertion that went into his works, then one could also be led to believe that he was a spontaneous, enigmatic soul. Never mind Impressionism: Pollock was the real deal. If Impressionist artworks were deemed as “unfinished” and merely “impressions”, then try wrapping your head around canvases that created an abstract artistic universe that only Rothko could rival. In the end, you just can’t. At some point, art was going to become incomprehensible. Pollock was not just some messiah that came of nowhere, Monet planted the seeds for his radicalism decades before. With this in mind, Pollock was a logical extension. And in hindsight, Claude Monet and the Impressionists were the pioneering abstract artists/expressionists. And Pollock, through this extension, was able to enable Impressionism’s ultimate fate: pure abstraction. No forms. Just robust lines, vistas of color, a spontaneous impression and a physically exhausted artist at the end of the day.

So what is a “spontaneous impression”? Degas showed it can be a calculated look of deception. Rodin showed that it can be so spontaneous that it becomes practically a living form. And Pollock? He showed action that is so spontaneous that it is hard to rationalize. It’s simply a look, maybe better stated as a first impression. Impressionism was not just about light. Nor was it just about the lower classes, ballet or haystacks. I could be wrong about this crazy theory. But then, shouldn’t the canon be deconstructed and examined at one point or another? Why should Impressionism always be one thing and not the other. I’m not asking for far-ranging liberal interpretations of how to view artworks and movements, but some attempt should be made to criticize not just the present state of the contemporary art world, but the past as well. Only then can we learn how valuable the great artworks are. It can’t just be through prices.

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2 thoughts on “Impressionist Art: Room for Skepticism?

  1. Pingback: The Downfall of Art Museums | Retrograde Canvas

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