Not Another Impressionism Show 

Bored with haystacks, ballerinas, and lilies? Read this. 

If you’re like me, you don’t say yes to attending an “Impressionism show” without additional information. Of all art extravaganzas, the Impressionist blockbuster tends to be the biggest, the most popular, and possibly the worst. (“Cezannewich” is the current catty diss.) It’s kind of like buying a ticket to a hostage crisis. Over the neck of each work is a sign branded “Masterpiece” (or tributary boffo variant), as if achieving this great status were the most important thing about the painting and visual experience in front of you. But they’re not really Impressionist Treasures of the Nelson-Atkins! They’re Manet’s! They’re Degas’!Free them now!

Even the more academically legit way of doing Impressionism has its own issues. Most academic (and box-office-challenged) Impressionism exhibitions are the product of the now-standard historicist, contextual approach. A repudiation of the postwar formalist New Criticism, the now three-decades-old historicism turns a canvas into a rich excavation site and a springboard to associated fields from history to psychology to women’s studies. These exhibitions take subject matter as the critical entry point, and they prize the telling motif and theme: The flâneur and the laundress, Degas’ thing for performers, the sunflowers and crows in van Gogh, the mirrors in Manet. And beyond formidable nature, modernity, and biography, there’s the urban/suburban divide, old vs. new, railroads and bridges, light and lighting, inter-artist affiliations and kinships, customs and manners, meats and dairy. The ways to thematize Impressionism spin out in a taxonomic complexity worthy of a Borges fable.

For all the contextual good of historicism, the methodology can be reductive, overdetermined, detached from the object’s physical existence, and generally negligent of issues of individual style, creative intent, and technique. And subject matter was the last thing on the mind of 1860s’ Parisians when they were looking at Manet’s and Monet’s new work. It was the radical style (and the new psychological and moral undertones) that was the talk of the town. What did they see that we don’t? Have we become blind to something crucial in Impressionism?

A few years ago, “Impression” curator Richard Brettell (Pissarro and Impressionism expert, former director of the Dallas Museum of Art, and a student of historicist godfather Robert Herbert’s at Yale) began to wonder if he and his fellow art historians had become so focused on context that they were losing sight of the work. Brettell’s crisis of faith eventually produced “Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890” (June 17-Sept. 9 at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.), a self-addressed challenge to business-as-usual curatorial methods. Here’s Brettell’s main brief:

The aim of this exhibition and catalogue is to reopen the question of manual dexterity and to reconsider the physical intelligence of artists by directly confronting paintings that are, in themselves, direct. For this endeavor to work, viewers need to look beyond the ostensible things of the pictures—the trains, rowboats, boulevards, café scenes, and the like—which have fascinated art historians for two generations. Instead, all of us can become involved in an experiment in looking—an experiment that presumes that making is a form of expressed thought, and needs no other evidence than itself to be interpreted.

Mid-sized as major Impressionism exhibitions go (some 75 works), and sometimes cramped by the unavailability of major Impressionist icons, “Impression” is a landmark exhibition nonetheless. It offers the thematic sketch for, if not an entirely new, at least an extensively refocused and more complexly layered narrative of Impressionism. It argues above all that Impressionism was about something that many of us can relate to: new, modern notions of work.

“Impression” pops a surprise from the get-go, with Honoré Daumier’s An Artist (c. 1870-75), which stands in solitary and originary splendor in the opening room of the installation. What is Daumier—best known as the 19th century’s most important caricaturist and a key ancestor of modern cartoon and comic art—doing standing there at the door, if you will, of Impressionism? The painting is of an artist standing before his easel in the stygian light of a 19th-century garret. “Careful inspection,” Brettell writes, “reveals that Daumier was using the wrong, or blunt end of the brush, and that he formed the lines by moving the wooden tip through wet or tacky paint to expose the white ground beneath. The whole performance of those white lines must have taken no more than a couple of minutes. How much quicker, how much more immediate, could Daumier have been?”

“Impression” presents Daumier as one of the heralds of a modern immediacy and speed of apprehension and technique that quickens over the next few years into Impressionism. The catalog also notes that Claude Monet turned out caricatures on the beachfront in his youth, and the exhibition offers evidence of Monet’s fast-worker talent for caricature in the proto-comic-book Portrait of Père Paul (1882). Modern art and cartooning, it seems, share common ancestors, artists who were casting aside ancient methods and finding immediate, engaged, spontaneous ways of producing an image.

“Impression” still gives us Impressionism as a Mirror of Modernity, but it does so through the experience of a few skilled manual workers, the artists themselves. No one at the time did more to change the way a painter worked and painted than Edouard Manet, who went about the Paris boulevards with his oils and brushes strapped to his back. He “tossed off small still-lifes as gifts throughout his life,” Brettell writes, “waited until his last day on a trip to Venice to begin to capture a view from his hotel, and worked in odd bursts in his Paris studio while friends and their guests looked on, marveling at his skill.” Integrating his work into his daily activities and experiences, Manet turned himself into the first “performative” painter. Manet is represented perhaps most spectacularly by Before the Mirror (1876). It shows a woman seen from behind, dressed in loosened corset and underskirt, and staring at an oval mirror. Symbolist novelist J.K. Huysman describes the painting’s brushwork as “caressing beneath its braggart appearance, a spare but intoxicating drawing, a bouquet of lively patches in a blond, silvery painting.” Before the Mirror may be about a stylish belle époque courtesan and the eroticizing gaze, but it’s also a “Manet was here” calling card, a testament to his own smart, on-the-go, “effortless” virtuosity.

“Impression” offers us Edgar Degas as the Impressionist arch-conceptualist, the artist who used a variety of sketchy and free brushwork to take image-making into radical and magical departments. Ballet Dancer With Arms Crossed (c. 1872) shows a young dancer in three-quarter length and in near profile, hands grasping elbows in a moment of rest. Degas is not interested in what the dancer is thinking; the features are smudged of emotional accuracy. He presses and flattens the ballerina into a fugitive slip of three-dimensionality, ranging from the relatively deeply modeled skin of the dancer’s chest and her face, to the in-a-Paris-minute sketched hands, to the flat triangle of white priming that stands for her tutu. Degas also obliterates any sense of naturalistic space; with a stunningly free combination of yellows, oranges, and reds, he conjures up a background for the dancer that reads like psychic space, the symbolic ramparts of the artist’s imaginative universe. The focus on Degas’ range of techniques, from spontaneous to painstaking, lets you appreciate how startling and complex a pictorial theater this Impressionist created.

Speed, energy, directness, preparation and planning in conception, spontaneity and boldness in execution, even “performance”—all these are attributes found attached to the Impressionist painters, all resonating with the productive ethos and rhythms of modern life—and, come to think of it, all attributes that sound very modern still. Leaning heavily on the example of the 18th-century-loving Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Herbert discerned in Impressionism a nostalgic rejection of modern and soul-robbing industrial work practices. But in the light of this show, the Impressionists look less like the keepers of old-time traditions and much more the avatars of Free Agent Nation, of new and (presumably) liberating conceptions of work—creative, industrious, autonomous, and knowingly modern.

Monet offers some of the most intriguing clues about what the Impressionists were up to. “It seems to me, when I see nature, I want to do it all, to write it all down,” Monet once wrote. Brettell talks of Monet’s “struggle to realize his sensations as quickly as possible” and describes his technique as a “speed reading of nature.” In Monet’s descriptions of urgently “reading” and “writing” nature, we see his re-conception of painting as a kind of well-primed recording plate, a medium for visual and temporal impression. This impulse comes to a head with Bathers at La Grenouillère (1869), which shows bourgeois Parisians enjoying summer pleasures on the Seine riverbank. With this and related works, Monet adds a new chapter to the Western pictorial tradition. It’s a way of composing an image out of discrete marks of varying light and color values rather than the old way, out of so many modeled shapes. It’s a lot like how the photographic plate captures a set of light impressions that will eventually cohere in the viewer’s mind as observed reality. “Impression” has barely a photograph in it, but it offers tantalizing suggestions that photography may have offered Monet a scientific muse, an optically correct paragon of immediacy. We glimpse Monet on that summer Paris riverbank turning painting into a kind of performative photography.

Our more or less continual exposure to Impressionism (in blockbusters, coffee-table books, reproductions, etc.) has tended to make the style seem tame, sweet, unexciting, the kindly old uncle of modern art. With its fresh emphasis on technique, “Impression” brings back into focus some of the startling newness of a Monet, a Manet, a Degas. It might even fortify you for the next blockbuster.