Monday, May 01, 2006

The Impressionists

We’ve just had a good Bank Holiday weekend break up in Glasgow with my side of the family. Last time we were there, my sister was very ill. It was great to see her so much better; and everyone else so much more relaxed.

On Sunday night, we watched the first episode of the BBC’s new three-part mini-series on the lives of The Impressionists. With an excellent cast, high production values, and a script drawing on the painters’ letters and diaries along with interviews and reviews in the French press of the time; and revealing the stories behind the creation of several of their most influential paintings, as well as the artists’ lives; this made great viewing.

I was struck by a number of observations, and their parallels with the emerging church:

Fluid, Networked Relationships:
Monet, Renoir and Bazille were the closest of friends, “three musketeers.” Manet became a friend, but was more of an inspiration. Degas was a friend of Manet’s, sympathetic to the core-group that became known as the Impressionists, without choosing to fully identify himself with them. Cezanne related to the Paris-based set, but chose to spend most of his time working alone in rural Provance. At times, the painters worked together, in different combinations, different locations; at other times they worked alone, going off in different directions, then coming-together again…

Generous Investment in the Other:
Monet and Renoir would become two of the most famous painters in the history of art, but while they were penniless and unrecognised, they were able to paint because Bazille invited them both to live with him in his apartment, allowed them to paint in his studio and using his paints, and funded them by buying their paintings when no-one else would. And Bazille was able to invest in Monet and Renoir because his parents (unlike theirs) were generous in investing in him, as both medical student and painter…

Institutional Power:
At the time, the only way to survive as an artist was to create work that was approved for show by the Paris Salon. The Salon judges had very particular views on what counted as art, based on vested interest; and controlled artists through exerting their power. The Impressionists tried year after year to have their vision of what art could be recognised by those “in authority,” but ultimately – in the face of sustained criticism from the Establishment – felt that they had no choice but to hold their own Exhibitions. In seeking to exercise Power in order to hold onto privileged position, the views of the Salon eventually lost Influence…

The thing that was so radical – and shocking – about the Impressionists’ work was that they were not content to carry on reproducing the accepted convention of Classical subject matter and style; but chose to paint scenes from the every-day life of their own culture; to paint as they saw; rough-around-the-edges. For the first time, they painted outdoors, as opposed to composing landscapes in the studio. And they measured their work by different criteria: when Renoir observed that the critics would say that a particular painting by Monet was unfinished, he replied, “It is complete.”

The Edge Becomes the Centre:
At the time, the Impressionists’ work was considered to be at the very edge of European art – off the edge of what counted as art, in the view of those who held the power. Today, Impressionism is absolutely the mainstream, commanding the highest prices at auction; endlessly reproduced; to the extent that we find it hard to appreciate how contentious it was in its day. The Edge is only radical in relation to the Centre; and, given time, the Edge becomes the Centre – and a new Edge emerges in relation to the new Centre…

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