To See A Heaven in a Wild Flower

May 12, 2013 § 5 Comments


ImpressImpressionism (Pool, Phoebe)

Their inspirations were Constable, the Dutch masters, Delacroix, Corot, Rousseau, Daubigny, Millet, Courbet, Boudin and Jongkind; Condorcet and the new scientific spirit; Eugene Chevreul’s theories of colour, above all; the failed revolution of 1848 and the Anglo-Prussian war of 1870; the realism of Balzac; the poetry of Baudelaire; the spirited debates at the Cafe Guerbois.

Their immediate predecessors and sometimes friends: Edouard Manet, Degas, Emile Zola. Their immediate successors: Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin.

Their style: cool, impersonal, pastoral; like Flaubert, they cocked a snook at the flamboyant, fussy, self-indulgent Romanticism of lofty subjects and rich treatment, and insisted on seeing the sublime in the mundane; they represented a democratization – a petite-bourgeouisification, in fact – of taste.

Their credo: To transcribe nature is not art. Cameras can do that faithfully. Abstraction and representation, not of reality itself, but of an artist’s experience of reality, is art.

A story, or a moral, is not necessary for a painting. Human forms are optional. Form: not critical. Construction: not important. Lines: trivial. Objects need to be suggested, that is all – suggested by color.

Color is everything. No black, however – there’s no black in nature. Objects only have the colour that light and shadow confer upon them. Only basic colours are to be used, complementing each other, modifying one another. Colors: not mixed on palette, but juxtaposed on canvas, and merging in the viewer’s mind.

Every canvas is a careless-looking but precise arrangement of space and colour, a unique solution to a unique puzzle; the puzzle of accurately representing, in two dimensions, a moment experienced by the artist.

The moment passes, and now the light is different. The shadows are elsewhere. Other colours are indicated: it is now a different moment, a different picture. Moments are hard to capture. Speed is essential, and spontaneity. Detail: not so much. No – scratch that – yes, detail, but a different kind of detail.

They painted the way William Carlos Williams wrote poems.

Ceci n'est pas une Sunrise. This is the artist's IMPRESSION of Sunrise. Claude Monet's "Impressions: Sunrise" courtesy Wikimedia.

Ceci n’est pas une Sunrise. This is the artist’s impressions of a sunrise. Claude Monet’s “Impressions: Sunrise” courtesy Wikimedia.

The lives of the artists: the poverty, the ridicule, the rejections, the friendships, the restlessness, the strange dissatisfaction with their genre, and even as grudging and belated recognition came their way, their striving to go beyond and innovate further, and ultimately, the disillusionment.

The book itself: plain and shabby, not a lot more that a decent primer, giving a good sense of the history, the events and the personalities involved. I’d bought it on an impulse, for a pound, at a second-hand bookstore in London – I am sure there are better books around on the subject.

Its biggest two shortcomings: it does not study a single painting in detail, and it depicts a huge number of them in black-and-white plates: what a cruel shame, for a book on Impressionism.

You’ll notice the abrupt nature of this post: it is my homage to those solemn souls in crumpled suits who stare out of portraits with wild eyes in a hundred museums today: Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley.  The homage was written up in a hurry, before my memories of the book can fade. The post may look raw and incomplete.

But that, I assure you, is deliberate.

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§ 5 Responses to To See A Heaven in a Wild Flower

  • As always reading ur post is a learning experience and enjoyable too, tks.

  • Rick Searle says:

    Great post, one point (perhaps too obvious) that I do not think you mentioned- they were the painters first response to the technology of photography, yes? Their very technique and love of color seems almost the opposite of early photography. On that score, I wonder if there are many more examples of this kind of spark of creativity being unleashed by confrontation with new technology?

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks Rick. I did mention it briefly but of course you are right. Creativity as a reaction – a backlash – against technology advance is a fascinating concept. I am sure there was a backlash against the printed book, the cinema, and within cinema, the advent of CGI, the internet, etc. How has art reacted? Did you have any examples in mind?

      • Rick Searle says:

        I’m not sure it was really even backlash that I had in mind. It seems to me, taking the Impressionists as an example, that there was a need to remain relevant in light of the new technology of photography and the need to remain relevant opened up new avenues that painting had not explored before. I’d have to think awhile to see if I could come up with more examples, but the example of the Impressionists does seem to add some nuance to an argument like that of Kevin Kelly in his What Technology Wants that technology – say the invention of musical instruments- merely expands the possibilities open to an artist- it also challenges them to expanded horizons which sadly often prove mere Venetian sunsets.

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