Pierre-Auguste Renoir, A Garden in Montmartre, 1890 – 1899 Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Carla Scarano enjoys and discusses works by Renoir, Pisarro, Cézanne, Sisley, Signac, Degas, Rodin and others
A well-chosen number of works of the Impressionists is displayed at the Lightbox ranging from Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, Sisley, Signac, Degas, Rodin and others. The clear captions and explanations condense effectively the themes, development and techniques of this famous French movement, and contribute to a successful understanding of the works on display.
Though famous names, like Monet and Morisot, are missing, the works selected are not the usual well-known paintings we can admire at the National Gallery or at the Louvre, but unique, engaging pieces that allow a culturally engrossing experience.
The Impressionists’ priorities were to paint en plein air (outdoors) and depict what they saw. They represented scenes of everyday life in contrast with the historical and mythological paintings of the Academy. A new, modern quality was the main characteristic of their works both in the themes and in the forms and colours. They represented what they saw, not idealised perfect shapes. For this reason, the contours might be distorted by the light or the atmosphere of the scene, or the colours chosen were different from what the viewer expected. In their work we find domestic scenes representing women sewing, combing their hair or rubbing their back, or work places. This gave a new dimension to the ordinary; the everyday life of common people came to the foreground without the obsolete, epic aspect of the works of the Academy. Their approach to painting was naturalistic; they never totally broke with past traditions, which instead occurred with the avant-gardes after them. Nevertheless, their work was considered unfinished and sketchy by their contemporaries, precisely an ‘impression’, not a real, complete picture.
The exhibition well represents these characteristics in every aspect. The simple gesture of a dancer putting on her stockings in a Degas bronze sculpture expresses movement in its unstable position. It is familiar and ordinary, and reinterprets classical motifs. A similar solution is in the bust of ‘Woman rubbing her back with a sponge’ recalling a Greek Venus but in the context of a quotidian gesture. The lithograph of Mrs Cha-U-Koa dancing with her lover by Toulouse-Lautrec is evidence of the fascination these artists had for the world of cafés and cabarets. It also emphasises the movement of the people dancing in the marks that delineate their dresses.
Rendering the bustling Paris life or a countryside landscape was a challenge the Impressionists accepted by depicting what they saw. They did not arrange the figures in artificial poses but referred to the immediacy of a snapshot as in Pierre Bonnard’s ‘Boulevard’, or to a ‘real’ space as in Paul Signac’s ‘River Landscape on the Seine’, where factories loom in the background and the transparency of the river emerges in the foreground. There is no idealisation in this scene, everything is factual; but it also reveals the painter’s personal view in its marks and choice of colours.
Scenes of intimate, domestic life, such as the beautiful ‘Madame Pissarro sewing beside a window’ or Renoir’s ‘Woman nursing a Child’, reveal again the immediacy of the quotidian and the rendering of forms and colours from a personal angle where the effect of the light is fundamental and the emotions of the sitter are caught in an instant. A similar ephemeral moment is in Éduard Vuillard’s still life, ‘The Blue Inkwell on the Fireplace’, where the arrangement of the different objects is both casual and effective.
An impressive statue by Rodin, ‘Crouching Woman’, is on display as well. It represents a restless figure in a reclining pose recalling the Parthenon friezes Rodin studied at the British Museum. For him they seemed alive, in motion, conveying a creative force that he wished to attain in his work. The emotions are expressed in the tension of this body which is missing an arm, like an ancient Greek statue mutilated by the wear and tear of time. It was a way to see a subject from different perspectives and combinations, similarly to Degas’ dancers, and it also emphasises the sense of movement. This challenged the concept of the work of art as a unique product, its heroic and epic status, so praised and cherished by the academies. It was a more down-to-earth vision of the subject.
The Impressionists’ paintings are still very popular and fascinating for today’s audience because of their fresh way of depicting modern life in ordinary scenes avoiding the monumental or the heroic, focusing instead on transient moments which are felt as more genuine though temporary.
In the Lightbox Upper Gallery, from 13 October 2018 to 6 January 2019, there is also the exhibition dedicated to Elizabeth Frink from the Ingram Collection, which displays her drawings, paintings and sculptures. The artist lived in Dorset and in London and expressed her art mainly in large sculptures representing masculinity in its courage but also violence and potential fragility. The war influenced her work with its uncertainties and destructions reflected in the figures of the fallen horses and in the heads, or in the ‘Spinning Man’, where the vulnerability of the subject is revealed in its slumped pose and in its stupor facing a possible end.
There are also talks, workshops and tours associated with these exhibitions at the Lightbox, giving to the public the opportunity to develop further their understanding of theses outstanding artists.
Impressionism: The Art of Life is displayed at the Lightbox until 13 January 2019
Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Le Salon c.1910, oil on card laid on canvas, 615 x 680mm. Image courtesy of The Henry Moore Foundation acquired 1984