Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dangerous painting

To the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery for their Manet to Picasso exhibition, which is mostly their permanent collection on holiday in the new wing.

Impressionism is terribly unfashionable now. If it's not competing with Velazquez (see review below) and Holbein (at Tate Britain) for public adoration, it is coming in for ridicule because of its complete chocolate-boxing.

You can now get 'Sunflowers' on tea towels and 'Waterlilies' on mugs and most of Renoir on actual chocolate boxes. This process has distracted our attention from how wonderful and actually dangerous these paintings are.

This rehang is a perfect way of reminding us about why Impressionism was so important in the first place. After centuries of mythological representations and court portraits and grand public life scenes, the Impressionists followed Manet (1832-1883) in depicting the personal, the intimate, those below kings.

The show starts with Manet's 'Music in the Tuileries Gardens' (1862) alongside Menzel's 'Afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens' (1867), which illustrate the gulf between the traditional and Impressionist styles: Manet is much freer in his brushstrokes and is less concerned with edges, i.e. things are not as clearly defined as in Menzel's. Menzel's picture feels much more like a Constable. (That's not a compliment.)

The same room has Caillebotte's 'Man at his bath' (1884), which was shocking in its frankness - a male nude and an everyday scene. Unthinkable!

The second room was Monet, who is my passion, despite unwarranted notices about his 'cheesiness'. The sheer aesthetic pleasure to be derived from his paintings is unparalleled by anyone, but to see his pictures with their increasingly loose brushwork and disdain for exact representation is to become aware of how revolutionary they were.

This is the very disintegration of the image - painting no longer meant exact copying (as in the rest of the Nat); here it is really the impression (clever, eh?) which counts. The Impressionists' works were so shocking they had to stage their own show in Paris.

These paintings are dangerous because they rejected the dogma of Renaissance painting and struck out in a new direction; whereas we are now virtually vaccinated against shock at whatever art now has to offer, the Impressionists turned art on its head and rejected its past. Understanding this revolution is key to understanding the brilliance of Impressionism.

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