Thursday, September 18, 2008

Inspiring Impressionism

Impressionist exhibits are the Nutcracker ballet of the art museum world - in other words, they're cash cows. Any decent broad-based, art-through-the ages institution, at least one that likes to think of itself as "world class", will throw out the obligatory impressionist show every three to five years and watch the crowds come in, people willingly handing over their cash who otherwise may never have darkened a museum's door. This allows the museum in turn to support the avant-garde exhibits that only museum members and art hipsters will patronize. Well, and also those few who come in with puzzlement creasing their brows as they peer from one room to the next, not sure if these art museums are really all they're cracked up to be.

That, at least, is the cynical take on Impressionism exhibitions. What was once revolutionary - so much so that the art establishment of the time didn't even consider it art - is now fodder for millions of posters, mugs, and refrigerator magnets gracing the homes of everyone from rural housewives to college freshmen. In this sense, Impressionism has become perhaps the most egalitarian art in the world. No one will think you a snob for liking Monet's waterlily paintings, but copies of Roman busts or post-modern multi-media collages may come across as a bit pretentious.

But what is it that makes Impressionism so enduringly popular? At the Seattle Art Museum's Inspiring Impressionism exhibit, which I visited tonight, I felt like I gained some insight into this phenomenon. And I got to see some beautiful paintings. After all, I enjoy the Impressionists, too.

I have to give credit to SAM for putting a new twist on the art of Impressionism exhibits. Attempting to show the inspiration that the Impressionists drew from the Old Masters - whether they admitted it or not - the show was a fascinating look at how these artists gave a new twist to old themes, and how they brought back even older themes that had become passe in art at the time, such as scenes from everyday life and landscape painting.

It was striking to see the similarities and differences juxtaposed. Usually museums are strictly categorized by style and era, often chronologically. Here the comparison of distinctly different styles gave one the ability to both look at the art with the benefit of distance between now and then, and to imagine oneself a peer of these artists as they came to the Louvre to copy the Old Masters. The older paintings were beautiful in their attention to detail and realism. But the Impressionists had their own take on reality, one where color and movement trumped discipline and detail. And while the Old Masters amaze us with their skill at composition and realism, the Impressionists shock us into seeing the vitality and color that surround us, even in everyday life.

This, at least, is my impression (bad pun, I know - sorry!). As any Art History 101 student knows, the rise of impressionism, giving way to the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Mondrian, coincides with the advent of the age of photography. What use was absolute realism in the face of the camera? A photograph was even more realistic, less expensive, and, eventually, accessible to the masses. What was the purpose of art at this point?

Maybe, if art could capture that exquisite fleeting moment when the sun glances off the river, when a mother takes her child into her lap, maybe it could speak to us in a way a photograph and even the Old Masters can't. With paint slapped on seemingly without effort and brilliant colors, no wonder we're excited by this art. It takes something so often seen as mundane, and allows us to see it as something fresh and new.

Two paintings in particular stood out to me after I left the exhibit. One was a Renoir, a scene of a couple leaning in towards each other, sitting in a garden beneath sun-dappled trees. Renoir perfectly captures the idea of clear summer light filtering through the leaves, reflecting off the woman's white dress. It's almost as if you can see the play of the sunbeams and feel their warmth.

The other painting I was drawn to was actually not one of the Impressionists', but a portrait in profile by Fragonard of a girl reading. Although painted a hundred years prior, I could see the foreshadowing of the Impressionist movement here. The large, flat strokes reminded me of Manet's work, and the girl's brilliant yellow dress and red pillow gave it a shock of color not seen in many of the other earlier paintings. And much like the Impressionists, that red pillow was not merely painted in red, but also blues and purples and streaks of white, giving it surprising depth.

This is, of course, only what I personally experienced. As to be expected on the last Thursday of a popular exhibit, the museum was fairly crowded, and I'm sure everyone had their own opinions. But is the fact that an exhibit is so popular really a bad thing? Isn't it good to have art that almost everyone can enjoy, and that gets people of all backgrounds into art museums? Cash cow though it may be, I don't think the allure of Impressionism is going to wane any time soon. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

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