Usually I read reviews after I read a book , see a play or view an exhibit. However, I was interested in the show now departing the AGO so chanced to check it out in the papers months ago. Usually when one thinks of Impressionism, there are thoughts of bright colours, Monet’s waterlilies, dashing artists, cafes, stirring landscapes, pointillism, outdoor enjoyments. This particular exhibit takes a different tact, usually forgotten or dismissed by the viewer: the impact of technology, dislocation, and postwar trauma on artistic development.
Set up clearly from the beginning, Impressionism is put into immediate context as the curators list the major factors effecting the evolution of the trend : the Franco- Prussian war, the Paris Commune; George’s-Eugene Haussmann’s plan for modernization, and all the consequences of moving from an agricultural city to a boom town economy: which includes a reorganization of classes. To allow manufactured goods and raw materials to enter Paris by steam boat, the Seine had to be widened and deepened. Smokestacks, trains and train stations, barges and the accompanying disruption occurred. Not surprisingly, anarchy, the rise of unions, the beginnings of the metro, terrorism and even a feminist newspaper by Marguerite Duran accompanied the massive shift. This was the time of the Eiffel Tower, the Opera, the Worlds Fair, the box camera and the birth of cinema. To maintain and facilitate change, the worker class erupted documented in paintings of laundresses, shop girls and dock workers , these labourers strongly contrasted to pretty boys lolling in the countryside with prostitutes such as in Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe or Seurat’s Afternoon At La Grande Jatte of colourful apparently insouciant views of relaxing by the water.
Perhaps one thinks of the joys of those days because the artists experimenting with pointillism were not darkening their canvases with black pigment, only greying their colours with complements, appropriating a new Japanese perspective or rejecting stock scenes for painting en pleine air as the Barbizon school did. But looking more closely as for example in La Grande Jatte or Les Poseurs, again by Seurat, there is the presence of industry , and the scenes of resting people are exhausted seeking respite from their days of deadening work.
Seurat makes the labourers the subject of his work. Previously many of the artists of the day such as Claude Monet focused on the imagery of bridges or trains as the pervasive topic, for example in Arrival of Normandy Train , Gare- St. Lazare, or Henri Ottmann’s Luxembourg Station with its 10 tracks of trains or Gustave Caillebotte’s The Seine and the Railroad Bridge At Argentenuil , all presenting a visual analogy of the immense change occurring in the country. In Caillebotte’s, strong horizontal lines of the approaching train at Argentenuil appear unstoppable, contrasted with broken horizontal waves slowly lapping beneath the bridge. In another of Caillebotte’s , The Argentenuil Bridge and the Seine repeats that feeling of the inevitability of technology overpowering nature, the strong steel patterns of the bridge dominating the loose strokes of water over which the bridge casts a dark shadow.In 1830 there were 22 kilometres of train tracks, by 1876- 22,673. Photos in the exhibit by August Hyppolyte- Collad, Baldus augment the paintings and document the shifts.
George’s Espagnet, JamesTissot, Eugene Boudin and others glimpse the new middle class neatly attired in fashionable furs or boasting bowler hats, umbrellas, parasols…This class of people might spend 6 hours on the train to reach a spot for sea bathing, touted as beneficial for one’s health. These diversions from work into a colourful world of leisure are not the ones usually associated by many when the word Impressionism comes to mind .
A tiny painting by Georges Seurat of The Eiffel Tower confirms this notion with his colourful dots and the upward thrust of the iconic tower that suggests movement, colour and a positive approach to these days of turmoil. But this approach for Seurat, who died at 32, in his studies of workers at Asnieres , bestows dignity and respect to his beleaguered class of labourers, Seurat even believing each painted dot was a kind of democracy, equally sized to the one beside it on the canvas. A large painting by Tissot is quixotic as well, charming as a product of this new world, as a shop girl, almost seductively welcomes with a smile, passerbys to purchase a plethora of manufactured goods. Other artists depict workers as faceless nondescript, backdrops or part of the industrial scene. Even a piece by Van Gogh in Factories At Clichy dwarfs his two people in his well known blowing landscape, barely recognizable as part of the contemporary scene of this power of industry.
Edouard Vuillard , a member of the Nabi group, often like his colleagues associated with bright pure colour, presents a lithograph of a street scene in Street One Rainy Evening,1895 in which the dark silhouettes of carriages obscure a blurry image of a woman in the corner. The feeling is full of foreboding, ominous. As well, Monet associated with catching the change of luminous light on churches, haystacks and waterlilies gives us The Coalmen,1840, in this show, with indistinct greens, repetitive wooden ramps that connect a ship to the shore as the coalmen like automatons toil up and down for hours.
Paul Signac, politically considered an anachist presents The Wreckers, reminiscent of the mythical golem, part men, part inanimate matter, destroyers yet creators of a new order. And Maximilien Luce exhibits the machinery of cranes, carts, construction workers along with horses and sand quarries in his works. In an violent burst of colour in The Steelworks , factory workers are the onlookers, mere silhouettes to an explosion, staring into a mighty furnace, Marxist philosophy of the downtrodden writ large. Similarly Jean- Francois Rafaelli’s The Return of The Ragpickers gives homage to the displaced souls collecting the debris of manufactured goods, leftovers and scraps discarded by this new society. But equally, Raffaelli has rendered them monumental, ascribing the men dignity much like Chagall’s wandering Jews.
Although the movement of Impressionism grows in a particular time and place, it is foremost an artistic turning point from previous realistic genre works of mythology, religion and portraiture.Felix Braquemond concern with movement, light and sensation is inspired and built on J.M.W. Turner’s explorations with the impact of wind , rain , light and motion on people in their environment. And Camille Pissarro’s scenes of The Factory Near Pontoise, 1873 lose their humanity for the sake of harmony that connotes the influence of Paul Cezanne’s basic shapes of square, circle , rectangle and triangle; the result being quite pretty unlike other depictions by Alfred Sisley or Armand Guillaumin of greyed dirty water, corrupted beige ground, railways pushed to the edges of houses and intruding into their midst.
It is a fascinating exhibit, especially for those who have lauded the flowers and pretty poetic scenes we’ve come to associate with Impressionism. It’s important to know the context, the disruption of one way of life as it made way for a world of transit, dependency on trains and ships that brought fancy finished goods to the door. Ironically, a painting of Notre Dame by the water is also included in this show- of course, before the fire two weeks ago. It’s a sad echo of times past, yet its endurance reminds us of another world, obviously not better or easier, just different : with its own pleasures, rewards, brilliance and hardships. Impressionism in the Age of Industry changes our perspective, enriching it with understanding of the meaning behind the waterlilies, the sunlit reverie of the newly formed classes and the background development of an art movement that would endure.