French Impressionism has a remarkable and, it seems, endlessly renewable currency in contemporary museum culture. The recent show of Van Gogh nocturnes at MoMA spawned an agitated, gelatinous daily mob of fans, waiting their turn with timed-entry tickets poking from purpling fists like betting slips. Cezanne is presently packing the aisles with a show that sounds like a late sequel to a hit movie, Cezanne and Beyond, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the good people of Atlanta only have a month longer to wait before their High Museum unveils a temporary Monet Mecca, perfect for the summer. Truly, museum-goers could spend their days living entirely in the Gallic years 1860 to 1920, hopping around the world, straw-hatted, from one big revival to the next.
Courtesy Brooklyn Museum
French Impressionism is no more worthy of this deep a read as anything else, but a convocation of forces–the mediatised mania of smashed auction records during the Japanese boom of the late 1980s, as epitomized by the then-unthinkable forty million dollars paid in 1987 for Van Gogh’s Sunflowers; the increasingly secure global niche of Impressionist reproductions in middle-class homes; the way that the movement invariably appears as the opening chapter of any western history of modern art–means that the movement’s reign is unlikely to end anytime soon. I considered this in a gentle frame of mind at Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea at the Brooklyn Museum last week, and tried to figure out how to make this art mean something to our 21st-Century New York art brains.
Well, the patina of dust and the novelty of history (chaps in top hats and so forth) often distract us from the fact that the Impressionist movement was a small, organic milieu, a social scene, and it’s fruitful to remember it as such. The way their scene behaved is no different from the way the New York scene behaves now. Everyone was basically working with the same set of ideas and techniques. Artists pushed for innovation, a little bit of personal shine, which either did or didn’t stick. Rivals copied each other in ways both merciless and subliminal. The game was competitive and moved quickly.
And the work in Paris to the Sea expresses all this timeless hermetic social negotiation. Caillebotte has a go at all the hot tricks of the day. Here he freaks an otherwise straight rendering of a riverbank chateau by allowing the fronds of a tree to creep awkwardly over the left edge of the image, and though this is a particularly fine lesson–there’s portent in the way the leaves promise to gauze the scene like a cataract–this is Impressionist boilerplate. In hopes of lionizing the ideal of the snapshot–a pointed contrast with Neo-Classicism’s outdated austerity–clunky composition was something that all the crew wanted to try. Caillebotte dabs and splashes his brushstrokes across the canvas to capture the dappled effects of water, and it’s trancey and meditative and lyrical just like everyone else’s work. Picture a line of Impressionists standing on the bank of the Seine all day, squinting at the ripples.
There are moments when Caillebotte set himself apart, for better and worse. 1879-1881’s Boulevard Haussmann, Snow is a balcony view (another Impressionist favorite) of bustling downtown Paris. The artist tries to render the high-rise apartment’s snow-caked railing in thick, loaded brushstrokes, to build the stuff up as detailed, solid matter, and he shanks it. The effort is labored and the accumulation unnatural. Monet was the snow master, for he kept the stuff fluffy, recognizing that volume is not interchangeable with mass. Caillebotte’s attempt doesn’t sit right because pursuit of a hit painting led him to neglect his new subject’s physics.
1879’s Self-Portrait at the Easel, however, is an unqualified smash. It is a busy studio scene, with leaning canvases creating complicated axes throughout the picture plane. The background is covered by a large Renoir painting hanging on the wall, a scene within the scene, and Caillebotte’s version of a peer’s painting within his own has an amazing yield. It chips away at authorship, originality, friendship, and the pieties of collecting. It breaks and complicates the Impressionist scene’s rules of honesty and immediacy by extending them to make a brand new proposal. Seurat would carry this innovation to its logical conclusion nine years later with his Les Poseurs, a huge painting that bizarrely includes Seurat’s own previous masterpiece and all-time ultimate tea-towel reproduction, La Grande Jatte, at almost life size in its background. Two for the price of one looks a hundred years ahead of its time in 1887, and Caillebotte helped pave the way.
Caillebotte’s unique contribution to the scene, and his legacy from the Impressionist years, was a command of perspective. The artist was trained as an engineer, and he had a gift at massaging spatial scenarios into narratives. The balcony-view Traffic Island, Boulevard Haussman, 1880, is so perfectly, sparsely balanced as to look like an iconic staging of Beckett. The Park at The Caillebotte Property at Yerres, 1875, has a puckered bend built-in to the tableau, a subtle warping of straight lines into curves that makes the whole scene pivot, a swing of the head that speaks plainly of a particularly grand landscape and the eye’s desire to capture it all. And 1877’s The House Painters has a high single-point perspective that pings off into infinity once it’s past the characters in the foreground. Paris and the world, this dramatized hyperspace thrust forward into the picture suggests, is beginning to get bigger than even art can explain. And that, at least, is a very contemporary feeling.-Bones
Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea runs until July 5th. A certain awkwardness in public transportation access should not discourage you from visiting the Brooklyn Museum, since it feels like the Met without the tourists. In other words, it is absolutely wonderful. There’s inspiration to be found on all five floors.
Next week, Bones looks in on Andrew Kuo’s latest show, mid-run, at Taxter & Spengemann. T&S, a young gallery five years in, recently moved their operation from Chelsea to Union Square. Kuo is a jubilant, sarcastic, hard-working young artist who knows a lot of other young people. Bones does not know what to expect.