Making an Impression

In April 1874, a group of young French artists shunned by the art establishment held an exhibition in the former studio of the photographer Nadar on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The 165 pictures on display caused a furore, the artists were derisively labelled the “Impressionists” and the exhibition became the most famous show in the history of art. 

The first Impressionist exhibition has subsequently been heralded as marking the birth of modern art. It is a view that still holds sway though, of course, things are not that straightforward. Modern art as we now understand it is a 20th-century invention: the art of the 19th century was an organic creature, always growing out of what came before. For all their radicalism, that is true of Monet, Cézanne, Degas et al too.

Nevertheless, the Impressionists have come to be defined for what they were not — smooth, classically-inspired Salon painters — as much as what they were. It is, however, an alternative view that is put forward in Impressionism: A Modern Renaissance (January 14-April 22), at the handsome new galleries of the Fundación Mapfre in Madrid’s museum heartland. This exhibition suggests that the work of the Impressionists had more in common with that of their contemporaries than has usually been acknowledged, indeed that they were just one of many interlinked currents in late 19th-century art. 

Among the 90 paintings on show are ten Manets, nine Monets and a clutch of pictures by Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Pissarro and Courbet — an extraordinarily rich crop, the cream of the Musée d’Orsay in fact, on loan while that museum is being refurbished.

In order to make its case, the official end of the artistic spectrum is also on display in the form of once-celebrated Salon favourites such as Bouguereau and Meissonier (in the 1870s, the richest painter in France and the man Delacroix called “the incontestable master of our epoch”). Other outsider strands are present too, such as the Realists Courbet and Millet and the Symbolists Redon and Moreau. It’s a neat way of demonstrating that the us-against-them model of Impressionism is too reductionist by far.

Many of these clusters of artists shared similar themes and inspirations. There are, for instance, examples of women in domestic settings painted by Manet (Madame Manet au piano, 1868), Whistler (Arrangement in grey and black — “Whistler’s Mother”, 1871), Fantin-Latour (Victoria Dubourg, 1873): one subject and three diverse styles. Meissonier’s Siege of Paris, 1884, and Doré’s L’énigme, 1871, are two different interpretations of the disgrace of the Franco-Prussian war. Sunlight, clouds and fields were the stuff not just of Monet, Pissarro and Renoir but of Jean François Millet too. And so on.

Indeed, the real pleasure of the exhibition is twofold. First, in giving some of the less-heralded works of the period a brief place in the sun and, second, in demonstrating what imaginative curating can do. In finding new themes — the depiction of women, the influence of Spanish art, views of modern life among them — the organisers have shaken up the pot in a persuasive way. After all, the bulk of the works here are well known and have been exhaustively discussed but they emerge from this exhibition with a credible new historical role. It is curious that it has taken a holiday to Spain to do this. 

Another fresh look at a familiar artistic movement, Abstract Expressionism, is on offer at Tate Modern: Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective (February 10-May 3). Gorky was born in Armenia in 1904 before fleeing the 1915 massacres and ending up in America in 1920. Once there, he set about creating an extraordinarily varied and influential body of work.

Because he was largely self-taught his paintings contain a wide range of references, from Ingres, Cézanne and Picasso through Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. What links them is an intense lyricism that permeates both his figurative and abstract paintings. Given his personal history it is tempting to see in them both nostalgia and tragedy too. Not only had the young Gorky been abandoned by his father, watched his mother die of starvation and been forced into exile, but his later life was unlucky, too. He suffered from cancer, had his neck broken in a car crash and his wife left him, taking their children with her. Small wonder he hanged himself at the age of 44. 

About 150 works will be on display in this, the first major European retrospective for 20 years, including many of the pieces that helped shape the American avant-garde. There might have been even more, but in yet another slice of malign luck he lost a large slice of his work in a studio fire in 1946.

That same year also marked the death of the English Surrealist and landscapist Paul Nash. His work is the subject of a choice exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery: Paul Nash: The Elements (February 10-May 9). This overview of his career has been prompted by the recent cataloguing of the Gallery’s British collection and offers the chance to see some rarely-exhibited paintings, drawings and photographs.

Nash made his name with the war paintings he made on being invalided home after falling into a trench near Ypres — paintings he hoped would convey the futility of the conflict to those directing affairs: “Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls,” he wrote. In paintings such as Totes Meer, he portrayed war as an elemental battle and he later infused his landscapes, especially those of the Downs, with a sweeter version of the same overarching nature mysticism. 

Nash has always been an undervalued artist — too distinctively English to achieve international status perhaps — but here is an opportunity to prove that he deserves a place among his showier European peers. 

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