Impressionism: an Opinion
by Miles Mathis
In the last 140 years or so a river of ink has flowed to inform us about Impressionism. Most of this ink has come from pens that were, or claimed to be, scholarly. We have been educated about the artists, their theories, the theories of their writer-friends, and the theories of writers who were the friends of no-one. Therefore, when I was asked to write this column on Impressionism, I thought, "My god, what is left to say?" As a scholar, I have very little to add. As an artist, all I have is my opinion. Hopefully my opinion will contain a small nut of new information regarding this topic, making your reading of it worthwhile.
I will start by discussing the broader theory of Impressionism and then focus on specific artists. We have been told that the Impressionists were progressive and that Impressionism led inexorably to Modernism. Is this true? No. Impressionism evolved out of Realism—the Realism of Courbet and Manet, specifically, which was a reaction to the Classicism or Neo-classicism of David and Ingres. Realism was different than Classicism, but it was neither more nor less progressive politically. Nor was it progressive in the sense that it was an "advance." It was a slightly new recombination, a new leaf on the tree, but hardly more than that. Artists had painted loose before. Look at Gainsborough. Artists had painted flat before, they had painted with high chroma, etc. In the beginning, Monet was trying to be like Corot and Manet was trying to be like Velasquez and Degas was trying to be like Courbet. No one was thinking of being progressive.
Some may say, "Ah, but a few of these men were Communards. Some died in defending the Paris Commune in 1871." Yes, but this was the Paris Commune, not the Commune of Karl Marx. Men like Courbet—who was arrested as a Communard—were Republicans: meaning that they were anti-Royalists, anti-Empire. They would not be considered progressive by modern standards. Their views on art, on government, on women, on equality, were strictly old-school. They believed in hierarchy, tradition, nationalism, hard work, patriarchy, etc. And many of the Impressionists were not even progressive by the standards of the day. Degas was anti-Dreyfus (a Jew), openly misogynist, and so on. My point being that none of these artists, even the most Republican, would understand what has happened to the world in the 20th century, either in art or in socio-politics. If they understood it, they would despise it.
As for Impressionism giving the clue to Modernism, the artists themselves had no such intention. Not even the post-Impressionists, like Van Gogh, Cezanne or Gauguin, have anything in common with modern theory. The reason: none of them were formalists. That is, none of them were painting in order to call attention to forms. They used forms in slightly different ways, it is true, but the forms were always a means to an end, never an end in themselves. Modernism made an intellectual interest in forms the centerpiece of its theory, but pre-Modern artists were never intellectuals, in this sense. They simply did not paint for that reason.
Modernism was created by writers like Clive Bell, who was probably the first to misunderstand Cezanne on a wide public level. It was this misunderstanding that led to Modernism, not anything the Impressionists or post-Impressionists ever said or did. Bell's success among the intellectuals led to the success of Roger Fry soon thereafter, and then the Steins, and finally Clement Greenberg. This empowerment of writers and intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century led to the eventual downfall and near extinction of the artist. By mid-century the artist was little more than an illustrator of theory, a pawn of the various administrators of art. He still hold that position.
So you can see that the history of art since Impressionism has been written by the winners. The writers and scholars have reinterpreted the last 150 years to look like predestined steps in an inexorable march of progress. The Impressionists were just setting the stage for the wonders of the 20th century. But this is agitprop, transparent as glass. It could not be more false, or more easy to disprove. Anyone who looks at the works themselves can see that Impressionist paintings are not at all like Modern or postmodern paintings. They are different in form, and even more in intention. In both form and intention they are very like Classical paintings. They have a subject, and forms are used in service of that subject. The subject of the Realists and Impressionists is the contemporary world rather than the classical world or idealized world. But it is the world. It is recognisable, and is more emotional than intellectual. In fact, Realism and Impressionism and Post-Impressionism are all more emotional than Classicism, not less. This puts them even further away from the intellectualizations of Modern theory.
Many of these artists (Renoir, Van Gogh, and so on) were influenced by Delacroix, another antagonist to Ingres. The difference between Ingres and Delacroix can be boiled down to the difference between Nietzsche's Apollonian and Dionysian, where Ingres is the cool detachment of Apollo and Delacroix is the roiling emotion and coloration of Dionysus. Modernism is neither Apollonian nor Dionysian, since Apollo and Dionysus are both classical constructs and Modernism is wholly anti-classical. But the dry intellectualism of Modernism is obviously closer to the anti-emotionalism of Apollo and Ingres. This makes the proposed connection between Impressionism and Modernism all that more absurd. Not one of the Impresssionists, except maybe Seurat, would have comprehended the artistic intent of Modernism. It would seem to them a sacrilege far beyond the timidities of Ingres.
Now let us move on to individual Impressionists. I will start with Seurat, since he just popped his head in in the last paragaph. Seurat is my least favorite Impressionist, as you might guess from my comments above. He is the only one that has any real connection to Modernism, since he was interested in a sort of scientific methodology. He was not a highly creative individual, so he made up for this by substituting method for content. In current terms, he was a wonk. Modern artists are very like Seurat, in this sense. Having very small creative talents, they substitute instead the talents they have: PR, acting (manufacturing pathology), talking, getting their picture taken, etc. Their biggest talent has been making the right acquaintances with writers and administrators, who can talk and write for them. This completely nullifies the necessity of creating anything interesting. If you can make the newspaper by doing nothing, why go to any trouble? At least Seurat actually covered some canvases with paint.
Monet is probably the most famous Impressionist. He is the one who is really an "Impressionist," since the term was coined from one of his paintings. Some of the other Impressionists, like Degas and Renoir, were not too happy with the title. They didn't consider their paintings "impressions" at all. Personally, I like Monet's least famous paintings the most and like his most famous paintings the least. His best paintings, in my opinion, are the early ones, before he became a colorist. There is a snow scene in the Louvre that is topnotch. And several others in various collections are also fabulous—moody and perfectly modulated. They have a certain ineffable subtlety, like a Corot or an Inness. His later work seems sloppy to me. It has lost its focus, and he seems to have fallen into a technical trap. Due to his fame, the technique becomes more important than the impression, and he pushes dangerously close to a dry—though highly colored—formalism. This should have been a warning to future artists not to become obsessed with the paint itself. But of course it was taken in exactly the opposite way. Monet, like Sargent, was seen by followers to be encouraging an abstract realism. And in a way they were. Sargent said something to the effect that it is not what you paint but how you paint it. In his Broadway days he would set his easel down willynilly and begin painting whatever his eye fell upon. This is undeniably the road to abstraction, but Sargent did not follow it. What he did and said were two different things. He tried to appear avant but (thankfully) did not have the stomach for it. Monet did not have the stomach for it either, though he wandered down the road a bit further than Sargent. He ended up in a sort of lilypad morass and then gave it up as a bad job. Would that the 20th century had learned from his misstep.
Manet is likely the most misunderstood of the Impressionists. His connection to them was always tenuous. A Manet and a Monet don't have much in common, neither in subject matter nor paint quality nor composition nor intent. Manet painted figures, usually in low color and high contrast, with simple backgrounds. He was therefore anti-Delacroix. But he was anti-Ingres, too, since he did not care much about finish or about the purity of his line. He was finally un-French, falling as he did outside the whole Delacroix/Ingres argument. He was not a Realist, either, not in the sense that Courbet was. His compositions were not really natural at all, and not especially contemporary. He accepted classical technique, for the most part, but was not interested in their subject matter. As I have said before, he came right out of Velasquez. It is therefore no wonder that no one knew what to do with him. No one has ever figured out what to do with him. The Moderns have tried to claim him, but he is not a formalist in the modern sense. He is a formalist only in the Whistlerian sense: meaning that he believed that forms should be at the service of a visual and emotional effect, not a literary or political effect. But he would never have claimed that forms could, or should, stand alone; or that they were interesting in themselves.
Degas is another Impressionist who sheds everything the Moderns have said about him like a duck sheds water. He was always primarily interested in subject. That is why he is so famous for his subjects: ballerinas, whores, bathers. There is no artist in history who was more keenly interested in his subject matter. To try to make Degas a pre-formalist takes an incredible amount of presumption or ignorance, and probably both. Technically, Degas came right out of Ingres and Courbet. Early on he borrowed from both and admired both. But he saw fairly quickly that he hadn't the talent for large-scale works that they had. He didn't have the ambition, either. He was financially comfortable from an early age, and didn't need to be famous or to get rich. He was therefore free to dabble, and that is what he was-- a talented dabbler. Under such undisciplined circumstances, technique tends to deconstruct, in any milieu. Degas' technique unravelled. A high percentage of his drawings and paintings are bad reproductions of bad photos. A small percentage are successful experiments with color and mood. Some of his bathers are charming and brilliantly subtle. His ballerinas likewise. Most of his lithographs and sculptures are amateurish and clumsy. They would not be worth a sou without his name on them. And again, the Moderns learned more from his mistakes and failures than from his successes. They learned that a few good works can leaven the whole lump. Get famous and every doodle becomes a masterpiece.
Finally, I can't resist saying a few words about Van Gogh. Van Gogh, like Manet, really exists in the margins of Impressionsim. But he has somehow reached a fame that outstrips everyone. Does he deserve it? I don't know that anyone deserves 87 million for a painting, but that is beside the point since the check was not made out to him. In a world where a man gets two million for winning a weekend golf tournament, or twenty million for driving a major corporation into the ground, Van Gogh is actually undervalued. As regards his stature among other artists, it is difficult to compare him to Michelangelo or Titian, but it would be hard to find a more emotionally powerful work, of any size, than Starry Night.
leads me to my summation. Van Gogh,
like all the artists I have mentioned here, was interested in subject and
emotion. This puts him at the furthest
remove from Modernism. Starry Night
exists 180 degrees away from formalism.
Try to imagine Van Gogh, a man who was in love with the mud on old boots
and the smell of pipe tobacco and the sticky leaves on the young fruit trees,
try to imagine him ever becoming an abstract painter. If you can do it, there is something seriously wrong with
you. Van Gogh would not have listened
to postmodern theorizing for five seconds before he flew out of his chair and
went outside to break something. Making
Van Gogh a precursor of Duchamp or Twombly or Warhol or any of the rest is like
making Emily Dickinson the mentor of Madonna.
Modernism didn't evolve out of Whistler or Manet or Cezanne or Van Gogh
or anyone else. It was born from the
confused mind of the critic, and has spread like kudzu in the minds of critics
ever since. The Impressionists, like
all true artists before and after them, could not have understood the concept
of a "Modern painting," since the two words, defined as they have
been, are mutually exclusive. According
to the critics, a Modern painting has been and must be the visual
representation of an idea. For artists,
a painting is and must forever be the visual representation of a subject—a
tangible thing or set of things that then causes feelings and emotions. You can no more paint an idea than you can
paint a brainwave. Even the
representation of a brainwave, as on an oscilloscope, cannot possibly stand as
an artistic statement, since it does not supply the viewer with any emotional
information. A Modern painting was an
oxymoron from the beginning, which is why we don't see them anymore. Art history has moved on to videos and
installations and concept pieces, some of which are at least the outlines of
potential artworks, if we could find an artist of talent and ability to flesh
them out. But, once again, an idea does
not make a work of art, anymore than a wish makes a reality. I can draw a bad thumbnail sketch of heaven,
but that does not make me an angel. As
Van Gogh might have said, "better a perfectly executed painting of a
single brick, on the back of a napkin, than a poorly conceived depiction of the
celestial vault, painted on the wall of the mightiest temple."
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