Culture Whisper Review: Inventing Impressionism ★★★★★
REVIEW: National Gallery, 'Inventing Impressionism': this art history show, as much about the market as the art, is a triumph and a joy.
Durand-Ruel’s acquisition was utter madness in 1872: a successful art dealer block buying unsellable works for a huge sum. Yet, it is a move that paved the way for Impressionism; a new way of seeing the world.
Impressionism is among the most familiar movements in art’s history. Its headliners are much-loved: Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, with Manet and Cezanne at either end. As such, it’s difficult to stage an Impressionist exhibition that says anything new.
The National Gallery have triumphed with Inventing Impression a show that communicates just how avant-garde the movement was to the Nineteenth Century eye. This exhibition reframes the painters, by looking behind the scenes at Durand-Ruel’s tireless campaign. This is no cheeky gimmick: it is one of the art market's most extraordinary stories. The gallery tells it chronologically, via key exhibitions organized by Durand-Ruel, of which each room roughly houses one: from Durand-Ruel’s first championing of Impressionism in the 1870s to the blockbuster 1905 Impressionist Exhibition in London.
What made the successful Durand-Ruel take the enormous risk of buying the maligned Manets, a collection now worth hundreds of millions? At the time, the Academie preferred polished, academic, historical pieces, and would only accept these into its bi-annual Salon: the chittering circus-ring where reputations were made.
Edouard Manet, The Salmon 1869 Shelburne museum, Shelburne, Vermont
The answer lies within this National Gallery show, where Manet is displayed as a Founding Father of Impressionism. His Salmon looks back at Seventeenth Century painting and Dutch still life, but is much looser. The brushstrokes, though rough, masterfully evoke the different textures: linen tablecloth, gleaming glassware, lemon wax and fish-scales. His Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne suggests the rushing of moon through clouds with a series of streaks, smears and dots. What Durand-Ruel saw was a new kind of expression.
The exhibition traces this impulse into Impressionism's hardcore. Works from Monet, Pissarro and Renoir hang as they would have done in the dealer's studio, in formative years of 1870-80. Composed en plein air, away from the creaking easel and stilled air of a studio, these sketchy paintings deal with light and movement as never before.
Renoir Torso, Sunlight Effect c.1876. Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
It isn't hard to see why the Academie rejected them. In room 6, devoted to Durand-Ruel's first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, Renoir's sensual Study: Torso, Sunlight Effect, neither idealises the female nude nor nature, as was the goal of Realism. Rather, the painting is an attempt to grasp a fleeting moment, as sunlight dapples over flesh. Unblended blues and greys on the forearm and under the breast are stroked next to flashes of white, suggesting shadows of leaves. This effect caused reactionary critic Albert Wolff to implore: "Try to explain to Monsieur Renoir that a woman's torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh".
Room 7 is devoted to Monet's 1883 and 1892 solo exhibitions: a rarely-seen concept championed by Durand-Ruel, that allowed visitors to watch an artist mature. Five of Monet's Poplars series, cleverly placed in sequence on a curved wall, are an arresting sight. The series was an attempt to render the instantaneous impression felt in front of nature, rather than reveal something eternal or ideal. Over 24 paintings, Monet painted a group of poplars from varying viewpoints on the bank of the Epte, implying changes of weather and seasons. These compositions are outstanding. Monet uses curves and diagonals to imply the shape of the land and strong vigorous brushwork for foliage. Seeing them together, you understand how strange they must have appeared to the Nineteenth Century art world.
Claude Monet Poplars in the Sun, 1891, National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo
It does not matter that the big cheeses of Impressionism are not here, that there are no waterlilies or haystacks. We do have some thrilling Degas, though. And in the final room, devoted to Durand-Ruel's 1905 exhibition in London, the largest Impressionist exhibition ever held, we're treated to the Bar at Folies-Bergere, Eva Gonzalez, Music in the Tuileries Gardens and Woman at her Toilette.
The powerful cornerstone of the exhibition is in the first room, where the National Gallery have recreated a door, with panels painted by Monet, that stood in Durand-Ruel's Grand Salon. There is a sense of the uncanny when you look at this arts and craftsy decoration: to see Monet's lavish lilies, chrysanthemums and azaleas twitching free from door panels.That such a traditional French drawing room, filled with chandeliers and Louis chairs, would have avant-garde art as part of its fabric, symbolises Durand-Ruel attempt to place this revolutionary work within French tradition. He was domesticising the very modern.
This exhibition is The National Gallery at its very best. Serious, well laid out and worthwhile, it isn't an Impressionism show for the sake of an Impressionism show, with a kooky angle to make it seem new. Whether or not he 'invented' the movement, Durand-Ruel's role was crucial; without his imagination and indefatigable promotion, the Impressionists would not have rocked the art world as they did.
Claude Monet, Durand-Ruel Commission