In the final gallery of Tate Britain’s current exhibition, Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile (1870-1904), we see the largest grouping of this series – six in total – for the first time in Europe for over 40 years.
The effect is simply breathtaking. The Thames, Charring Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and The Houses of Parliament, shrouded in fog, dappled sunlight and shadow emerge majestically from their ornate, gilt frames. No time is enough time to fully take in their beauty.
But, unfortunately, they are the last chapter of a meandering and overtly lacklustre, scholarly narrative that leaves you gasping for distraction. By the time you reach them, patience has dwindled. The Tate Britain cafe beckons.
James Tissot (1836-1902), The Ball on Shipboard c.1874 Tate. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1937
It's a shame, for this exposé of an overlooked chapter in the Impressionist story should be light and buoyant. Instead, we are served a weighty academic time-line on the social history of French émigré artists – including Monet, Pissarro and Sisley – during the bloody Franco-Prussian war and the years that followed as exiles in London.
With that said, the exhibition gets off to a good start. An overture of works detailing the harrowing and bloody first-hand experiences of the ‘Terrible Year’ (1871) strike a chord. Working as a stretcher-bearer in the National Guard during the war, James Tissot's insightful watercolours are among the most sensitive and engaging in the exhibition.
Having witnessed blood-shed on the streets, the dark interiors of makeshift hospital wards, and countless executions as the Paris Commune fell, these watercolours are raw and boldly honest. The sullen, helpless expression of the injured man in The Wounded Soldier, c.1870, bears witness to Tissot's suffering. Its fragile beauty haunts. No sensationalising here.
The exhibition changes tempo as it begins to explore the artistic networks the French Impressionist émigrés built in Britain and the aesthetic impact of London’s architecture, parks, and infamous fog on their works.
Camille Pissarro, Kew Green, 1892
Tissot's society parties, frolicking ladies in ball gowns, and an afternoon dance on the royal frigate HMS Ariadne fringed with bunting take over an entire gallery. Their frivolous subject matter provides a strong contrast to his watercolours. Seeking refuge in London, the artist mingled with British high society after making firm friends with Vanity Fair Editor, Thomas Gibson Bowles. These oils provide a joyful insight into the lavish, lifestyle Tissot became accustomed to in the British capital. Camille Pissarro’s magnificent Kew Green, 1892, which depicts a quintessential British cricket match, evokes a subtle nostalgia of a simpler time gone by.
But there’s a small glitch in this picture-perfect narrative. The A-list of French Impressionists that we have come to know and love as founders of the movement, including Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, never permanently relocated to London. As a result, the middle section of the exhibition is dedicated to the mediocrities of Alphonse Legros, the sculptor Jules Dalou and the celebrated sculptor of the Second Empire, Jean-Baptiste Carpeau. Welcomed with open arms by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites, their art could not be further in aesthetic from the Impressionists. The title of this show suddenly seems a little misleading.
Alfred Sisley, Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, Morning, 1874
The exhibition starts well and finishes with an impressive bang. We might recommend making a beeline for the first and last rooms, hastening the pace in between.
It would seem impossible to make the Impressionists dull. But, despite flashes of brilliance, it seems Tate Britain has achieved this with flying colours.
|What||Impressionists in London, Tate Britain, review|
|Where||Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Pimlico (underground)|
02 Nov 17 – 07 May 18, Friday 1 December 2017 until 22.00
|Price||£19.50, Concession £17.50, Under 12s Free|
|Website||Click here for more information|