Thursday 23rd April 2015
By focusing on the role of an art dealer in creating a market for one of the most radical and innovatory European art movements, a new National Gallery exhibition makes a travesty of its cultural importance, says CHRISTINE LINDEY
The NATIONAL Gallery’s Inventing Impressionism exhibition bears the subtitle Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market and it certainly lives up to it as a celebration of a dealer rather than an exploration of the intentions and aesthetics of the artists whose works he bought and sold.
As “the man who sold 1,000 Monets,” Durand-Ruel is presented with quasi-religious fervour as a selfless art-lover who almost bankrupted himself by taking bold entrepreneurial risks which saved innovatory artists from immiseration.
The gallery’s first room reconstructs part of the dealer’s luxurious Paris apartment with a recreation of its door panels commissioned from Claude Monet, along with two antique chairs and a life-size photograph of its lavishly appointed grand salon stuffed with furniture and paintings.
Some of the latter are exhibited, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s commissioned portraits of Durand-Ruel and his family. Hardly the home of a bankrupt yet, in 1882 when he moved there, he complained of financial difficulties.
Durand-Ruel did buy, sell and champion Impressionism. But by reframing the artists’ relationship with the public through that of a single dealer’s purported benevolence, the exhibition ignores the wider context of 19th-century patronage. An important development in the period was that artists, including Jacques-Louis David, Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, challenged the power of jury-led institutional exhibitions like the Salon by seeking to control sales and access to their publics by organising their own exhibitions.
To that end in 1874, Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Edouard Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cezanne and others formed a co-operative joint stock company with a constitution written by the socialist Pissarro based on that of a baker’s co-operative.
A critic accused Monet of mere “impressionism,” the name stuck and they organised seven more group exhibitions.
Far from describing this radical and democratic innovation, the National’s exhibition only mentions it to praise Durand-Ruel for renting the Impressionists his gallery space for their second exhibition and for putting “his commercial expertise at their disposal” so that their name was henceforth linked to his.
A lack of contextualisation also aggrandises Durand-Ruel’s pioneering marketing ploys. Yet he was one of several dealers in the late-19th century to displace the prestige of institutional exhibitions — attended by socially mixed crowds — by creating lavishly appointed exclusive commercial galleries in which to flatter upper-middle-class buyers in a competitive market.
So why bother visiting this revisionist paean to an entrepreneur? Because the exhibition is bursting with amazing paintings borrowed from major public and private collections globally. These allow the creation of stunning and rare displays, including a partial rehanging of works originally exhibited in 1905 in London’s sumptuous Grafton Galleries, whose radical modernism so shocked, disgusted or thrilled its British audience.
Five of Monet’s Poplars on the Epte, painted at different times of day and months, are also reunited to partially recreate the original display of the series in 1891. Quick energetic brush marks convey the rustle of leaves and scuttling clouds as these wind-breaker trees patiently endure the wind’s repeated assaults.
Similarly composed by contrasting the sinuousness of the trees’ massed foliage silhouetted against the regularity of their erect trunks, the paintings differ according to effects of light.
Widespread reproduction and appropriation by advertising and merchandising over a century have devalued Impressionism’s revolutionary aesthetic and social content, by presenting it through a misty nostalgia for a bourgeois past which most people would not have shared.
The Impressionists shocked because they were realists, depicting the realities of modern life which their contemporaries considered to be ugly or boringly mundane. An example is Morisot’s Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry.
By arguably the most technically radical Impressionist, it subverted every dominant aesthetic criterion. Composed asymmetrically, it represents a quotidian subject with wild and sweeping brush-marks, devoid of narrative and set in a decidedly non-picturesque suburban landscape.
The Impressionists’ shimmering river scenes included suburban factories and utilitarian iron bridges, long frilly dresses were contemporary clothes, steam trains and river barges modern polluting means of transport and electric-lit city boulevards recent inventions.
Where “academic” criteria called for idealised, exotic or picturesque narratives rendered in highly polished invisible brushwork — which suppressed all evidence of a painting’s means of production — the Impressionists’ informal compositions and rough surfaces were seen as unfinished daubs recalling preparatory sketches.
Exhibiting then was tantamount to public exposure of one’s dirty linen.
Thus presenting Impressionism as the courageous invention of an entrepreneur, as this exhibition does, is a travesty of its cultural importance.
Understanding art in the context of its patronage and institutions of display is important but sanctifying a single dealer who enriched himself through financial speculation and commodification of art contributes little to a critical evaluation of the social function of the art market.
Having gathered these amazing paintings, an exploration of their aesthetic and social radicalism would have produced a far more fascinating and progressive exhibition.
Inventing Impressionism runs at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until May 31, box office: nationalgallery.org.uk.