Impressionists at the Albertina

A style in focus: techniques, artist, and meaning

On The Town | Sarah Cormack | October 2009

Once again, the Albertina – justifiably renowned as housing one of the most important graphic collections in Europe – has mounted an exhibition devoted to … painting.

This time the emphasis is not, as before, on the works of an individual artist (Edvard Munch in 2003, Vincent van Gogh in 2008, Gerhard Richter in 2009), but to "Impressionism"; sure to be a crowd-pleaser, if not a blockbuster.

The show, containing some 130 works by such luminaries as Courbet, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Caillebotte, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, van Gogh, Sisley, Seurat, and Signac, was previously on view at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and Fondation Corboud, Cologne (from whose collections the majority of the works derive), and the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, before opening at the Albertina on Sept. 11, where it will remain until Jan. 10, 2010.

The very first room reveals the exhibition’s didactic focus: paintings such as Berthe Morisot’s "The Harbour at Nice" (1881/82) – a sailboat at anchor in mid-harbour, afloat in water composed of hasty zig-zag brushstrokes which allow the undercoat to show through – reveal how Impressionists had to "unlearn" what was being taught in the academies, and instead concentrated on painting what they saw. Opposite, another wall is devoted to winter landscapes, like that of Maxime Maufra – snowy roads and meadows marked by the gray-browns of barren trees and buried barns. In snow and water the Impressionists found opportunities to experiment with reflected colors and changing shadows.

Thus, from the outset, the validity of "Impressionism" as a moniker for such diverse artists as Manet and Signac is sidestepped in favor of the themes that link the various works. Subtitled "Painting Light: The Hidden Techniques of the Impressionists," the exhibit asks a series of questions: "What Is an Impression?", "What did the Impressionists Paint With?", "Inside or Outside?" and "Spontaneous or Strategic?"

By the end, the answers seem within reach.

Large areas of the exhibition rooms are devoted to interesting and informative displays projected on the walls. In one room, for example, a reproduction of an academic artist’s studio highlights how far Impressionist painters would later diverge from traditional practice. The formally composed and illusionistic painting of Sappho (1867) by Charles Gleyre on view is a perfect example of the traditional academic practice: a preliminary sketch, created in the studio with a live model, which was then worked up into the completed composition. Rejecting the restrictions inherent in this practice, the Impressionists, armed with tubes of paints, folding easels for use in the field, and portable paint boxes new at the time, often headed out into the countryside to record their immediate responses to the world around them.

Moreover, in the third room, an end wall is devoted to reproductions of what the annual academic exhibition – the "Salon" – would have looked like: row upon row of paintings from floor to ceiling in heavy Baroque frames, the subjects the traditional historical scenes and portraits of uniformed worthies. Impressionists chose instead simpler white, undecorated frames that deferred to the natural scenes they were painting. But nature in its wild or uncontrolled form was not necessarily the only subject the Impressionists valued. As Zola wrote about Monet in 1868, "he has a special fondness for nature that has received a modern guise through the hand of man."

The question "What Is an Impression?" is amply answered early on, with works by Pissaro and Monet, and a useful area explicating the artists’ application of theories of color and light. In "The Seine at Asnières" (1873), with its shadowed foreground and light-drenched background, Monet dramatically captures an atmospheric moment (even though analysis now reveals that it was almost certainly painted over a period of some time), while in his "House Among the Roses" (1925) the flowers burst forth along the path in a bravura of free brush strokes, with the almost chalk-like density of color of his later works.

At the pre-opening viewing, huge photo-panels of Impressionists at work were still being mounted at last minute by the museum staff, with curators pointing out the exact placement of wall texts – an unusual and welcome insight into the intricate preparation involved in mounting an exhibition of this scale.

These early photographs show artists at the easel, a glimpse of Cézanne or Renoir en plein air - bearded and be-smocked, earnestly at work. Other exhibits reveal how new developments in pigments not only facilitated this plein air technique, but also encouraged daring experiments in colour.  This is particularly clear in works by Signac and Théo van Rysselberghe, whose 1895 study, "Saint Tropez" records a view of pines along a sandy Riviera cliff walk using broad strokes of purple shadow in stunning juxtaposition with shimmering blue water and sky, and vibrant yellow where the afternoon sun sets the distant hillsides ablaze. It was recently revealed that this remarkable work was painted on the lid of a cigar box. Necessity, the mother of invention?

Greater understanding of the Impressionists’ color palette helped reveal during preparation for the exhibition that the "Bank of the Seine at Port-Villez", believed to have been painted by Monet in 1885, and identical to an earlier piece of the same title, is in fact a forgery, copied probably by an amateur artist (in England) from a reproduction published in a journal.

From here, drenched with color, the visitor proceeds to a small, dark room which throbs with the energy of Degas’ pastel sketches of dancers, ephemeral and spontaneous works.

Another theme, "Spontaneous or Strategic?" seeks to unveil the secrets behind the effects of effortlessness, of momentary visual impressions, using infrared reflectograms displayed alongside the original works of art.

These images reveal, for example, precisely how Manet achieved such exquisite luminosity in the asparagus tips in his "Asparagus Still Life" (1880) (the answer: consistently wet-in-wet applications of pure color, unmixed, onto the canvas). Infrared reflectograms also reveal changes in composition undertaken after a painting had been started, for example Gustave Caillebotte’s "Boats and Shed on the Banks of the Seine" (1891), where underdrawing shows changes in design.

Others were not as spontaneous as we might believe: mapping lines, exposed via infrared, impose an almost Renaissance approach to perspective on Léo Gausson’s "Rue des Étuves in Lagny-sur-Marne" (1885). The autodidact Van Gogh, in particular, also relied on a grid stretched across his canvas to help him compose his imagery, and even used skeins of different colored wools in order to see how the various pigments would appear juxtaposed in paint. In contrast to these practices, even such a large-scale canvas as Caillebotte’s "Laundry Drying on the Banks of the Seine" (ca. 1892) (105.5 x 150 cm.) is now shown to have indeed been painted directly in front of the scene itself. The evidence? A poplar bud, from one of the trees depicted, embedded in an impasto layer of paint. Such scientific investigations have also uncovered grains of sand fixed in certain Impressionist marine scenes. One can almost smell the sea air.

Ultimately, however, this is an exhibit to be enjoyed, the works a pure pleasure to the eye. There are some little known gems: Manet’s "Portrait of Jeanne Duval" (1862) (on loan from the Szépmúvészeti Múzeum, Budapest) develops the image of Baudelaire’s mistress from a traditional preliminary sketch into a masterpiece of expressive, freely applied brushstrokes, brilliantly applied in the diaphanous lace curtain behind the subject. Mlle. Duval, surrounded by a voluminous crinoline, leans back nonchalantly, her leg extended towards the viewer and her face decidedly un-idealized, revealing Manet’s debt to Realism.

There are also some unexpected surprises: one vitrine contains a young girl’s worn, pink silk ballet slipper, owned by Degas, while another holds his small wire-rimmed spectacles. Also on display is the paint palette used by the Neo-Impressionist Seurat, indicating that he did indeed mix colors on the palette.

Other highlights include paintings by Paul Gauguin, showing his move away from a dark color palette, through a phase of studied Impressionism, before finally arriving at his signature style of flattened areas of unmodulated color and dark outlining of objects. This final phase is brilliantly on display in the little-known "Breton Boy", painted in 1889 while Gauguin was the leading light of the Pont-Aven school in Brittany.

There are also some infelicitous clangers: late in the exhibition, a large room is dominated by Maximilien Luce’s monumental "Notre-Dame, View from Quai Saint-Michel" (1901-04). This painting reveals just how awkward the "pointillist" technique could become in the hands of a less competent artist than Seurat or Signac; here, the massive cathedral, painted in virulent dashes of yellow-orange and purple, appears to sink into the ground towards the rear of the painting like a recently-landed spaceship, while ant-like figures scuttle about in the foreground as if viewed from the bird’s-eye perspective of a late Pissarro. Whatever Notre Dame’s charms, the picture fails to coalesce.

The Albertina exhibition concludes triumphantly by indicating the various directions towards which Impressionism would lead: first, to Matisse and the expressively colorful "Fauves" ("Wild Beasts"), illustrated here by judicious examples of works by Dérain, de Vlaminck, and – before he became a Cubist! – Braque.

It’s the great master, Cézanne, however, who decidedly points the way towards the future: his lack of interest in a single perspective, and his insistence on using color alone to create space and volume, is cited convincingly here as "influencing" Picasso.  His brilliant – and unfinished –"Landscape" of 1904 demonstrates how, with just a few sure traces of the brush, Cézanne could not only suggest an entire landscape but also point the way to the abstractions of the 20th century.

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