Saturday 26 September 2020


Royal Academy 17 Sept – 11 Dec 2011

This one is going up so late that some say Degas himself attended the opening. But, after looking at the movement in general and then Monet it serves to conclude our series about Impressionism. (For now, at least.)

Don’t Just Stand There...

If you want to know whether this theme fits better than the one the National came up with for Monet, Google-image his name and see what comes up. Degas painted the ballet over two hundred times. But, while ballet developed in parallel step with Modernism his was the classic ‘ballet blanc’ everyone thinks of, all women dancers in white tutus. 

Though if, like me, you care not for all this prancing and pirouetting that will mar your enjoyment of this exhibition not one iota. We learn, unsurprisingly, that the man himself was a fan. But that isn’t the real reason why he returned to painting it so often...

We tend to associate ballet with traditional painting because… well, they’re both traditional. They tend to use the same classical subject matter. But Degas isn’t at all interested in attempts to evoke myth, or conjure up the theatrical illusion and all of that. When he paints dancers he tends to paint everything else around them, the curtains, the footlights, all the paraphernalia we’re supposed to tune out as soon as the house lights go down. 

He’ll paint the theatre flats as flats, as painted boards. He’d show the performers through the audience with all their protruding hats, and the upturned necks of the instruments. His ballet was not some rarified world of great artistry, it’s placed squarely in this world. Look for example at the deliberately unconvincing backdrop and that expanse of bare board in ’Two Dancers On the Stage’ (1874, below). The work’s used for the poster image (up top), where they crop it down to centralise the figures, cut back on the boards and generally make it more conventional.

But most of the time he painted not the show but the rehearsals. Girls were often shown resting or simply hanging about. Which is most of ballet’s associations swept away in one fell swoop. What can be afoot?

Let us not get too romantic here, for one motivation was that they sold. In 1873 he found his family fortune had been squandered by his brother, and so was suddenly and rather forcibly introduced to the concept of earning a living. But he could only have found out their saleability after he started painting them. 

In case we missed it hidden away in the name of this show the very first information board tell us they were “a pretext for depicting movement.” If there’s one thing you can rely on with ballet dancers, its for them to not stand still all that much.

And Degas excelled at his chosen task. Finished artwork all too often looks like the embalmed corpse of the original sketch. Here his paintings and sketches are sometimes hung side by side, with no significant loss of life from one to the other. Yet he’d had the conventional art training of his time, when attentive figure drawing was so drilled into you it became a rote task. Breaking from this was one of his greatest achievements.

Dispute hangs over whether Degas should be considered an Impressionist, and (by extension) a Modernist. It’s true he began as a more conventional painter and always rejected the term himself. (Though he exhibited at all but one of their group shows.) Some of the things we think of as essentially Impressionist, such as painting outdoors, he actively mocked, declaring the police should prevent such things. 

His interest in depicting scenes, windows upon environments which you easily imagine extending beyond the confines of the frame, seems at odds with one of Modernism's most basic tenets – that paintings are primarily paintings, coloured pigment on canvas. If Monet was moving in that direction, Degas’ back is firmly turned against it. Yet in his interest in movement he was being modern. Motion wasn’t a fidgety model, a problem to be overcome, but a force to be evoked.

When Edmond de Goncourt said of him “He is more skillful in capturing the essence of modern life than anyone I know” the ‘essence’ he refers to is movement. The conceit is that movement captured in an artwork conveys a society on the move. It might sound reductive said out loud. Yet we should remember two things. 

First, the most direct idea is often the most effective. Second, these times are not ours. Some of the technological innovations were specifically about accelerating movement, such as trains. But they weren’t really the galvanising force, and Degas himself was often blimpishly disdainful of them. (The show ends with a brief film-clip of him, taken towards the end of his life. But he’d actually refused permission, and had to be surreptitiously shot on the street.) The point was that a society that had seemed primarily concerned with tradition was now all about progress. And withsociety itself constantly on the move, art had to be in a perpetual state of motion just to keep up.

But was this really all that new? After all, art has never confined itself to static scenes. In fact it's previous role as illustrational (of classical myths or Bible stories) precluded that. Nor did progress start in Degas' day. We now see the Nineteenth Century as stuffy, pompous gents parading round in starched shirts. Yet they saw themselves as stewards of a modern world.

However, compare Degas to Ford Madox Brown's 'Work' (1852/62). Brown places his industrious navvies at the centre of his composition, digging their way to a bold future. But, while he might depict movement, he does this without any particular attempt to capture it. You can picture clear as day the models holding the poses. (“I holds the shovel up like this, Mr. Brown, sir?”) Moreover, the sheer teeming accumulation of figures he loads onto the canvas work against any sense of individual motion. Our brains are too busy assembling them all into the visual equivalent of a sentence.

Brown's work is instructive, his figures a means to get across his point about progress coming through hard work and industry, and the result is a tableau more than it is a scene. While Degas is primarily descriptive. He seeks to capture a moment, to show rather than tell. And it's this distinction which allows him to make movement his focus.

And so the shows’ main thesis, that the spur to his art was developments in photography, is effectively looking in the wrong place through being so specific. In 1875 he painted the seemingly telling ’Dancer Posing For a Photograph’(above), but was known for mischievous humour. He didn’t buy a camera himself until 1895, after most of the works here had already been created. His photographs are hung in the show, with suitable reverence. And they’re entirely unexceptional, documentation at best. Moreover, I’d suspect his relationship with photography was more complex than suggested, more like a tempestuous love affair, forever blowing hot and cold.

All In the Moment

Last time we looked at Monet’s gift for compositions which at a glance seemed casual while being quitely accomplished, which gives his work an involving sense of verisimilitude. Degas may go one better, he can seemingly go wrong and still make it right. Like Dolly Parton saying “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”, Degas invested a great deal of time and effort into this. Unlike Monet he tended to paint indoor scenes, with the figures spread in a seemingly haphazard fashion. 

And yet (also unlike Monet) he didn’t tend to paint whole scenes as they lay before him. He’d sketch figures simply or in small groups, which he’d refer to as his ‘cast list’, then later combine them into compositions. So nothing you see on the canvas is incidental, everything deliberately placed. 

So, for example, in ’The Rehearsal’ (1874, above) he has decided both to crop off all but half of the right-most figure, and to stick a spiral staircase in front of the figures to the left, with one poor soul left with only their feet showing. The solid walls, floors and (here) stairs, just emphasise the fleeting movement of the figures, like rocks in a flowing stream. 

The effect is like those faux-found-footage movies, all the usual signs which keep you distances from the work are eroded. We feel we are peering into a room, perhaps through a door temporarily left ajar. We get a sense of the bustle going on, a world in flux. But open the door to an actual room like that and at first it rears at you; you need a second to make sense of it, like the eye adjusting to sudden gloom. Whereas Degas never leaves us confused by what we see. 

Monet would paint like he was staring straight at the sun, it’s light dissolving the seeming solidity of all objects. While Degas’ light permeates through closed blinds. That indirect, shuttered light seems as signature to him as the pale, wan light was to Vermeer. He had said “the intriguing thing is not to show the source of the light but the effect of the lighting.” It’s like their art was passing by oblivious to one another, Monet enthusiastically capturing the outdoors while Degas’ realm is dark and hermetic. (On his death he was found to have amassed a seizable art collection which included not a single Monet.)

Slightly later he came to employ elongated, letterbox-shaped canvases. Inside which he would rarely build a composition up the classic way, radiating out from a central object, but pull the eye across - from lower right to upper left. The result is that the eye itself moves, to take the composition in, and feels itself doing so.

See for example ‘The Dance Lesson’ (1879, above). Against the subdued tones of the background he uses what’s effectively spot colour to lead the eye. The bright orange of the left-most figure is like the capital letter of a sentence, leading to the softer pink on the second seated figure, ending with a smaller splash of orange at the upper right. And like a sentence the spaces are as much part of the work. As Adrian Searle said in the GuardianDegas understood emptiness, the space between things, the pauses and breaks.”

Fond of provocation, he liked to play his efforts at composition up in his rhetoric as much as he played it down in his art. He’d insist “there is nothing less spontaneous than my art”, that “a painting is an artificial world existing outside of nature, and requires as much cunning as the perpetration of a crime.”

Girls At Work

The day I visited, two young girls were mimicking the poses of the dancers. A charming sight, but of course leading you to suspect they were from the leafier parts of London. Whereas in Degas’ day ballet dancers were commonly referred to as “ballet rats”, scarcely more respectable than actresses or prostitutes. And by constantly returning to their rehearsals Degas emphasises how much a workplace this was. Some look not inspired to leap and dance but slumped and exhausted, their heads in their hands. His ceaseless foregrounding of bare floorboards recalls the phrase ‘factory floor’.

These were ‘working girls’, the most plentiful category in a whole group of paintings Degas made of working girls. Debra N Macoff wrote of them in ’Art Quarterly’ (Autumn 2011):

Two other subjects showing women in motion also held Degas’s attention – laundresses and milliners... these women enacted a contemporary, real-life performance of posture and gesture, honed through repetitive actions and motivated by their need to earn a wage. Degas’s laundresses and milliners share a bond with his dancers. They were all working women, moving to the rhythms of modern life.”

(Truth to tell, working women would have made for a more varied and more effective subject than ballet. But still, as said, better than some of the stuff done over Monet. So let’s stick here to what the Academy served us.)

With all these paintings being of women it would be appealing to try and take some proto-feminist reading, that we’re dealing with some Great Aunt prototypes of Rosie the Riveter. It’s true that unlike, say, the Pre-Raphaelites he is painting women with a place in the world, whereas their interest was all in their supposed other-worldliness. But we’d simply be kidding ourselves. 

The Impressionist method was to paint simply what you saw, not stuff their works with references and allusions to be picked up by the cognoscenti. So it is often associated with progressive politics. Degas on the other hand came from a moneyed, conservative background and matched a curmudgeonly temperament with notoriously reactionary views. He became increasingly anti-semitic, stretching even the standards of his day, and sacking Jewish models. His stance over the Dreyfus affair, infamously divisive, something of the Brexit of the time, drove many former friends away form him.

And if he painted these women with a place in the world, it was in their accustomed place. Look how frequently he paints Dance Masters, stock-still and commanding, custodians of social order. They’re not always as prominent as the stick-wielding figure in ’The Dance Class’ (1897, below), you may take a moment to spot him in ’The Rehearsal’, but he’s rarely far away.

The most likely reason for painting so many women was it was the safest means to depict the workers. A muscular male arm raised in labour might as easily raise in revolt. Yet women were then seen as the weaker sex. Not necessarily just physically, the prospect of such a flouting of the natural order as working women rising in revolt seemed more remote and so less concerning. (If you’re wondering whether it worked out that way in practice go to the back of the class.) Working women allowed Degas a way to enter the world of the poor, with the least risk the poor could do the same back to him.

Where the Action Isn’t

Degas was sometimes in the habit of adding finishing touches of pastel to his sketches. By the end of the 1870s these became larger and more composed, the pastel strokes filling them, blurring the line between preparatory work and the finished object. Like the sketches, the pastels mostly reject the landscape format of the oils for portrait. Like the sketches, the pastels they laid less emphasis on the environments the figures were in.

But rather than coming to dominate the frame the figures instead look isolated. The paradox is that these works are brighter yet less dynamic. See for example ’Two Dancers at Rest’ (1898, above). Another, not included in this show, is tellingly titled ‘Waiting’ (1880/2.) This is Degas’ cast list not being cast, stuck on the subs’ bench, perhaps in perpetuity. The master of movement is now in the business of denying activity to his subjects.

Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ (1966) is said to have been inspired by the lives of bit-part players, who spend more time awaiting their cues form the wings than on-stage. He focused on two minor characters from Shakespeare, leading a life both purgatorial and absurdist, marginalised from events, not only failing to bring any influence but unable to grasp the plot of the drama they’re in. 

And there’s a similar feeling to many of Degas’ pastels. It seems an inherent feature of perception that wherever you are it feels like here, just like the time is always now. But these figures are where the action isn’t, fated to live in a perpetul off-stage, banished to liminal space.

There were biographical reasons for this. Degas had never been life’s cheeriest soul and, counter to the joie de vivre spirit usually associated with Impressionism, had always had a melancholic streak. He painted the decidedly un-upbeat ‘The Absinth Drinker’ (1876) and even titled another work ’Melancholy’ (1874).

But he’d became more reclusive, through a negative feedback loop of souring disposition and worsening eyesight. (Some suggest these eye problems precipitated his move from oil to pastel.) And the story lacks a happy ending. His eyesight and reclusiveness worsened, until he’d managed to antagonise almost everyone he once knew.

But the downward trajectory has a bump in it for, with ’Russian Dancers’ (1899, above) the dance is back! They were inspired by a ‘Russian’ (actually Ukrainian) dance troupe performing in Paris. But the work has no sense of staginess to it. These could be real peasant dancers, in their home environment, and dancing not for Dance Masters but the sheer joy of it! Rather than be confined in their pictorial space one kicks out left and the other right, as if they can barely be contained by the frame. Perhaps they’re the note to go out on...

Saturday 19 September 2020


National Gallery, London

(...continuing our look at Impressionism, via it’s best-known exponent)

More Paintings About Buildings And Trees

’...and Architecture’, I’m not sure I came across one single review which enthused over the chosen theme for this show. Intent on the pretence this wasn’t really called ‘Hey, More Monet’ they took to hang it on which sounded a but more convincing than ‘Trees And Things’ or ‘Those Times Monet Painted Stuff With an R In It’.

On the other hand, it’s less of a shoehorn than the theme Tate Britain came up with at the same time. All we really need is for something to be built somewhere in the frame for the picture to be admissible, which at times is about as dominant as a ‘Where’s Wally’ game. So it’s not that surprising that pretty much every review I came across to ‘Hey, More Monet’ said “Hey, more Monet!” Who cares if crowdbait is going on? We are, after all, talking about the man who named and did so much to define Impressionism.

Nevertheless, when the show comments how he’d use architecture as “foils for the irregularity of nature and screens for the reflections of light” - let’s test that out, just to see where it takes us.

To recap a little from last time, he was interested in capturing what he called “effects” - the way the light made a scene look at one particular moment. So with ‘Snow Effect at Giverney’ (1893, above) there’s no way he spied those buildings and decided to paint them. At the title spells out it’s the snowy haze itself which interests him, which makes up the picture. (Other works also have “effect” in their title.) 

The work is given so minimal a chromatic range it’s remarkably close to the old gag painting of a glass of milk and a sugar cube lost in a snowstorm. His challenge becomes to give us just enough information to discern the objects within it. And, as so often with Monet, the composition looks casual while being carefully arranged. Those snow-capped roofs, for example, are only visible because of the faint tones lent to the trees behind them.

Conversely ’Le Pont de l’Europe, Gare St. Lazare’ (1873, above) does create a contrast between the sharp diagonal of the station roof and those puffs of steam, to the point where it could be called a foil. (Further emphasised by all the verticals, including the funnels who create that steam.) Monet was remarkably consistent in his aims over time, but not necessarily narrow in them.

But the drawback of the “foils and screens” theory isn’t that it’s wrong so much as inadequate. Zola said of Monet: “Everywhere he likes to find the mark of man. Nature seem to lose it’s appeal… as soon as it does not bear the stamp of our mores”. But the mark of man is not the same as man himself. There’s a Romantic trope of sticking a human figure into a nature scene, to show him dwarfed by his surroundings. Monet will often do this with buildings, such as 'Customs House, Varengeville’ (1882, below, actually shown in ‘Inventing Impressionism’, but it makes the point best.)

So many of his paintings contain water in some form, it really would have made for a better theme than that other thing. And why would this be? There’s a Manet painting of Monet painting (if you follow!), aboard a boat he bought and specially adapted for the purpose. Why go to so much trouble? Brought up in coastal Normandy, there’s tales of how from a young age hewas transfixed by the sea. But there’s more...

When it was Turner’s turn, I noted his “recurring elements are water, mist and steam”. Whereas Monet’s are water, water and water. And it’s his element because of its fluidity, its suggestion of motion even when it’s still. When present, which it normally is, it seems to affect everything around it. In the painting above the downward diagonal of that verdant green seems to continue into the sea, in a work which seems to shimmer throughout.

Seeking to convey how shocking his work first appeared, Norbert Lynton mentions how “the coarse, unblended brushstrokes used, defensibly possibly as a way of rendering water or foliage were given also to firm objects such as buildings and people”. (‘The Story of Modern Art’) Phoebe Pool has pointed out “he enjoyed flux and all that was indeterminate and amorphous in nature” ’Impressionism’, Thames & Hudson). Anne Rice, in (yes, really) ’Interview With the Vampire’ said “the colours seemed to blaze with such intensity they destroyed the old lines, the old solidity”.

And as an example, we might pick customs houses which don’t look just dwarfed by their environment but made subject to the surrounding laws of motion. The rules of nature rule all. For all our steam trains and our iron bridges, we are still within it.

Though, again, we can find a contrast. 'Customs Officer Cottage, Varengeville’ (1882, above) offers us a variant where the house is larger and more dominant, an obstinate vertical in the face of the broad sea. Yet the hut’s colours (purples and browns) are similar to the earth around it. The show tells us the cottage is Napoleonic so it was almost certainly built from local stone, a part of the environment as much as an intrusion onto it. Its existence is less a statement of man’s dominance and more just a temporary rearrangement of things.

’Hut at Sainte-Adresse’ (1867) might look at first glance a still greater counterpoint, with it’s more rigid sectional divisions between sky, sea and land. And the tide, rather than presented as an incoming force, divides the sea further into horizontal bands. Yet if the parallels are less strong they’re still there, the dappled strokes which make up the shimmering sea echoed in the uneven vegetation. Even without that puff of steam on the horizon there’d be an implicit sense of movement.

Turner can portray the industrial and nature as opponents interlocked in a struggle, two mighty giants clashing while we can only watch. With Monet there’s a far less dramatic interplay, where one is never quite distinct from the other.

’Antibes, Morning’, (1888, above) shows us the titular town as viewed from nature, as if the city were the unfamiliar thing. It’s so far away that details can’t be made out, just a soft shimmer on the horizon, described by the show as “like a vision across the sunlit waters”. It’s an arrangement which, minus the intervening body of water, he also uses in ’The Church at Varengeville’ (1882, below).

Spectral Cathedrals

Impressionism necessitated painting in situ, which itself necessitated quick brush strokes, the better to capture your subject. Which became a style in its own right. But the weather could still change faster. Monet’s solution became, whenever the light changed on him, to put aside one canvas for another. And only return to it if similar conditions returned. He could end up with as many as ninety canvases, all of which needed to be kept on hand, even if not all would see completion. The result of which was his series works. This show features examples from three of these – London’s Houses of Parliament, Rouen Cathedral and Venice. We’re going for the last two.

Made from the same vantage point, they can look so similar it’s as if the same painting was just subject to different Photoshop filters. But he wasn’t continually trying to capture something, hoping to one day strike lucky. The recurring elements are really just there to accentuate the differences. Despite working in the very early days of the camera, he was aware the shutter was no approximation for memory. We don’t file a single ‘decisive moment’ in our minds, for later recall, clicking our eyes and mentally pressing ‘save’. With places we regularly revisit we gain an overall sense impression, each successive image overlaying rather than replacing the last.

So the crucial thing to understand here is that the series is the work. Alas artists require an income, and they were often sold separately. But when you see them even partially reunited this becomes unmissable. (Alas blogging constraints limit me to inadequate single examples.) Phoebe Pool calls them, correctly in my view, “the very essence of Impressionism”.

Remember the show’s thesis from earlier, that architecture is being used as “screens for the reflections of light”? In fact he’s doing something far more radical. Look at the image above of Rouen Cathedral, from 1893. Cathedrals are normally painted in situ, after all they’re the cathedral to a town, like a priest being shown before his congregations. And they’re also shown to be crowned by the spire, pointing to heaven. Monet shows his in tight-cropped close-up, sans spire.

And when that light falls upon it, it does something to the supposed “screen”. To the point it no longer looks like its made of solid stone, like a building you could walk inside. The Romantics were forever painting ruins, as a kind of liminal point between this world and the next. And, despite clearly not being of a ruin this feels much the same, a spectral image. It’s simultaneously monumental and translucent. You could image it vanishing at night, then reforming in the growing morning light.

Mark Hudson, in the Telegraph, wrote of “the gothic façade dissolving into pure light and colour”. And Laura Cumming in the Guardian takes the point further: “The buildings are just a pretext for painting the sublime.”

Not Built On Solid Ground

Google image Venice and what do you see? Streets of water, often narrow, bustling with boats, often crossed by pedestrian bridges. Then turn to Monet’s Venice, such as ’The Doge’s Palace’, (1908, below).

If he was rigorous about always painting what he saw, he wasn’t adverse to setting up the scene a little when it suited. The Parisian train station we saw earlier was not only emptied of distracting travellers but more steam was blown up when required, like he was a director staging a scene. Venice was already a tourist Mecca, so his decision to eliminate the crowds was practical. But it goes beyond that.

It’s often noted that the human figure, never particularly prominent in Monet’s work, diminishes further and further as time goes on. And his Venice paintings become where that absence is conspicuous. But further and unlike, say <i>’Antibes, Morning</i> he gives us no solid vantage point. The ground beneath our feet seems to have gone, and we see spectral buildings seemingly floating on the water-line. (The other side of the Palace not only can be seen from the ground, but from across a sizeable square, so this was an aesthetic choice.)

In fact we always see his Venice from a distance, across a wide body of water. Which here takes up more than half the canvas. If Rouen Cathedral was created from light, the Palace seems to be rising up out of the drink. Venice is a town not built on solid ground.

Turner had painted Venice as a “Gothic ruin” with “a romantic fatalism”, something only half in this world. (At least according to me.) Monet, who also painted there late in life (aged 68), takes away that earthly half. Though both have a mirage-like aspect, of a place which you can see but can’t reach out and touch, his is much more solitary than Turner’s.

It’s almost inevitable that we live more in the world when we are younger, and as we age we retreat increasingly into our own private space. The Venice paintings seem to simultaneously suggest a world becoming more and more remote from him, and a fraying of earthly ties. After Venice, he mostly painted his own private garden.

While we should be wary of seeing Impressionism as a clean break from all that came before, much earlier painting had been about recording the wealthy with their possessions about them, a form of cataloguing. The ability to convey solidity on a flat surface was therefore considered an essential part of an artists’s skill. It’s significant how much Monet breaks from this. And it seems most audacious of all to render Cathedrals and Parliaments as insubstantial.

In the Standard, Matthew Collings comments: “Monet suggests that all the usual relationships we expect, which anchor us in all our doings, are questionable. Which is the definition of revolution.” We always thought we were simply seeing, while our eyes were really corralled by convention. We didn’t see things as they were, but as they’d been shown to us to be. As said last time Impressionism was not overly politicised, so the political implications are only latent. But equally, they’re as obvious.

Saturday 12 September 2020


(Another Not A Proper Review At All. Which, like normal, means PLOT SPOILERS)

This new Christopher Nolan film is already notorious for its bewilderingness. Tough the labyrinthine plot is at times incomprehensible, at other entirely predictable. Maybe you need to see it twice, first forwards then backwards. But clever is not the same thing as coherent. It’s best not to look under the hood while you’re taking the ride. Just just take the high concepts as something there to jolt your mind as much as the action sequences do your nerves. We’re specifically told “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” It’s a shopping list of cool stuff - forged Goyas, impregnable storehouses, off-grid ‘closed cities’ - in which backwards bullets are just more stuff on the list.

But let’s take another tack, and bring it into our little look on how science fiction has treated time over time. Even if, strictly speaking, it doesn’t involve time travel. There’s no Tardis here, to zip across timezones. There’s a mechanism, but it reverses time, sends you backwards down your own timestream. (And anyone who suggests my blog is currently running backwards, judging by the lateness of the visual art reviews, will be escorted off the premises.)

Which means, interestingly, it’s at complete odds to all that quantum entanglement of ‘Avengers Endgame’ Time here is strictly linear. There’s a reason a long, key sequence takes place on a stretch of highway. Like a road, you can traverse time in both directions. But it’s the same stretch of road you’ll be travelling.

Except time isn’t referred to as reversed, but the less common term ‘inverted’. Which implies an external force. Just as a bullet must have a maker, an inverted one must have an inverter. But it’s also a negative word, suggesting something contrary to nature. (In more homophobic times gay people were called ‘inverts’.)

And the ‘algorithm’ (as ever, a magic spell) which allows all this inversion is at several points compared to plutonium. With the war which inevitably ensues a “new cold war”, one in which our primary antagonist is a Russian. (Andrei, played… while actually hammed up by Kenneth Branagh.) Inverted time doesn’t just not work like a Tardis, it has a different plot function. It’s not an adventure enabler but a cursed object, a weapon of the enemy. This is a war where “even to know its true nature is to lose”. True our heroes do the backwards dance too, but only in a join ‘em to beat ’em sense.

If (as previously argued) time that wimes is post-modern, this conjures up a bleaker scenario. Time is like a road in a second sense, the sense that eventually both run out on you. This is not the ’Terminator’ scenario where the future has suffered a hostile takeover. Here, our future is inherently our enemy. Because our descendants, having run out of road, can only back up. Which means running over us. They come to plunder us like temporal colonialists. (The film’s tag line is “time runs out.”)

And there’s a microcosm of this. Through films like ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and ‘Prometheus’ we’ve become used to the trope of the wicked capitalist who tries to use his wealth and power to cheat oncoming death. Here the villain is also dying, but has two quite different solutions. One is to jump back to the time he was still loved by his wife. And the other is to take the world down with him.

And scale up from there, because like him his society has an unavoidable death day. The implication is that this future cannot be prevented, defeated or altered. It can only be held at bay, as we remain trapped in that title palindrome. An operations code phrase is “we live in a twilight world.” This is our future, where “the oceans rose and the rivers ran dry”. We’re the people who knew about climate change and still stood by while a fascist set light to the Amazon.

In concept it’s essentially William Burroughs’ ‘Ah Pook is Here’. But with a dash of Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, in the sense that our enemies, though essentially dead, are a destructive force held over our lives. We could never hope to meet, let alone beat them. Even their henchman doesn’t communicate with them directly, only by scheduled temporal ‘dead drops’.

There’s two hints at exceptions to this clamping rule. First the ‘temporal pincer movement’, where in the final battle backwards and forwards troops team up to take on the bad guys. (And it’s an act of backwards heroics which saves the day.) This makes little internal sense. But it perhaps suggests a symbolic unification between the highway lanes.

And then Andrei being killed doesn’t bring about the much-mooted end of time. Which suggests this was all more mutable than previously supposed. But these are bumps in what’s otherwise a long straight road to oblivion.

All of which is underlined by the tone. Nolan has been candidly about the Bond films’ influence and, if you were to watch without sound, it very much visually resembles one. But what are we used to with Bond? His self-introductions (“Bond… James Bond”), his witty one-liners and his getting the girl. Whereas our protagonist not only doesn’t get the girl, he doesn’t even get a name - he’s literally called ‘The Protagonist’.

We’re told early on by a female Q “no small talk”, an instruction the film takes to heart. Dialogue is unashamedly expository. (I was completely unable to recognise John David Washington’s permanent poker face here as the lively Afro-sporting cop from ’Blackkklansman’.) Only the Principal Girl (Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki) gets given a personal motive, and with it even shows some emotion.

Despite the regulation scenic backdroppery, actual settings are corporately anonymous - airports, concert halls, secure facilities. We’re often told we’re in places, such as Estonia, and essentially have to take the film’s word for it. Which may also be true of Bond films, but here you seem more keyed in to notice. That futureless future we’re heading towards, that lifeless non-place, it’s already being built around us.

In fact, if there’s a sequel my money would be on our Protagonist set against some morals-inverted future version of himself, exchanging dagger glares through the glass of one of those two-sided rooms. He’s already got in a fight with himself, after all. Cold, dispassionate, calculating, he wouldn’t even need to play the two parts differently.

If you now read this backwards there are secret messages. (Yllaer t’nera erehr.)

Saturday 5 September 2020


National Gallery, London

(Yes, a visual arts review even more absurdly late than usual. It’s just a jumping-on point to talk about Impressionism, really. Because how can you write about Modernism without including Impressionism?)

Painting Set Free?

This was a story which for the longest time everyone knew. The Impressionists were the foundational text – the first Modernist movement, bold new notions sprang from their lofty garret-dwelling brows to strike an unsuspecting world. In their day derided by critics, subsisting in a state of poverty but sticking to their radical approach, their obstinacy eventually proving… well, you know how it goes. It was an argument usually upheld by the expedient of starting your history of Modernism with them, so they could appear without antecedents on the first page.

It stuck because it was a good story, one they were often keen to keep up themselves. Renoir, for example, was wont to claim “we have freed painting from the importance of the subject. I am at liberty to paint flowers without their needing to tell a story.” Paintings no longer had to be tableaus, depicting some grand subject, conveying some great moment in history or providing some instructive allegory. But is that really how it was? The uncompromising genius-savant, isn’t he more likely to show up in some interminable Ayn Rand novel than real life?

Ask what made for this clean break, and you’re likely to be told either “they painted directly from nature” or “they made their subject everyday life.” Both of which actually began with Realism. In fact when you compare them up close it’s hard to find points of departure from Realism. (Which is further complicated by Manet and Degas, two artists commonly thought to be Impressionists, insisting they were really Realists. For convenience’s sake let’s leave them out of this and take the contents of this show’s ‘Beginnings’ room - Corot, Courbet and Millet - as our Realists.)

Most people know this now, at least among those who might care. Yet answering one question inevitably raises another. You can list the similarities as much as you like. But line the works up side by side, and suddenly it all seems different. It’s like the relationship between punk and pub rock. Make a formal list of their characteristics, and they come out as near-identical. Listen to them and they sound a world apart.

The answer lies in the light. The Realists were still painting things, while the Impressionists were all about the effects of light. We use the phrase ‘a trick of the light’ as though the sun is some neutral, objective spotlight which occasionally plays up on us and needs a factory reset. But the Impressionists paint as though ‘tricks of the light’ is all there is. Because in fact that’s all there is. Manet insisted “I paint what I see and not what others like to see.” To paint what you saw, not what you took to be there... like all revolutions it seems obvious only in retrospect.

And from the light came the transience of the moment. Rather than great moments of history they sought to conveythe very opposite – the immediate, the here and now. Inspiration wasn’t something rare or esoteric, striking rarely and without warning like lightning. Inspiration lay all about you, you just needed to see it.

People had become so used to conventions of painting they’d become defining, not just dividing the world in ‘picturable’ and ‘non-picturable’ (which would have been bad enough) but infecting what we saw when we looked at things. This isn’t just a question of whatto see, the way our selective vision looks past the homeless on the street. This is literally about how to see. The act of seeming to reflect reality, that was the very thing which constructed it. It was a feedback loop of reinforced wrongness.

And the significance of this swap-over is enormous. Once it was a given that art was not just a part of the dominant culture, but existed to be an articulation of that culture. Now subjective experience ruled over received wisdom.Custom was no longer support but dead weight, to be thrown off so we could get back to looking at what was directly in front of us. The dismissive critical reaction to Impressionism is today too easily dismissed itself, its mocking too readily mocked. It should instead be taken as a measure of the size of the shift undertaken. Some were always going to get left behind.

Let’s try to show this shift with a before and after, a Realist against an Impressionist work. Realism was the more politically engaged of the movements, with Courbet not just participating in the Paris Commune but being elected to the council and founding its Federation of Artists. So it would be appealing to claim art history has been suppressing it all this time, in favour of the more palatable Impressionism.

And it’s true, though most (not all) of the Impressionists were politically progressive this had less effect upon their work. As ever, Monet is probably archetypal. He espoused a generalised soft Socialism which probably best aligned with a broad humanitarianism. Their revolution was primarily aesthetic, about a new way of seeing the world. A world more akin to their patrons (including, as coming up, their chief patron) – a middle class, growing in both numbers and prosperity, expanding into broadening suburbs, whose hobbies were seeing and being seen and who had the leisure time to indulge them.

But in truth, for the most part Realism has been forgotten because its dull and stodgy stuff. So partly to be fair and partly to enliven things, I’ve chosen a work from the show you can actually appreciate – Jean-Francois Millet’s ’The Sheepfold, Moonlight’ (1856/8, below).

Millet paints an atmosphere as much as a scene, which is described by the show as having “a spiritual quality”. Yet if it’s more challenging to make things out that’s just because there’s less light, like the moon has a lower wattage than the sun. It would be easy enough to ‘decode’, to picture the scene as if the mid-day sun was suddenly switched on. There’s nothing here of, for example, the silveriness of moonlight. And shadows are held to be solid black, whereas Impressionism was forever breaking them down into constituent colours.

Contrast that to Monet’s ’The Train in the Snow’ (1875, above). Millet’s shepherd and hut are balanced either side of the moon, inscribing the composition on our memory by a neat triangle. Everything looks arranged, settled. While Monet’s silhouettes are fleeting, barely discernible. They won’t be hanging around, but soon boarding that moving train. What’s conveyed is less objects than movement. The train, a mass of bolted iron plating, looks barely more substantial than the cloud of smoke it emits. Millet creates a chunk of blackness at the base of his frame to set the scene. Monet runs a fence right into us. He’s not elegantly enclosing his work, he’s reaching out to meet us.

It’s a challenge to pull off a good composition, but Millet can. Yet it’s a bigger challenge to make your composition seem casual, as if you’ve just got down something you happened to see, that it came together by good fortune alone. This is what Monet and the other Impressionists could do, par excellence, over and over again.

As a neat summary, note how ’the Sheepfold, Moonlight’ differs in title formulation to Monet’s movement-titling ’Impression, Sunrise’ (1874, not included in this show). One places the objects first and then time of day second, the other the reverse. Things had been thought of as self-evident and universal, or they were not things at all. Now impressions counted for more.

So, transience, immediacy… next we have cropping. Monet running that fence right into the frame may look audacious enough, but they could be bolder still. Sisley’s ’The Ferry of the Isle de la Longe: Flood’ (1972, above) not only abruptly cuts off the pole and – perhaps more daringly – the tree, he then thinks nothing of doing it again in their reflection! Even human figures had to be wary of getting too close to the edge of the frame, or face having bits lopped off them. Subconsciously, we associate this with verite moments, with hastily snapped photos not worked-upon canvases, with stuff happening.

Loving Everyday Life

Which all leads us up to the really big shift made by Impressionism - the mood. To talk about anything, inevitably you reduce it to parts. And so you risk chopping down all the trees then wondering why you can’t see the wood any more. Like so many things, Impressionism’s essence doesn’t lie in those parts but the way they work together. And this mood is the sum of everything above.

This is not the world of the stiff and staid but one that swishes with movement, bristling with quiet excitement. It’s much like the way we now picture the Twenties and Sixties, perambulating Flaneurs the grandfathers of Carnaby Street dandies. Realism looks left behind by comparison, dour and drab. Which takes us to a very different question to the one asked before. Why should two generations, only a few years apart, paint such different moods?

The Realists essentially had two parents. They were the product of the 1848 revolution, aiming at a more accessible, democratic subject matter. But they were also a reaction to Romanticism’s… well, romanticism. They wanted to portray nature not fancifully but with exactitude. Combine these two and you get an art delivered with polemical force, to the point it could be wilfully anti-aesthetic. Their works can feel like roughage served up as a meal, by someone highly insistent this is good for you.

Whereas an art that celebrated everyday life, that captured the moment and the flux of movement, casual-seeming compositions with almost audaciously arbitrary cropping - all this was to be found in Japanese art, by Hokusai and others. These prints had only started to become available in the West in 1854. Not originally highly valued, they were distributed somewhat haphazardly. There’s tales of them being transported as packing, much like the American comics which obsessed me in my childhood. But the Impressionists avidly sought them out. (See here for an account of Hokusai’s influence.)

But there’s also less aesthetic, more material explanations. The show mentions “a commitment to modern subject matter that was daring and new.” In fact their self-chosen name, until a scoffing critic went and christened them for good, was ‘New Painting’. And that’s my bluffers guide to getting Impressionism – imagine every single thing in every single painting is brand spanking new. People sport newly bought clothes to parade down recently laid out avenues. If there’s a building or bridge, it went up last week. If the sun is out, imagine the first day of Summer. Try and imagine, if you can, the paint still drying on the canvas.

Remember that risible Ronald Reagan ad “it’s morning in America”? By contrast, the Impressionists really didconvey the idea that it was morning in (then) modern France, that everything hitherto had just been a lead-in and history was finally taking off. They painted new things with a vibrancy, in a state of quiet excitement. And this was because, though only a generation later than the Realists, they inhabited quite a different world. This (
unsigned, insofar as I could see) piece sums it up well:

“The Industrial Revolution brought economic prosperity to France, and Emperor Napoleon III set out to make Paris the showpiece of Europe…. the dirty, old medieval city [was replaced] with wide boulevards, parks, and monuments. The new steel-ribbed railroad stations and bridges were feats of modern engineering. Cafés, restaurants, and theatres lured the bourgeoisie, the powerful new merchant class who had made their homes in and around Paris.”

Overall, it was less what was new than that it was new, and the underlying sense that even what was new today would soon be supplanted by something brighter. Society had not just turned a corner. Society had disconnected the brakes.

And it’s important to note, in that quote above, the Industrial Revolution has slipped into the past tense. Monet’s known to have seen and been impressed by Turner, that revolution’s great chronicler, on his first stay in London. Yet what happens when we contrast the two?

You could see ’Railway Bridge, Argenteuil’ (1873, above) as a deliberate reversal in perspective to Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ (1844). There’s the same three elements – train, boat and observing eye – but rejigged.

Our viewpoint is no longer some vertiginous point atop a viaduct but seated on a green riverbank. And the boat, barely visible in Turner, now dominates. To the point we take on its sense of time; we imagine the train flying by, the yacht taking longer to glide past, then the ripples it leaves slowly subsiding. In fact the steam so resembling a cloud connects the two, the train engine to the wind that sails the boat. We shall probably never know whether Monet consciously intended any of this, but neither do we need to.

Turner paints trains as if they were first erupting onto the landscape, as to him they largely were. Monet paints them after they’ve settled down. Turner’s trains you jump out the way of, Monet’s you jump aboard. But above all, when Turner painted his time it was in terms of era, with Monet its time of day. Turner paints trains on broad canvases to represent the Industrial revolution. Monet aims to capture a particular piece of riverbank at half past three in the afternoon, before it inevitably dissipated into quarter to four.

Let Paint be Paint

And there is one element of Impressionism they gained neither from the Realists or Japanese art, and that’s the way they painted. Pissarro’s ’Fox Hill, Upper Norwood’ (1870, above) looks absolutely convincing as an evocation of pictorial space. Much like Monet’s fence the road is depicted as reaching out to us, like an invitation, instilling in us the feeling we could step into it and start strolling down that lane. And yet there’s a paradox to it, because it also looks very much like a painting. Look, for example, at the stretch of road nearest us. You can see the brush strokes clear as day.

By convention paint was applied ‘smoothly’, the artist demonstrating his skill via leaving work untraceable back to his hand. The result was an odd combination of a painter and decorator after a smooth finish and the workings of a special effects unit in films, where seeing how it’s done is held to ruin the all-important illusion. The Impressionists favoured hogshair brushes; thicker and rougher, they were generally considered inferior. But for them that was their selling point. They’d then paint ’wet-on-wet’, where rather than being pre-prepared on the pallette colours mixed together on the canvas as they were being being applied.

And this seeming contradiction, that we see it both as a street and as paint, once on the canvas they combine virtuously. It’s immediately visible that someone painted this, for us to look at. But rather than mar the pictorial illusion it adds to the sense of immediacy, of engagement. The artist stood there, saw this scene, and wanted to paint it so we could see it too. It’s like being told a story spontaneously and slightly breathlessly, versus one recitedin smooth and modulated tones. This was taken up and run with by successive generations, to such a degree it would be easy to overlook it’s origins here. But they’re here plain as day.

And all of this, based up really looking at what’s in front of you, however much it borrowed from before it felt like starting from first principles. And it’s noticeable how soon further movements sprung from that first principle. Those used to reading paintings as a continuing autobiography of the artist are thwarted by Impressionism. Yet it was based in subjective experience, impressions being subjective by definition. And within a generation others had picked up on that. Monet’s Normandy is more an account of Normandy than it is of Monet, while Gauguin’s Brittany is the reverse. Yet there was still a swift and smooth transition from Monet to Gauguin.

But at the same time...

Romanticism Reimagined

Reacting against Realism, itself a reaction to Romanticism, did Impressionism then bounce into reviving Romanticism? This of course violates the most fundamental premise of the Standard Narrative, that this the pioneering movement which launched Modernism. But the answer, while complicated, is basically “yes.”

Romanticism was really founded on a paradox. It attempted to evoke the sublime power of nature, so much vaster and greater than us. Yet the Romantic artist assumes he will find himself within nature, effectively anthropomorphising it. Nature was more inspiration for art than subject matter. If it obsessed the artists, it was really only for what it represented. While the Impressionists looked hard into that same nature, determined to convey what they actually saw. Look at the very first image on the Wikipedia page on Romanticism to see their trope of the dominant figure bestride a landscape. Which doesn’t come up in Impressionism at all.

And take Monet’s ‘Coal Carriers’ (c. 1875, above), notable for an Impressionist work because it isn’t really - particularly with that sombre colour scheme. The indicia tells us he did see this scene, but broke his custom to paint it “partly from memory”. With the figures semi-silhouetted it becomes harder to distinguish the men from their burdens, like one has sunk into the other. Their regular spacing is most probably a genuine observation, they were evening out the loads placed on those gangplanks. But it also suggests a prototype of Fordism, men as units of production.

But, most strangely for Monet, to quote the show “everything in this picture is constructed”. He’ll normally paint as though his elements just flew in and found their perfect arrangement. Everything here is so in it’s place it looks trapped in it. The iron bridge, elsewhere celebrated as an artery of mobility, blocks off the sky, caps the scene and cements its oppressive mood.

Phoebe Pool in ’Impressionism’ (Thames & Hudson) concedes it’s “uncharacteristic” for him, and suggests both that it’s a forerunner of Expressionism and that Monet’s interest lay in the formal qualities. Yet other paintings are just as formalised without looking so restricting. And, at least to me, rather than a forerunner of anything it’s a holdover from Romanticism, and particularly the Industrial Gothic.

Compare it to Gustav Dore’s ‘Over London By Rail’ (1872). Which is of homes not a workplace. But the figures are as isolated, in those identical yet separate chamber-like gardens. It’s dominated by two bridges, an enclosing curve, to the point where there’s as much train smoke in the air as there is sky. It presents London simultaneously as a machine and a prison.

If in Romanticism nature is where you go to find yourself, it’s no surprise the City then stands for the opposite – alienation and dehumanisation. It isn’t just where nature isn’t; it exists in a state of anti-nature and un-life. Like one of those despotic kingdoms of legend, where everyone had become drones of the wicked ruler’s will and all activity reduced to the mechanistic. They’re often presented as though a bad spell hangs in the air like a thick fug. And if this painting doesn’t exactly portray that scenario it has the mood of it.

Bertrand Russell once said “the Romantic outlook, partly because it is aristocratic, and partly because it prefers passion to calculation, has a vehement contempt for commerce and finance. It is thus led to proclaim an opposition to capitalism which is quite different from that of the socialist who represents the interests of the proletariat, since it is an opposition based on dislike of economic preoccupations.” In short, its hostility to the city becomes part of its tendency to look back upon Feudalism as some sort of idyll. Consequently, it’s criticisms of capital may sound bold but stem from an underlying conservatism. All of which is here.

Impressionism Invented

And if all that leaves one important element of the story out, it’s something which commendably the whole show is built around rectifying. It comes from the collection of Paul Durand-Ruel, billed as “the man who sold a thousand Monets”, the dealer for almost all the Impressionists and many of the Realists before them. That’s him above, paintedby Renoir in 1910, as a warm and wise fatherly figure. Being there, on the ground floor, he was in pole position to get his mitts on the best work. But there’s more, in fact quite a bit more, than that...

For he sold this modern art by modern methods. And, much like the art, it can be hard to think back to a time when those methods needed devising. The show claims, credibly, “he can be credited with inventing the profession of the modern art dealer”. His interest was not in artworks, but the artists who produced them. Over who he’d play a long game. He’d block-buy their work, putting them on a stipend to produce more. He’d set up solo exhibitions for them, something then rarely done for living artists, arranged chronologically to demonstrate the artist’s development. Lectures and publications spelt out this strange new art to prospective punters.

He’d offer works to institutions as a calling card, and if one place turned him down (as they often did, including the National) he tried another. Bankrolling them, he nearly bankrupted himself twice over (1874 and 1884). He later recalled “everyone agreed I had gone mad”, before concluding “my madness has been wisdom.”

But above all, and perhaps most importantly, he did all this not as a long-term investment but because he believed in the work. Though the son of a dealer, he didn’t become one himself until discovering (initially) the Realists. He called himself “a missionary or a soldier”, filling his own apartment with their efforts. He sought not to find an audience so much as create one.

“Without him,” said Monet “we wouldn’t have survived.” Which may be a bit of an exaggeration, as some of the gang (Manet, Degas and Cezanne) were independently wealthy. But there’s no doubt his contribution was significant. He took a misunderstood, marginalised art and rather than rendering it palatable broke the public to it.

Which does dispel much of the romanticised myth of the lone genius, skipping meals to stay in brushes but still refusing to compromise his vision. But the irony is that learning this doesn’t do away with the myth so much as explain how it came to be coined. Perhaps inevitably, the selling of Impressionists goes hand-in-glove with the invention of Impressionism.

And the bohemian artist is largely a myth that starts here, certainly more so than with Romanticism. It’s at root a story of the successful avant-garde. The moral isn’t about obstinacy or the nobility of poverty but of being right when no-one else could see it, of perseverance paying off, of the world finally catching up to lavish you with acclaim. But how that happened is normally left obscure. The bohemian artist can’t be seen to chase fame without blowing his cover. So we need to imagine all this simply arrived one day, like a surprise delivery.

And there’s another important element to this invention. Durand-Riel simply gave up on selling them to France, perhaps ruminating that few are prophets in their own land, and finding greater success in Germany and (particularly) America – new painting for the new world. The first State-side show was New York in 1886. “Without America I would have been ruined,” he later confessed.

And the significance of ‘Frenchness’ seems to start here, their full name soon becoming ‘The Impressionists of Paris’, to be sold in the same way as you would wine or cheese. Even the recent Royal Academy show was titled ‘From Paris’. (And as a general rule, anything which calls them ‘The French Impressionists’ is likely to keep up the arose-from-nowhere legend.) This meant anything challenging or inexplicable could be put down to Gallic inscrutability, rather than your own oafishness. Significantly, to this day we use the loan term “joie de vivre”, like you can’t really say “joy of life” in English.

But this was all invention. Monet visited London precisely to paint it, which under his brush looks as Impressionist as anywhere else. Pissarro could be Impressionist in Upper Norwood, surely suggesting place was not the main factor. If Impressionism started in Paris it’s because it was easier to be an artist there than most other places. (The art world was centred there and, believe it or not, back then it was cheap to live in.) What defines Impressionism, as we’ve hopefully shown, isn’t place at all – it’s era. That’s what makes them Modernists.

Renoir’s Not the Real Thing

You’ve seen the best, now it’s time for the rest…

Those art snob dismissals of Impressionism, the ‘hot takes’ you have to read through whenever the subject comes up, they do have one moment of truth to them – Renoir. If the realists were like roughage on a plate, Renoir is the opposite extreme - glutinous and saccharine, the icing which turns out to not even have a cake beneath it. Admittedly, there are better efforts by him. (The portrait of Durant-Ruel above is bearable.) But look through several of his works at once and you start to feel like when you’ve eaten too many sugary snacks, there’s the same sense of base-level seductiveness even as you find the amassed glutinousness nauseating.

’Two Sisters On the Terrace’ (1881, above) looks like all the criticisms made of Impressionism were condensed onto one canvas – kistch bling. If only we could say that Renoir was Impressionism’s guilty secret. Alas the truth is the reverse, his is the public face of the movement whose accomplishments are the lesser known part, an Athena poster atop an iceberg of innovation.

Compare it to the Pissarro and Sisley already shown, clearly greater works. Yet ask anyone who the Impressionists were, and you’ll get recited back the triumvirate of Monet, Degas and him. (It may be true that Sisley lacked a distinctive style, that ultimately he was just another Impressionist. You sometimes recognise his work by eliminating all the other names till you’re left with his. For all that, still better - much better - than Renoir.)

It would be appealing to believe people had been so conditioned by this myth of Gallicnesss that they take Renoir for the real thing. But the worse option seems more likely, people like Renoir because they like him; they want Impressionism to look this way, not bold and new but florid and gaudy. So for example that Academy show of 2012 used a Renoir as its poster image - (‘Girl With a Fan’, 1879). Though more cheeringly, a Boston gallery saw anti-Renoir protests.

And this is something which started in his own day. Durand-Ruel, though tagged as “the man who sold a thousand Monets” actually sold five hundred more Renoirs. Quiet contrary to the Impressionist stereotype of uncompromising aesthetes, he made no bones about painting what sold, hob-nobbing with the well-off, painting them on commission. And after getting accepted by the Salon, he skipped the fourth, fifth and sixth Impressionist exhibitions. By the 1880s he’d already abandoned almost all of the Impressionist style. Seeing Dali as the archetypal Surrealist is harmless by comparison.

Indeed he seems to have relished a role as a populist provocateur, stating that art’s role was “to brighten up the walls” and so on. (It’s true that while others in the group had independent means, he had to live off his sales. But that would also be true of Sisley. Who never really had any sales to speak of.)

Ultimately, the lesson of Impressionism’s a simple one – just to see what’s in front of you involves a constant struggle. To the point that we now need to look at their artworks the way they looked at their subject. Which is to say, put aside our preconceptions and expectations, and actually look at them.

This is hard precisely because of all the stories strung around them, partly by the artists and dealers themselves, which are now hard to dispel. As ever, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mention Impressionism and the focus falls on flowers and the Seine-side strolling. If you only know of this bunch by biscuit tin lids, your perspective on them will be hopelessly warped. Which unfortunately is the way most do know them.

And as soon as you lose this, the modernity of a Modernist movement, it gets replaced by its antithesis. The whole accursed kitsch appeal of Impressionism today, what consigns it to wrapping paper and packaging, is that it’s come to be seen as a window into a theme park past, when avenues were wide and people dressed up nice. In a sour irony the very scenes painted to look excitingly modern are now cooed over for their quaintness. In the haughty critics and art snobs, Impressionism may have self-proclaimed enemies. But the real damage done to it is from its so-called fans.

But if they could see a scene for what it was, casting off received wisdom, we should surely be able to see a painting. The world they depicted is long gone. But the freshness, the vividity, the engaging nature of their work continues to shine down the decades at us.

Coming soon! Monet, Monet, Monet...