Clark Exhibit on Pissarro Humanizes Impressionism

Pissarro’s People

Through October 2, 2011

Clark Institute of Art

Williamstown, MA

If one had to anoint a single artistic style as the global favorite, a strong case could be made for impressionism. Indeed, it’s so popular (and ubiquitous) that it runs the risk of stupefying modern viewers. We rush into galleries, seek the Monets, Renoirs, Cézannes, and so on, stand before them, drink in their colors, and enjoy our vicarious brushes with greatness. But do we see them? Do we get beneath the surface? Do we understand why or how they changed art history? Taking in the new exhibit at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts is a step in the right direction of reevaluating impressionism.

Impressionism was, of course, a French movement of trained young artists rejected by the official salon seeking recognition. It thus comes as an initial surprise to learn that the one painter--Camille Pissarro--who took part in all eight impressionist exhibits between 1874 and 1888 wasn’t a precocious youth, wasn’t French, and was a Jewish anarchist to boot. Pissarro (1830-1903) was older than his impressionist compatriots and his Danish nationality--he was born in the Danish West Indies--his anarchism and his secular Judaism made him an outsider in the France of the Dreyfus Affair and Third Republic crackdowns on radicals. Pissarro’s anarchism was not the bomb-throwing kind; he was a utopian who idealized plebeian life and dreamed of a future in which peasant life was one part hard work and several parts idyllic leisure. He sought to make the personal political and often frontloaded his paintings with his anarchist vision. Like so many aspects of impressionism, today’s viewers can easily forget how radical these images were in their day.

The Clark wisely focuses its exhibit not on the grand boulevards and tranquil landscapes with which Pissarro is now most remembered, but with his paintings of people: family members, friends, Normandy neighbors, and--when he finally acquired some discretionary income (he was never wealthy), his household staff. He treated the latter as equals; among the most radical aspects of this exhibit--aside from a seldom-discussed illustrated anarchist primer he made to instruct younger family members--are paintings of peasants and domestic workers at rest. A personal favorite is one of a young woman wholly focused on drinking her café au lait, a scene that might seem banal unless one knew about what passed for normal in master/servant relations outside the Pissarro household.

None of the works in the Clark show are “famous” in the sense that they would normally be part of a Pissarro retrospective, and quite a few of them are ones you’d not know were his without the signature: early figure drawings, market scenes with cartoon-like coloring, and works that stray from what we think of as impressionism, including some that approach pointillism. (Pissarro befriended Georges Seurat and famously badgered him to revise “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”) Not dwelling on iconic work helps us see Pissarro in a fresh light. He was an artist who worked in various media (oil, gouache, Conté crayon, charcoal, ink) and one whose brush strokes ranged from freestyle strokes to Van Gogh-like thick layers to images comprised of carefully calculated right-angled lines. On a single canvass he painted a peasant surrounded by cabbages, some “impressionistically” rendered by looping sweeps of his brush, and others of thousands of finely rendered tiny flecks of green and white paint.

If impressionism had a leader, it was Pissarro. The beauty of the Clark exhibit is that we get a better understanding of why everyone from Monet to Van Gogh tracked down Pissarro to discuss painting. Sometimes clues reside in ordinary details, not big spectacles. This exhibit is rare in having several paintings accompanied by all of the studies that preceded them. In the end, though, it’s not the sketches or the canvases that are Pissarro’s enduring legacy; it is the connection he made with his subjects. “Pissarro’s People” humanizes impressionism and strips away its clichés.

Congratulations to the Clark for cobbling together so many works from private collections and “lesser” works from museums such as Oxford’s Ashmolean and Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam. The museum has even spruced up its own buttoned-down image a bit by sprinkling the grounds with Pissarro tableaux fashioned from cloth and straw. If you’re anywhere near Williamstown before October 2, carve out a few hours for this show. And while you’re at it, clamber up the hill to the Stone Center to see Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s stunning large-scale flowing curtains fashioned from entirely of the bands from alcohol bottles. Trust me--you’ll be astonished.

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