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.


Major League Baseball at Midseason: How am I Doing?

The All-Star game marks the traditional half way point. So how am I doing in my preseason predictions?

As Yogi Berra so astutely observed of major league baseball, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” but that doesn’t stop any of us, including me, from engaging in preseason speculation about what will happen. I dutifully posted my predictions in April, so let’s check up and see how I’m doing.

As Good as I Predicted:

The San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, and Detroit Tigers are sitting atop their divisions, as predicted. I also said the Atlanta Braves would top the NL East. At present they’re 3 ½ games back, but they’re the second-best team in the NL, so give me that one too.

Slightly Better than Expected:

The Philadelphia Phillies offense has more than made up for the fact that I found their vaunted pitching staff slightly overrated. I’m shocked that Cole Hamels is 11-4, but I was right that Oswalt wouldn’t last a whole year. The Milwaukee Brewers are currently in first; I picked them second. I may still be right about them as I think the real story is how bad the NL Central has been. I picked the Washington Nationals for last and currently they’re 46-46, so currently I’m off, but I don’t think I will be in October. The team has a future, but it’s not now.

I knew the Boston Red Sox were loaded, but I picked them for second (and the Wild Card) and they’re currently leading the tough AL East. This prediction could go either way, as that division probably won’t be settled until late September.

Way Better than I Anticipated;

At present the obvious choices are the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Arizona Diamondbacks, both of whom I slated for the basement. That said, I continue to see both of them as bad teams currently overachieving in the case of the D-backs, and simply playing in a bad division in the case of the Pirates. This year, though, the Pirates won’t finish last, so I’m wrong on that one.

I knew that the Cleveland Indians had wonderful young talent, but I thought they were a year or two away and picked them to finish fourth. It looks like their kids are maturing faster than I anticipated, though I still don’t think they’ll finish in the money. Ditto the Los Angeles Angels, who are lurking in second. I don’t think they’ll last either. And I think Jared Weaver will return to earth.

My biggest misfire, methinks, is the New York Yankees, whom I picked to finish fourth. Who knew that Freddie Garcia and Bartolo Colon would pitch like they were 28? The Yankees have been very resilient even though they’ve had devastating injuries and are old and fragile. Age and fatigue took their toll at the end of last season and I suspect it will again this year, but so far I look like a chump on this prediction!

As Bad as I Predicted:

The Kansas City Royals never fail to live down to expectations. I’m sick of hearing about their “prospects;” most of them retire before they’ve ever shed the label. Bad team in a lousy city.

I also said that the Houston Astros were in for a long year and it looks like a desperate summer indeed as they’ve fuddled their way to MLB’s worst record. It doesn’t look promising for next year either as management is in flux and isn’t likely to be offloading underachievers.

Speaking of underachievers, leave it to the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs to set the bar low. Both are absolute train wrecks that need to be scrapped with new stock placed on the rails. That might not be a bad plan for the Seattle Mariners either, a team that always looks good on paper and stinks on the field. The GM will be lynched if he trades Felix Hernandez, but it might be time to package Ichiro for prospects as this team is spinning its wheels, as predicted.

As Mediocre as I Thought:

The St. Louis Cardinals are sputtering, as I suspected they would because of injuries. They’re tied for first at present but they’ve been up and down all year. They might still win the division, which wouldn’t surprise me. Nor would I be surprised if they finish third or lower. Looks like .520 ball will win this division.

Leave it to the big-mouthed, little-talent Ozzie Guillen to keep the Chicago White Sox safely under .500 instead of in the chase. This one’s playing out as predicted, with Ozzie launching more shots than his lineup. Will the Colorado Rockies make their yearly run at the top? I continue to think they’ll finish in the middle of the pack, where they currently reside and where I picked them to be.

I also said that the Toronto Blue Jays would finish in the cellar, but be the toughest last place team in MLB. Looks like they’ll finish fourth instead, but they’ll continue to be a team you simply don’t want to play in an important series. If this team can stay together, it will make some real noise in the next few years.

Who Knew How Bad They’d Stink?

There’s simply no excuse for the Miami Marlins or the Oakland A’s to be in their respective basements. Both teams have already fired their managers; look for the trade vans outside both ballparks. And can we stop talking about what a genius Billy Beane is? Yeah, right! The A’s aren’t going anywhere soon, unless it’s San Jose.

The Cincinnati Reds ought to be running away with the weak NL Central, not sitting in fourth. Okay, they don’t stink, but serious thought must be given to replacing Dusty Baker if things don’t get better fast. That is, unless management thinks that their young talent was overrated (which it might be).

Did anyone pick the Minnesota Twins to be nearer the basement than the top of the AL Central? I said in April that it was a fragile team that couldn’t weather sustained injuries to key players. That’s been the Doomsday scenario that’s played out with Joe Mauer, Jim Thome, Liriano, Kubel, and others spending time on the DL. I continue to think the Twins will get well enough to make a run. I doubt it will be enough to get them to the postseason.

I picked the Tampa Bay Rays to win the AL East on the strength of their pitching. I think I’m wrong about them. The Rays simply can’t hit--for power or average. They lost 1-0 to the Yankees the other day, when a run scored on two errors. This team has no such margins for error and, barring a major trade or a Yankees collapse, looks like a third place team.

Add the Los Angeles Dodgers to the scrap-it-and-start-over list. This is a franchise in total disarray and Don Mattingly has been no Joe Torre in keeping his players battle-ready under the microscope. Half of this team wants out and if I’m the GM, I oblige them. Mattingly might not last the year either.

As wrong as I was about the Dodgers, give me the Double Bonehead Award for picking the Baltimore Orioles to finish above the Yankees. The Orioles have been stunningly awful--so bad that management must reevaluate its prospects. It doesn’t look as if any of their young pitchers is an ace and it appears increasingly likely that most of them aren’t cut out for the Bigs at all. Don’t get me started on what a waste of money it was to sign Derek Lee or Mark Reynolds. This team’s numbers one and two needs are new ownership and new management.

Who am I Picking Now?

Revised List--National League: Giants and Phillies. The Central is up for grabs. It still should be the Reds. If not them, it’s a toss-up between St. Louis and Milwaukee. Wild Card: Braves.

Revised American League: Red Sox, Tigers, Rangers. Wild Card: Yankees.

How’d I Do?

No too bad so far. I was out to lunch on a few teams, but none of my top picks are out of the running. Unless the Pirates go crazy and win the NL Central or the Diamondbacks steal the West, I’m fairly accurate on the bad teams as well. I’d give me a B/B+. What say you?


Told You So!

The only sane man in government?

Indulge me in a long quote:

I think what we will be seeing… within a few months [is] folks complaining on the floor of the Senate, and this is what they will say: “You know what?” The deficit is high. The national debt is too high…. [We] are going to have to deal with our national debt.” The Republicans will tell you: “Oh, we have a great plan to deal with it. We are giving tax breaks to millionaires. But now we… have to make deep cuts in Social Security….We are certainly going to see attacks on environmental protection, on education…. Cut. Cut. Cut…. [They] want to move the country back into the 1920s when essentially we had an economic and political system which was controlled by big money interests; where working people and the middle class had no programs to sustain them when things got bad, when they got old, and when they got sick; when labor unions were very hard to come by because of antiworker legislation…. They do not believe in things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Federal aid to education.

Rhetoric from the Senate over the current debate on a budget compromise to keep government running beyond August 2? I wish! These words came from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on December 10, 2010, when he led an ultimately unsuccessful filibuster against the last budget and tax deal crafted by President Obama (a nominal Democrat), spineless Democratic compromisers, and Republican pyromaniacs who threatened to shut down government unless they secured an extension of Bush-era tax breaks for the richest 1% of Americans and corporations (but not small businesses).

In his speech Senator Sanders also noted that the 2010 agreement to extend tax breaks was, allegedly, just for two years. He wryly noted, “I suggest you take that with a grain of salt,” and predicted that the push would come to make the cuts “permanent” as soon as the deadline approached. He also predicted that the GOP would cry “raising taxes” and seek to strike fear into the hearts of all Americans, when the taxes in question actually impacted only those making over a million dollars.

Is Sanders a voice crying out in the wilderness, or the only sane man in government? My vote goes for the latter. Those who read Sanders’s filibuster today might well think they’re reading the morning paper as everything he predicted has come to pass. Particularly striking is Sanders’s blistering condemnation (with the facts to back it up) of the trickle-down myth. If you still think that wealthy jetsetters and corporate piggies create jobs, you are seriously deluded. There is no evidence that this happens, and a considerable track record of these folks eliminating American jobs in favor of sending them to places like Vietnam, where they can pay workers 25 cents an hour.

Sanders also said that the only thing to do is for people to reclaim democracy from robber barons and the flunkies (in both parties) who serve them is to put politicians’ feet to the fire and force them to serve their constituents, not lobbyists. Flood their offices with emails, calls, letters… and work like hell to dislodge those who refuse to do the people’s will.

I’d go a step further in the current budget debate. Contact representatives who oppose the GOP plan and send a single message: No Deal! Send the same to the White House. It’s time for Obama to stop playing diplomat and, to use a British phrase, pit a bit of stick about. Let the Republicans shut down government on August 2. It didn’t work out so well when Newt Gingrich pulled that stunt under Clinton, a far savvier president than Obama has been thus far. Let Republicans go home and explain why granny didn’t get her social security check, why Billy can’t get a student loan, why the local veteran’s hospital is closed, why mom didn’t get her unemployment check, and why state services partially funded with federal money aren’t operating. In short, urge Obama to have the courage to let the pain happen so people see the GOP plan stripped of its rhetorical window dressing. If ever there is a case of no pain, no gain, this is it.

Make the call--No Deal! While you’re at it, add a “God bless Bernie Sanders.” I’ve said it before and will say it again: we need a lot more independents like Sanders in government and far fewer Republicrats.