12 June 2003 - Musee d'Orsay, Paris
One of my most favourite places in Paris and definitely one of my favourite art museums in the world, is the Musee d'Orsay, which house one the best collections of impressionism period.
The museum is housed in an old railway station, and contains art pieces dating from the early nineteenth century up to the early twentieth century. Slap bang in the middle of this is the Impressionism period, which includes artists like Monet, Renoir and Degas. I've long been interested in their art, specifically their motivations for making what I call "fuzzy pictures". My intrest was piqued by the collections I saw in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and when I found out that they were giving guided tours specifically about the Impressionists, I jumped at the chance.
They actually give a lot of tours, but very few are in English. Fortunately, one of them was on a Thursday, when the museum extends its opening hours until 9.45 pm, which allows me to hang around until I really get tired of looking up close at fuzzy brushstrokes.
The impressionistic movement is officially said to have begun in 1874, when a bunch of young upstarts exhibited a series of paintings that formed a new movement in the art world. It was their work that gave impetus to later, more abstract forms of art, such as by Cezanne and Kandinsky. It is ironic that I celebrate this in-between period so much and yet loathe the bastard offspring.
The roots of the movement were embedded the work of French artists who, if you like, wanted to go back to Nature. They abandoned the warmth and comfort of their studios and ventured forth into the forests of the countryside. This was unusual, for at that time artists made their own paints and it was easier to do this within the confines of the studio. To go outside was to court additional difficulty, but this new breed of artists wanted to paint nature in its environment, and not as they saw it under a roof. Artists like Diaz de la Pena were considered to be outside the art community and they reslished their separation and celebrated their commune with nature.
Although they were outside the conservative art world of the Academy, they still adhered to the traditional romantic period style. Their landscapes were moody studys of a brooding Mother Nature, overlooking Man with her might.
Nevertheless, these rebels inspired the future generations of Impressionists, probably with their derring-do, as well as their body of work. Since these new young wild ones wanted to follow a path not deemed to be "classical", the only teachers they had were each other, and the only references they had were the work of those that inspired them.
In 1861, the work of a recently deceased artist named Delacroix was put on exhibit, and one piece in particular, The Lions, further captured the imagination of the Impressionists. The Lions was an unusual piece of work because it was a sketch for a later painting and not a finished product, but in it you can already see the factors that would inspire Impressionists to come.
Three things stand out. Firstly, the choice of colour veered away from the traditional dark, earth tones, and instead was bright and had plenty of contrast. Complementary colours (such as red and green) was the key.
Secondly, movement was accenuated by the use of colour. Instead of a gradual shade from dark to bright, form and movement was determined by different colours. Paint was placed on top of one another haphazardly to create an effect.
Thirdly, the brush strokes were very rough and seemingly imprecise. The texture of the strokes can be seen in the paint and you can see its movement as the artist moved it about.
These ideas crop up again and again in Impressionistic art. In the ten years between that time and when they finally presented the exhibition, another movement cropped up, which would further influence the impressionists - the Realists.
Manet was one such artist. He felt that it was time to begin painting life as it was, and not an idealisation, as was the thinking at the time. He rejected ideas such as the perfectly proportioned body, the goddess-like faces, inspired by Roman-Greco art, and instead began painting people who had lumps in funny areas, if you like, wearing fashionable shoes and jewellry. Furthermore, he recognised this rebellious idea, and proceded further to abstracise peripherals and props. This further inspired the impressionists to break out of the current mould and begin something anew.
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