Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay is framed as the companion show to Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna. Together, the National Gallery Singapore asserts that the shows, referred to collectively as Century of Light, “demonstrate the range of painting styles and art movements that developed in 19th century Europe during the post-enlightenment period of innovation and change.”
U’s round-up of the highlights of Between Worlds was presented, in her inimitable style, in the form of a rap battle between two giants of Southeast Asian art history, Raden Saleh and Juan Luna. The show of 67 Impressionist masterpieces from the famous Musée d’Orsay in Paris, while not quite lending itself to such dramatic treatment, certainly holds up its end of the bargain as being a worthy companion to Between Worlds. Does the pairing of the two shows make sense? Does the juxtaposition allow for interesting comparisons and parallels to be made? Was the intention to show how the Asian works were influenced by Impressionism? Let’s leave those questions on the back-burner for the moment and dive right into the show itself, shall we? First, some background.
Impressionism was an artistic movement that originated in France in the mid to late 1800s. Some famous names associated with the movement include Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. Rejecting the fine detail and finish to which most artists of their day aspired, the Impressionists aimed, instead, to capture the momentary sense, or impression, of a scene in a brief instant. In particular, they were interested in the transient effect of sunlight on the way the eye perceived objects. To paint in this manner, many Impressionist artists moved out from the studio, to paint en plein air (in the open air).
The paintings they produced were characterised by quick, short brushstrokes and dabs of colour that seemed, to the artistic establishment at the time, vulgar and pedestrian, the brushwork lazy and the finished works, incomplete. “Impressionistic”, the insult delivered by art critic Louis Leroy at the group’s first exhibition (with Monet’s Impression, Sunrise being particularly singled out for ridicule) gave the movement its name. While reviled in its day, Impressionism, which broke established conventions of painting in proposing new approaches in colour, composition, technique and subject matter, is now considered revolutionary, responsible for leading painting into the modern era. It is one of the most influential movements in art history and is much-loved by art audiences around the world.
The works in the NGS show are presented as a survey of the development of Impressionism through the prism of colour – beginning with the radical new way in which painters used black in the 1860s, to how they developed techniques for capturing light, through a series of white snow landscapes, a section on greens and blues which shows how painting outdoors helped create new visions of landscapes, leading to the Neo-Impressionists and their use of complementary colours and ending with a final section on pinks and purples, demonstrating late Impressionism’s shifting approach to colour, now seeking to evoke moods, emotions and atmosphere rather than capturing specific moments.
This triptych of works, by Pissarro, Monet and Sisley, painted circa 1872, exemplifies all the characteristics of Impressionism – the way in which the artists captured the luminosity of light, the use of white in all the colours and the quick, spontaneous brushstrokes which give the paintings a sense of liveliness and immediacy. Painting outdoors and the need to capture a scene in rapidly changing light required the artists to paint very quickly. In the past, work done outdoors would be merely preparatory sketches and studies and the final work was completed painstakingly over a long time in the artist’s studio. Presenting and exhibiting paintings which had been rendered quickly outdoors as finished works defied the artistic conventions and traditions of the day and outraged many.
Most of us would look at this snowy landscape by Monet and find nothing out of the ordinary about it, so used are we to seeing paintings of wintry scenes that look pretty much like this. But back in the day, it was an act of radical defiance to paint the shadows in the snow in blue and violet instead of the conventional black! The Impressionists’ overriding purpose was (as has been mentioned repeatedly, I know) to show the effect of light on a scene. Their snow landscapes are a fine example of how the Impressionists changed the way we look at, and depict, light and shadow. Snow reflects the colours of everything that surrounds it and, in meeting the challenge of capturing the subtle gradations of light on a monochromatic, reflective blanket of snow, the Impressionists saw, and hence painted, blue shadows. This led one critic to describe them as an “orgy of tones” that must have been the result of the artists wearing “different pairs of glasses … to provide them with the tone they are seeking.” Remember also that the Impressionists’ sincerity and zeal in wanting to closely study the effects of light on snow required them to paint outdoors – in freezing conditions! This, too, subjected them to much ridicule.
The rapid technological developments of the 19th century contributed to the rise of Impressionism – the new French railway system allowed artists to travel more easily to the countryside outside Paris and portable easels and paints in metal tubes enabled the Impressionists to work outdoors.
In painting outdoor landscapes, the Impressionist sought to avoid assigning specific colours to specific objects, instead trying to see how the colours of objects changed with the changing light and attempting to depict nature as they saw it at a given moment. As Monet advised a young painter:
“When you have before you [ …] Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint them just as you see them […] until your own artless impression of the scene appears before you.”
Monet painted 12 canvases of his beloved waterlily pond with the Japanese-style bridge in his garden at Giverny, from the same vantage point but under different light conditions. The sky is not visible here and the water is almost obscured by the plants and greenery, depicted, as he advised, in a tapestry of shapes and colours. It is the diversity of his brushstrokes that creates the different forms and textures which make the various elements of the work identifiable.
This small selection of works from the show, I hope, give a glimpse of what the exhibition has to offer and seeks to convey – what a bunch of #Gangstas the #Impressionistas were! An art movement that triggered innovations that shaped the development of modern art, it continues to influence and inspire artists throughout the world. At the end of the show, there is a nice little wall text that lists some of the Singapore artists whose works are exhibited at the National Gallery, who lived and studied in Paris at the time of Impressionists and who explored Impressionist and post-Impressionist techniques in their work. They include such luminaries as Georgette Chen, Liu Kang and Lim Hak Tai.
And what of the connection between this show on Impressionism and the other exhibition that is being shown concurrently with this one, Between Worlds? According to the NGS’ Director Dr Eugene Tan, the pairing of the two shows arose from nothing more than a desire to explore concurrent developments in other parts of the world at a time when Asian artists like Raden Saleh and Juan Luna were making art. Whether the two artists were influenced by or employed Impressionist techniques is open to question although Juan Luna, at least, would have been familiar with Impressionist works when he visited Paris.
Regardless of whether or not modern Asian art is viewed as derivative of Western art in terms of certain formal and stylistic aspects, the more important question is this: does it even matter? In terms of artistic and art historical value, modern Asian works are important in their own right, given their multi-layered references and ability to provoke thought and emotion in viewers. One can’t deny the influence of the Western world in regional art and it certainly can’t hurt for an Asian audience to have a deeper understanding of the technical methods of painting which eventually found their way to our part of the world. In fact, one might go so far as to argue that such deeper understanding can only help us to better appreciate the nuances of our own artistic heritage.
(Featured Image : Paul Signac, Le Château des Papes (Palace of the Popes), 1909)