Impressionists and friends: on the verge of the modern

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

There seems to be an exhibition of Impressionist art somewhere in Tokyo every year, such is its popularity in Japan.

This summer,the National Art Center, Tokyo is presenting “Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art,” showing works from the celebrated Washington museum’s collection. The exhibition boasts 83 works, including nearly a dozen each by Edouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a half-dozen by Edgar Degas and Claude Monet as well as a good handful of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne paintings, and much more.

For audiences acclimatized to the extremes of 20th-century art, it is perhaps difficult to imagine why the Impressionists caused such a stink in 19th-century France. Today, at its best their work appears sensuous and subtle, at its worst sentimental and chocolate-box cute. Back then, however, even the simple act of taking their easels outside to observe their surroundings as they painted was deemed radical when artists of the academic tradition created, in the studio, historical, Biblical or mythological scenes, in which nature was more idealized than raw. This desire to paint directly from nature combined with a new approach to the nude — foregoing idealized visions of femininity and using models who were frequently taken for women of easy virtue — left the Impressionists garnering more scorn than support.

They were not, however, the first group of artists to go back to nature. In the exhibition’s first section, “Until the Advent of Impressionism,” Charles-Francois Daubigny’s Constable-esque river scene reveal a realism that greatly influenced the Impressionists. It’s regrettable that although British landscape painters were a strong influence on the Barbizon group, to which Daubigny belonged, as well as on the Impressionists, the Washington museum didn’t provide any of its works by John Constable or J.M.W. Turner. Their inclusion would have given a more rounded account of Impressionism’s origins.

Also exhibited in the first section is the work of Eugene Boudin, who knew the Barbizon artists. Boudin also tackles the subject of washerwomen, filling his work — a beach rather than a river scene — full of light and air. Boudin, a lifelong marine painter, became a mentor and friend of Claude Monet and, although not really part of the Impressionist group, he often exhibited his works with theirs.

The Impressionists were a close-knit group — cultured people with poets, art dealers and restaurateurs as friends — but they had their rivalries, jealousies and different preoccupations. While his contemporaries were determined to go out into nature, Edouard Manet was more fascinated with the colorful bustle of Parisian urban life. “Masked Ball at the Opera” (1873) typifies this modern sensibility: Rather than an illusion of depth, its dramatically cropped frame is packed dense with men in black formal wear and masked women, creating an ambiguously flat image. Through a loose foot here, a dropped mask there, Manet also suggests activity taking place in off-frame space.

The second section, focusing on the Impressionists proper, is dominated by three masterful works by Monet. In one of these, “Woman with a Parasol — Madame Monet and Her Son” (1875), the artist depicts his wife in a blue dress as though she’s merging with the blue sky. In contrast, the rowing men in Gustave Caillebotte’s “Skiffs” (1877) appear to emerge from the canvas, the violence of the splash of water disturbed by the oar rendered by a thick pasting of oils.

The not insignificant contribution of female Impressionist painters is deservedly given some recognition in this section, but whether the single wall displaying their efforts — and keeping them separate from the male artists — helps or hinders their cause is another matter. Berthe Morisot’s “The Harbor at Lorient” (1869) is one standout piece, emphasizing open space through its off-center composition.

The third section moves away from oil paintings, which arguably bring the Impressionists’ aesthetic to life most successfully, in order to highlight the world of prints. Among these are some Paul Gauguin woodcuts that bring our attention to the artist’s move toward primitivism and symbolism, as well as the ukiyo-e-influenced color etchings of American artist Mary Cassatt, such as “Woman Bathing” and “The Bath,” both from 1890-91 — about the time the Impressionist movement is considered to have died out.

As Impressionism made its mark, other artists connected to the movement also began to feel the need to go beyond the depiction of fleeting impressions and look for new forms of expression. The exhibition’s final section, “From Post-Impressionism,” highlights some of those efforts — Seurat’s pointillist experiments with tiny dots, Van Gogh’s visceral assault of colors, and Cezanne’s intense research into the essential forms of nature.

With such a diverse set of artists coming under the umbrella term “Post-Impressionist” — originally coined simply to describe a period of time rather than any shared aesthetic — it’s a colorful if somewhat random close to the exhibition.

“Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art” at The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs till Sept. 5; admission ¥1,500; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Tue. For more information, visit www.nact.jp