ART / The anarchist of the boulevards: Pissarro was a master of crowd control, but how would he have handled a street riot?

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The Independent Culture
'These Paris streets, which are often called ugly, but which are so silvery, so luminous and so lively . . .' Yes, well, the Impressionists have a way of sounding like tourist brochures. In the final years of his life, Camille Pissarro turned from being a painter mainly of the countryside to a painter of the town. It was partly for health reasons: he had an eye complaint, which made it dangerous to work outdoors. But he still found plenty to bask in. The Impressionist in the City at the Royal Academy has about 100 of his pictures. These are views of the streets and quays of Rouen, Paris, Dieppe and Le Havre, painted from a succession of hotel windows between 1896 and 1903, and there's light and atmosphere for those that want them.

But there's something else, too, particularly in the scenes of the great, straight Parisian boulevards with their thronging pavements. The artist can hardly avoid a vision of society.

The New Paris, the boulevards created by Baron Haussmann in the mid- century in a huge project of urban modernisation, have become quite a talisman for recent studies of the Impressionists. Revisions have been in the offing, to show Impressionism no longer as an untroubled art whose conversation is mainly about the weather - but rather one deeply implicated in the politics of its age. Remember what the boulevards, those delightful prospects, were for. They cleared the centre of Paris of its working-class districts, hotbeds of trouble, and opened it out into stamping- grounds for the bourgeois.

How did those Impressionists respond? Why, they just joined in the spectacle (some of them). And looking at two pictures by Monet of the Boulevard des Capuchins from 1873 - milling street scenes that are direct forebears of Pissarro's Paris views - one scholar has seen only pictorial collaboration, uncritical celebrations of Haussmann's social planning: 'a meretricious delight in the modern, or proposals in paint that the street henceforward would be a fine and dandy place'.

The severely judgemental tone is very attractive. Nothing brings a work of art to life like a proper denunciation. But the charge of collaboration is too slack (and collaboration is the substance of almost all political criticism of past art). Everyone collaborates, in one way or another. And to give an interesting political edge to Impressionism - one may as well try at least - requires a little more.

Pissarro himself is in every way a more hopeful case. He was the most consciously politicised of the Impressionists, more or less a card-carrying Anarchist and an enthusiastic reader of Joseph 'property-is-theft' Proudhon. Here it looks as though politics will be not just a relevant consideration, but very much to the artist's own purposes. And one episode in particular can hardly be overlooked. At the start of 1898, Pissarro was in Paris, painting a set of pictures of the Avenue de l'Opera, in all weathers, at all times of day. But as the present curator writes, 'Another factor must be brought directly to bear on this particular series: the Dreyfus Case.'

As a Jew and an anti-clerical, anti-military radical, Pissarro was a committed Dreyfusard, who followed the case closely. The early months of 1898 saw one of the peaks of the affaire with the publication of Emile Zola's pro-Dreyfus broadside J'ACCUSE and Zola's subsequent trial, with anti-Semitic claques mobbing defence witnesses outside the court. As the correspondent of the Times noted, 'This affair is beginning to affect business. The shops are suffering, timorous foreigners hasten their departure or postpone their arrival.' Meanwhile Pissarro was painting, and on his streets we find . . . no sign of trouble. The catalogue has to concede 'the lack of any trace of social demonstration, or political grouping in the pictures'. Or, as Pissarro put it, 'Despite the serious events unravelling in Paris, I am forced, in spite of my worries, to work at my window as if nothing were happening.'

A plain moral presents itself: Keep Politics Out of Art. At any rate, it looks like a hopeful critical approach has run up hard against the unobliging evidence of the eye. But I don't see that one should be too glad of this. For surely it would be interesting if those serious events were registered in Pissarro's painting, if they had left a trace. And it's worth wondering what kind of trace that might have been. Could Pissarro, without turning into a quite different kind of artist, have made pictures with significant political content? Could he perhaps have painted a riot?

The answer to that last question is yes, if he'd had a riot before him (though, unlike the provinces, the capital had little in the way of large-scale disturbances). But yes, because the artist we see in these urban scenes is a vigilant demographer. It is their best point. He keenly observes the movements and formations of crowds on the street. No Impressionist painting makes such a devoted study of the behaviour of people en masse - perhaps no painting since Breughel. There is the view of the Place de Theatre Francais, a picture almost entirely composed of traffic flow and pedestrians crossing, and it's really only an enlargement of the populous foregrounds of all his boulevard views. And then there's the rather sinister picture of a Mardi Gras procession on the Boulevard Montmartre, with its densely thronged onlookers crowding out the street. So a riot, definitely - and as hypothetical pictures go, a Pissarro riot is one to savour.

It wouldn't tell you much, though, about the causes or interests or even the emotions involved. Pissarro's Impressionism doesn't allow that kind of interest in people. Beginning his first urban series in Rouen in 1896, the artist wrote: 'I wanted to capture the animation of that beehive which is Rouen and its quays.' And that's very much his way with the human world - animation, bustle. The crowd becomes another passing phenomenon, like chimney smoke, like clouds, to be caught as it goes. The image is a familiar one: they're like insects, swarming. Pissarro's vantage point is always high up, from a window several storeys above ground level. He takes the overview.

He never goes to the extreme of adopting an absolutely overhead perspective - as a fellow Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte, had done in his Boulevard Seen from Above of 1880. One contemporary critic called that picture 'a neck-breaking panorama . . . a man foreshortened from his hat . . . Such a thing is ultimately meaningless, if only because to view the work properly, the painting would have to lie on the floor.' And it's true that (however it has hung) a direct overhead shot does have an estranging, dehumanising effect. People look de-animated, dots on a field. Pissarro avoids this absurdist comedy. His overview is benign. His little people aren't automata, they're clearly shown going about their businesses. But he keeps his distance.

One of the most basic tricks of European painting was the discovery that if you're doing a faraway crowd, say, you don't have to put in every single member of it, one by one. With some appropriate dotting and speckling, and given the right context, you can get a very convincing throng-effect. It's a sign of primitive and nave painting that it doesn't know this trick. Impressionism exploits it par excellence. It applies the rules for distance to every case.

In one of Pissarro's paintings of the Pont-Neuf, there's a flecked patch of blue and red. Isolate this patch, extract it from the whole picture, and it would hardly be recognisable as anything. But in situ, it's immediately identified as a platoon of guards marching over the bridge. Likewise, in rainy day scenes there are those cobbled grey areas that represent a scrum of umbrellas. And the trick is transferred from crowds to individuals, too. How many of Pissarro's pedestrians consist of just the sketchiest dash, instantly readable. In the right place a blur becomes information. And there's a surprising amount of reportage, with minimal but clear enough indications of class, sex and job, in the foreground figures at least.

But it's not as though some kind of critique of Third Republic society is on the point of bursting through the paintwork. Style imposes limits. A Pissarro riot would remain a dramatic natural phenomenon, an impressive spectacle of movement. His knowledge of the world is confined to what can be seen from an upper window. It's important to remember the dimensions that Pissarro's art denies itself. A complex story like the Dreyfus case would always be beyond it.

The boulevard scenes do have a political charge, though, and it's perfectly simple and upfront. Just before starting his urban pictures, Pissarro was painting rural idylls at Eragny, and his social ideals seem to have been fundamentally ruralist, with an anti-town bias. At the end of the 1880s he made a series of engravings called Social Turpitudes, depicting the evils of the city in a Dickens / Dore mode. But in these paintings, the city and particularly its street-life carry a quite different meaning.

It's a vision that couldn't have been granted at street-level - but under Pissarro's benign survey, Haussmann's boulevards are made into ideal human landscapes: harmonious, self-adjusting systems of individuals and crowds, pedestrians and traffic, negotiating each other without conflict. No collisions, no runnings-over, no jams to speak of, no police. No sign of trouble? This is the point. The activities of street and square (slightly idealised maybe) provide a small working model of an Anarchist utopia, the co-operative society without controls.

See facing page for details

(Photograph omitted)

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