ART / Speaking a different language altogether
Impressionism in Britain - Barbican, London
Tuesday 24 January 1995
Baudelaire had laid the ground rules in 1845, when he wrote of Corot that a work might be "complete" without a high degree of finish. More importantly, he declared, "modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent". It was neither plein air-ismnor the conceit of art for art sake that defined Impressionism, but this vital instantaneity.
This is not the case with so-called British Impressionism. It is true that, looking for an alternative to High Victorian academicism, British artists turned to France. But on the whole, despite their protestations, it was not to the Impressionists that they looked but to one particular Realist painter. Every room at the Barbican, save that devoted to Whistler, should include a painting by Jules Bastien Lepage, whose sentimental-naturalist peasant subjects were the acceptable face of avant-garde paintingfor late 19th-century Britain. In imitating Lepage, British artists were able to combine French realist technique and the "modern" subject matter of observed life with British "feelings" - and to make money at the same time.
Those few English artists who merit an Impressionist tag were a timid distillation of the more conservative elements of their French counterparts: Whistler and Paul Maitland looked to Manet, Sickert and Starr to Degas, Sargent to the lyrical figure paintings of Monet. Steer alone, for the brief moment of his jewel-like images of Walberswick, can be called the true British Impressionist.
Most importantly, what the British missed was the crucial democratising subtext. The late-Victorian artists Holl and Herkomer, not included here, were closer in spirit to such feelings. While most Impressionist landscapes contain pointers to the modern world or the transience of humanity, their British equivalents simply miss the point.
In the hands of the English, Impressionism and even Realism were sanitised; their radical technique and intention diffused into the saccharine sentiments that make this certainly the prettiest show in town. The last painting in the show, Orpen's genteel Homage to Manet, is a telling absurdity. A collector, a critic and four artists, all francophiles, sit before Manet's Eva Gonzales. What was intended as a grateful acknowledgment from pupil to mentor is, in effect, a sad testament to the yearning to be something that British Impressionism could never be - French.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 PlayStation and Xbox hacked by Lizard Squad
- 2 Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'
- 3 The Grace Dent Christmas Questionnaire
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
EastEnders Christmas special, review: Brilliant Danny Dyer glues you to your seat
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Alex Salmond has 'broken his word to the Scottish people' says Scottish Lib Dem leader