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ART / Speaking a different language altogether

Impressionism in Britain - Barbican, London
Writing in 1925, John Lavery declared: "It was never clear what Impressionism meant." That his words still ring true is evident from the Barbican's new exhibition in which he features. "Impressionism in Britain" sets out to make clear the internationalising impulses of Britain's turn-of-the-century artists. But what we have here is a scholarly monster of a show, whose message has become obfuscated by detail. The layman might conclude that the works on view here result directly from the influence of Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas and Sisley upon British artists. But the circumstances which led them to their "new notion of art" were far more complex.

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.