BOOK REVIEW / Stock-still lives with a photo finish: Beyond Impressionism - Gabriel P Weisberg: Thames & Hudson, pounds 38

TIMES AND tastes may be a-changing, but there is at least one area of Western middle-class life that remains the same. A good majority still believes, as it has for the whole post-war era, that the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists reign supreme in art. Although the recession is biting into exhibition programmes, we can rest assured that the Royal Academy will grant us our annual dose of Vincent, Edouard, Claude or Paul, and that the publishers will keep up the flow of posters, books, calendars and cards.

Yet many museum professionals, art historians and critics are frustrated by the public's insatiable appetite for Impressionism: disappointing attendances for the Constable and Ramsay exhibitions have both been blamed on the public's indifference to non-Impressionism. One such malcontent is the American art historian, Gabriel P Weisberg. His crusading book, Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse in European Art 1860-1905, seeks to convince us that there is more to late 19th-century European art than currently meets the eye.

Naturalism emerged in France in the late 1870s and spread across Europe in the 1880s. Its leading lights were Jules Bastein-Lepage and Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, and the Englishmen George Clausen and Henry Herbert La Thangue. This fastidious form of social history painting did well in fin-de-siecle salons and Summer Exhibitions, but by the turn of the century Naturalist masterworks were being exiled to provincial museums and consigned to store.

Though Naturalism was often used as a synonym for Realism, Weisberg distinguishes between them. Whereas the art of a Realist such as Courbet was firmly rooted in the Old Masters (de Hooch, Ribera and Chardin), Naturalists wanted to emulate the scientific exactitude and objectivity of Emile Zola's novels.

To this end, many of their paintings were derived from a montage of meticulously staged photographs. They also posed models in specially constructed outdoor glass studios, and some even had portable studios so they could work in new locations. These various contraptions 'facilitated the observation of real light' on a largely proletarian cast.

The photographic acuity of their art came in for criticism, and persuaded them to conceal their methods (the painters of the Newlyn School in Cornwall even organised a propaganda campaign with photographs of themselves painting en plein air). Yet Weisberg believes that this very feature makes Naturalist tableaux both pioneering and prophetic. They are precursors of Photo-Realism and cinema verite.

Weisberg's book has some very startling spreads. Dagnan-Bouveret's large oil painting Breton Women at a Pardon (1887), for example, depicts a circle of Breton women in traditional dress sitting in a field overlooked by a gothic church spire. A series of photographs documents his working process. First he made photographic etudes of a group of local women assembled in a field. He then made tracings of the best photographs and pinned them to his studio wall. After manipulating them into their final arrangement, he transferred the images to canvas. A final photograph shows the artist painting in his glass studio, thereby 'tinting' his picture with colour.

Whereas Impressionist paintings suggest a casual snapshot realism, many of the figures in Naturalist art are uncannily still and stiff. This accords with the movement's conservative politics. Proletarians are not spontaneous or mobile individuals; they are stable, stoic institutions. The Sick Girl, painted by the Norwegian Naturalist Christian Krohg in 1880-81, stares fixedly out from her bath-chair. She seems rapt before the implied camera, as though she were in the presence of a Deus ex Machina.

This is a well-produced book, and good value, but the art, though clearly a significant phenomenon, rarely rises above the level of kitsch. Weisberg does his best, but the sameness of style makes the artists, and his accounts of them, seem virtually interchangeable. As he himself remarks: 'The uniformity of Naturalism could be passed from painter to painter, from country to country - a fact that infuriated modernists interested in subjective moods, personal states of the soul, and abstraction.'

Moreover, although his strategy of linking Naturalism to Photo-Realism is convincing, it does them few favours. The American Photo-Realists whom he cites with approval (Chuck Close and Richard Estes) have never been very highly regarded. The only major apologist I know of is Tom Wolfe in the mid-1970s, and he only liked Photo-Realism by default - because it drove orthodox critics 'bananas' and gave them 'cautical blowouts'.

The brand of Photo-Realism that is currently admired - by Hamilton, Warhol, Richter and now even Sickert - tends to be a hybrid style in which the picture surface has been manipulated in a 'painterly' way. Sadly for Weisberg, I suspect that his book will come to be seen as an eccentric party political broadcast, after which normal Impressionist service is quickly resumed.

(Photograph omitted)

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