EXHIBITIONS / Spot the difference, vive la difference: The Royal Academy has the first proper show of Pissarro's last work - his urban series paintings. It's right up the connoisseur's street

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The Independent Culture
IN THE first room of the Royal Academy's Pissarro exhibition, you find three pictures to your left, all of the Carousel in the Tuileries Gardens. Look at them from some distance, and you might not guess that the paintings were his. Cool, grey and even, they are reminiscent of a rather older master, Corot.

This is not surprising, since Corot had been Pissarro's first master, 40 years before. But it does make one think that Pissarro's brushwork was over-elaborated. Such a lot went into the manufacture of his pictures. There he sat over his easel, down went the brush and was rapidly lifted; pat, flick, dab, flick, pat, time and again. You can feel the speed of this application and also its assurance. Pissarro was the master technician of his way of making art. But the guaranteed virtuosity fails to thrill. One looks for pentimenti to have the satisfaction of finding Pissarro in difficulties; and after examining a couple of dozen paintings I was hungry for more positive colour and for paint that could be experienced in areas rather than strokes.

Perhaps this is an impertinent reaction (though the Fauves who grew up as Pissarro declined must have had similar feelings). But to appreciate this exhibition you must think of Pissarro alone, and not allow your mind to stray towards other art. We have seen quite a lot of him in recent years. In 1980 there was the Hayward retrospective that marked his 150th anniversary. The Ashmolean often presents archival material. Three years ago there was a thoughtful exhibition that travelled from Birmingham to Glasgow. All these displays put Pissarro among other Impressionists and stressed his social attitudes. The RA show is more concentrated. It insists that we compare him not with other artists but with himself.

That is because of the nature of his late works. The subject of the exhibition is Pissarro's last work, his series of cityscapes. He had been a landscapist all his life and had often connected fields, rivers and woods with the people whose earthly existence depended on tilling and harvesting. In his last decade, however, Pissarro turned to urban scenes. From 1893 to 1903 his subjects were Paris, Rouen, Dieppe and Le Havre. Now, like his old comrade Monet, he painted in series. There are 11 of them. He settled on a subject, then took six or seven canvases and worked on them simultaneously. He stopped work on one and started on another when the weather or his mood changed, or there was some shift in street traffic or the boats in his Normandy harbours.

Nobody has really brought these pictures together before, partly because they have been less admired than Pissarro's earlier work. So the thorough book that goes with the exhibition, by Richard Brettell and the artist's descendant Joachim Pissarro (Yale, pounds 19.50), is full of new information. I am less sure of its interpretations. Brettell sees a similarity between Pissarro and Canaletto (this has never occurred to anyone else, including Pissarro) and he associates crowds in cityscapes with social observation of workers, soldiers and the wealthy. Furthermore, such figures illustrate Pissarro's anarchist politics and the 'drama of the exploitation of the many by the few'.

It's always good to see anarchist theories entering Burlington House, but isn't this farfetched? It's hard to believe that Pissarro was intent on illustrating politics when he painted those everyday scenes outside his own windows. In the RA, I found a strange combination. On one hand there is a selection and catalogue hoping to make a left-wing point. And on the other a set of paintings, now or previously owned by rich people, whose purposes are not political at all. For why did Pissarro paint in series if he did not wish to sell more work or if he did not use the serial format to polish his avant-garde elitist craft?

The exhibition is best viewed as an exercise in connoisseurship. The Sackler Gallery's walls invite us to look at highly similar paintings of the same subject painted in the same short period. We can assess their quality simply by looking at them. Anarchism can be left where it best flourishes, in the home, and all the explanatory stuff about docks and bridges may be ignored. I don't look at paintings to be instructed in 19th-century civil engineering. The organisers have missed a connection between Pissarro's late paintings and his times. They belong to the decade of aestheticism.

Pissarro had always been sensitive to art around him. Trained in the silver-grey niceties of Corot, he could also have been affected by the absence of pictorial colour in the new art of the fin-de-siecle. Renoir and Monet went for a glowing palette in their final days. Pissarro could not follow them into that kind of sunset. He might have made better paintings had he gone the other way, toward all the ghostly greys and subdued olives that sidled around the blackness of aestheticism. There's just one painting in the show that looks toward this sort of palette, the self-portrait just before he died. And it's the only one that isn't part of a series.

Pissarro began his series paintings in Paris, closer to his dealers, and painted there in four spells from 1892 to 1903, the year of his death. Though he was in his seventies, his hand scarcely faltered. I was most taken by pictures of the Boulevard Montmartre: they vary in mood and colour temperature, and bring out a boisterousness in the old man, perhaps because of his location. The Foggy Morning approaches the coffin colour I like: other pictures in the series are elegant as well as demotic; and the boulevard by night springs to a different kind of life, for it resembles the first Parisian art of the young Picasso. The lad from Barcelona had genius. Pissarro hadn't, but we can still appreciate his old painterly wisdom.

Royal Academy (071-439 7438), daily to 10 Oct.

(Photograph omitted)

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