Art to make time stand still... or blur with impulsive speed

Two shows, two attitudes: Paris lauds Impressionism's slow deliberation, London celebrates its spontaneity
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Manet: Les natures morts | Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Manet: Les natures morts | Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Should you find yourself won over by claims that Impressionism was all about painting quickly, take a trip to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris this autumn. A small, but beautifully curated, show of works by Édouard Manet finds the creator of Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863) concentrating on precisely the kind of thing that would make a good impressionist's toes curl: natures mortes or still lifes, a genre whose entire point was the exploration of stasis.

Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, Manet painted a series of still lifes for friends like the critic Charles Ephrussi. The intimate nature and small scale of these works has left them largely overlooked in studies of the artist and of the period in general. But there was also a more pernicious reason for their sidelining: namely, that Manet's still lifes did not fit into the neat view that Impressionism was a rebellion against French academic painting.

Manet's line in lemons, peonies and dead rabbits copied freehand from Chardin won him few friends among his contemporaries. As Zola - a stalwart defender - noted, all the artist's enemies had to do to attack him was praise his dab hand with inanimate objects. The idea that Manet couldn't paint things that moved was a critical cliché throughout his career.

There were two sorts of snobbery in this view. On the one hand, still lifes had always languished at the bottom of the Academy's league table, below history painting, landscapes and portraiture. On the other, natures mortes were seen as just that: dead art, ignoring all those issues of speed - steam trains, ballet-dancers in mid-plié, momentarily setting suns - that were key to the impressionist aesthetic.

The d'Orsay show makes a convincing claim that Manet was aware of these problems, but perversely chose to embrace them. In works like the achingly lovely Pêches (1880), borrowed from a private collection, he uses the zstatic limitations of his subject to explore a whole world of dynamic mark-making. The peaches' famous Manet glow isn't just the product of an experimental palette but of their scuffed brushwork, light inferred by speed: a quality that Cézanne was still exploiting 30 years later.

The most impressive thing about this show, though, is the way it uses Manet's still lifes as a key to his better-known figure works. Once you've seen his natures mortes, they're everywhere: in Olympia's bowl of flowers; in the carefully scattered picnic of the Déjeuner sur l'herbe; in Théodore Duret's carafe and lemon; in the books and wine-glass of the Portrait of Zacharie Astruc.

What are these suicidally unfashionable motifs doing there? It's an intriguing question. You might see them as ironic, passages of intentionally retardataire painting used to show the quick-wristed modernity of the work about them. Conversely, you can think of the still-life motifs as aimed at those critics who said that artists like Manet painted quickly because they couldn't paint well. (Really? Well, cop an eyeful of these lemons.) Or you might like to think the unthinkable and conclude that Manet painted still lifes because he admired the skill of Velázquez, Chardin and the Dutch masters. It's an unfashionable view, but one which this excellent show makes strangely compelling.

* 'Manet: les natures mortes': Musée d'Orsay, Paris (00 33 1 40 49 48 14), to 7 January, 2001

By Charles Darwent

'Impressionism: Painting Quickly in France' | National Gallery, London

For the viewer, "Painting Quickly in France" translates as plodding slowly around the National Gallery. Although promised a "fundamental new contribution to the study of Impressionism," the patient plodder eventually realises that distinguishing this from any other show on Impressionism is hard - because, in fact, it is not that different.

That curator Richard Brettell "returns attention" to Impressionism's original impulse of rapidly expressed images is not news to the rest of us, for whom such attention never went away. Impressionism's apparent spontaneity and forwardness deeply shocked people at the time, and it is more the nature of its transgressive quality that requires attention returned to it.

There's some great work to be seen and - even better in its own way - a lot of bad stuff; this work creating a more genuinely revealing show than if just masterpieces were on display. The imperfectness of some of these paintings may stimulate an unexpected shock. Maybe we won't be as shocked as early viewers, but it could force a re-evaluation of the modernist sensibility these artists originated.

Renoir's The Dreamer is a flawed, even bad work, whose unintended comic neuroticism gives it a quality which is totally contemporary. Monet's Marine near Etretat is a study of the uninterrupted sea without benefit of significant subject other than water and a ludicrously small sail on the horizon, so appearing a psychological provocation. His grotesque Harbour at Le Havre at Night points straight to Bayswater Road on a Sunday. Van Gogh's Seascape complicates things - there is no such thing as a bad Van Gogh - but its intense struggle means its success may be of a kind unintended by the artist.

The works of agonising beauty here are, well, agonisingly beautiful. But it's the inept ones that reveal the fault lines in the geology of artistic formation, and which give the show meaning beyond sugared pleasure. Included more to prove a point about gestural spontaneity, than artistic value, their presence is illuminating.

*'Impressionism: Painting Quickly in France': National Gallery, WC2 (020 7747 2885), to 28 January, 2001

By Neal Brown