Too much of a very good thing

There's more to art than Impressionism, says Catherine Pepinster. Honestly!

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NEXT month the huge Cezanne retrospective arrives at the Tate Gallery from Paris. It is the first major gathering of the artist's work for 60 years and the plaudits for this collection have already begun.

Some of the most famous of the Impressionist master's works will be on show. Two final versions of Les Grandes Baigneuses, the brooding portraits of Vollard, the interpretations of Mont Victoire are all included. There they will be, those inspirers of Picasso and Matisse, precursors of Cubism, the start of modern painting. Yet is there not a slight sense of ennui attached to all this? Isn't it time that the curators of London's galleries dreamt up something more imaginative to draw in the crowds than yet another Impressionist exhibition?

Take, for instance, the eight years since the last Cezanne exhibition, when the Royal Academy focused on the painter's early work. We've had Toulouse-Lautrec graphics (RA, 1988), Monet in the '90s (RA, 1990), Toulouse- Lautrec (Hayward, 1991), Fauve landscapes (RA, 1991), Alfred Sisley (RA, 1993), Pissarro (RA, 1993), Impressionism and the Belgian Avant-Garde (RA, 1994), Bonnard (Hayward, 1994), The Great Impressionists (Courtauld, 1994), Landscapes of France: Impressionism and Its Rivals (Hayward, 1994) and From Manet to Gauguin (RA, 1995). Haven't we had enough?

My love affair with the Impressionists began at the age of 12 when I was given a copy of Alain-Fournier's novel Le Grand Meaulnes with Sisley's Small Meadows in Spring on the cover. That whetted my appetite for the feast that awaited me on a school trip to the Museum of Impressionism in Paris (the collection now rehung at the Musee d'Orsay).

Like so many before and since, I loved it: the colours, the light, the glamour. There was sunshine, there was sex, there were dancing girls in cabarets, boating on the Seine, trips to the races, bars, absinthe drinkers, boulevards, Parisians, Tahitians. As for the painters, what adventures they had. Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin - these were artists who, in the face of extraordinary opposition, maligned by critics and public, pursued their experiment in representational art. Without clear-cut formulae, they exploited every aspect of nature, balancing visual truth with lyrical interpretation. They generated a sheer joy in painting, a creative enthusiasm. Plein-air painting was their greatest discovery.

Their work became respectable in the 1920s and 1930s; by the 1950s, with the arrival of cheaper colour reproduction, Impressionism was moving towards mass popularity.First there were copies of Van Gogh's Sunflowers on many a living-room wall; later dozens of their paintings jostled for wall space with pop stars in student bedsits. It was, by and large, accessible art: easy on the eye, easy to understand, without classical symbolism or tricky abstracts.

Impressionism became a sort of obsession, and it is little wonder that the galleries pander to it. Last year's Royal Academy show, From Manet to Gauguin, attracted more than 250,000 people, even though it was in the cramped Sackler Galleries, drawing nearly double the attendance of the Summer Exhibition being shown below in the main galleries and easily outselling the Glory of Venice and Nicolas Poussin exhibitions which had been held earlier also in the main galleries.

These figures are extraordinary given that this was a relatively weak show. There was not one rare picture, nothing plucked from obscurity, and few were truly distinguished. Indeed, it was the kind of exhibition that runs the risk, by delivering another helping of too-familiar works, of breeding contempt or indifference towards its subject.

Impressionism can easily be taken for granted. How pretty it all looks, how simple, full of joie de vivre and relaxed sensuality. Of course we lap it all up. But isn't it about time the curators of our exhibitions offered us something else? Isn't it like sticking with D H Lawrence for his version of sex instead of being encouraged to explore the writings of the metaphysical poets? Or refusing to move on from Tchaikovsky's symphonies to the difficult but more rewarding complexities of Bruckner and Mahler?

There is a hunger for art - the Poussin exhibition last year may have been outshone by Impressionism but it still attracted 170,000 people. Let the curators educate and entertain us with new interpretations of Classicism, or the humanism of the Renaissance, or even the geometric abstractions of Mondrian.

And alternatives are available. The Vermeer exhibition, for instance, which is being shown in Washington and The Hague, is passing London by. Instead, we have Cezanne, followed by Degas in May at the National Gallery. The Royal Academy is also offering Impressionism, but at least it is the work of a relatively unknown artist, Gustave Caillebotte. Overlooked for many years, his interpretations of Hausmannesque Paris and his muscular eroticism are emerging from the shadows. When you wander this exhibition, though, remember this: this man, as much as any other individual, is responsible for our long obsession with the Impressionists. Although a painter himself, Caillebotte owes his place in Impressionist history principally to his role as collector. When nobody else would buy, he did. Without him, the London galleries would have been bereft of the public, and of cash, for years.

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