VISUAL ARTS / The Birth of Impressionism McLellan Galleries, Glasgow

Richard Ingleby
Thursday 05 June 1997 23:02

Impressionism is a magic word in the language of exhibition titling, a magnet guaranteed to pull the crowds. So Glasgow Museum's summer show, The Birth of Impressionism - From Constable to Monet, ought to be a blockbuster. And how they know it. The populist touches are everywhere. I have never been to an exhibition that tries so hard to please its public.

It begins in Gallery I with an attempt to create the atmosphere of L'Ecole des Beaux Arts circa 1840. Pictures are hung in little, hessian-draped booths, a kind of Neo-classical stable for art instead of horses, and plaster casts of the Laocoon and Michelangelo's Slaves, borrowed from the Glasgow School of Art, ranged down the middle of the room. These casts, the catalogue tells us with staggering banality, were easier to draw than life models because they couldn't move.

The catalogue is symptomatic of the whole exhibition. It has been written anonymously by someone who clearly knows their stuff, but who seems to have been forced to adopt a deliberately dumb tone. Two of the booths contain video screens instead of pictures, showing specially commissioned films.

Screens, in fact, crop up everywhere in the exhibition: among pine needles and wood chips in a mock Foret de Fontainebleau in Gallery II; inside gilded frames in a gallery devoted to the Paris Salon; and through the portholes of a little pleasure boat that dominates the last gallery's attempt to conjure the mood of a day out on the Seine.

The aim, I assume, is to inform and entertain an audience that might not otherwise enjoy exhibitions. Once one gets used to it, it's quite good fun, but there is also a level at which all the diversions, however refreshing, get in the way of the simple pleasures of looking at pictures. And there are some great pictures to look at.

The first gallery, a rather dry selection of Neo-classical paintings borrowed from L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, is there to give a flavour of life before Impressionism, but the exhibition really gets going in Gallery II (Barbizon et la Foret de Fontainebleau) with a selection of work gathered mostly from Glasgow's various museums.

The perimeters of the Barbizon room have been stretched to admit a good selection of work by Constable, a notable influence on French "plein airism", including Glasgow's own Hampstead Heath with London in the Distance, and a truly wonderful little oil study of Cirrus Clouds from the V&A. Other highlights are a fine Daubigny landscape in charcoal and Millet's clod- footed peasants Going to Work, painted, as Van Gogh noted, "as if with the very earth that they are going to till".

Gallery IV (Le Salon) is probably the most successful of the theatrical distractions, with pictures hung floor to ceiling in salon style and opera glasses provided to give a better view. I'm not so sure about the mannequins in period costume, but there are some fantastic pictures, such as Manet's Ham and Daumier's Print Collector, both small paintings with a huge presence. These gems are bolstered by some good loans from overseas - Berthe Morisot's Harbour at Lorient from Washington, good Pissarros and Cezannes from Boston, a great Monet (Regatta at Sainte-Adresse) from New York - but Glasgow holds her own (and this, in a way, is the point of the exhibition) with Cezanne's Chateau of Medan, Manet's Beer Drinkers and Degas' Jockeys in the Rain. All world-class pictures from the Burrell Collection, reminders that this city boasts one of the best holdings of 19th-century French art outside France.

More than half of these pictures are on view in the city year-round, but this exhibition provides a fine excuse to gather them under one roof. Individually there are some terrific works, although taken together it doesn't quite add up to the birth of Impressionism. It somehow lacks the necessary sense of excitement. I'm not sure why these attempts to capture the spirit of the age don't come off, it certainly isn't for want of trying, but it's a hugely pleasurable exhibition none the lessn

The Birth of Impressionism - From Constable to Monet, McLellan Galleries, Sauchihall Street, Glasgow (0141-331 1854), to 7 September

Richard Ingleby

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