Sunday, 29 March 2015

'Inventing Impressionism' at the National Gallery

Last week we went to see the new exhibition at the National Gallery on the Impressionists. I'm not the biggest fan of the Impressionists - they've been far too ubiquitous and their paintings have found their way onto greetings cards and biscuit tins. I've walked quickly through the Impressionist galleries at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris because I've seen too many and felt like I was drowning in their paintings. They're everywhere.

And maybe that's why this exhibition is so good since there is no filler. It's themed around the collection of Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who nearly bankrupted himself twice through his love of the paintings and support of the artists. All but one of the 85 paintings in the exhibition went through his hands at some point. He championed the new style of painting and almost single-handedly invented the idea of the solo exhibition. Holding exhibitions in London and New York took Impressionism international and eventually secured the funding they needed to keep painting and their reputations down the years.

The exhibition opens with two lovely paintings by Renoir of Durand-Ruel's children, sons sitting together and daughters sitting together, full of life and colour with their whole lives ahead of them. I liked the painting of the girls with the posy of flowers and bright hat, with the red flowers matching the red lining of the hat. They're having a chat and just look up to see themselves being painted. I wonder what they got up to in their later lives and whether they were happy?

I've never been that keen on Renoir before but I liked the paintings in this exhibition, not just the paintings of the Durand-Ruel's but there are three of his life sized 'dance' paintings in the exhibition as well. My favourite was 'Dance In The Country' if only because of the face of the young girl - she's clearly found the love of her life and the exuberance of the dance has taken her to another level. It's a lovely painting and made me smile.

Of course, the Impressionists are famed for their landscapes in which they painted light. There are paintings by Pissarro, Sisley, Monet and more, mainly set in spring and summer but also a few set in winter with snow on the ground and leaden skies. One of my favourites was 'Entrance to the Village of Voisin' by Pissarro with his classic tall thin trees casting shadows - this picture doesn't do it justice since to my eyes he was painting the light in, around and covering the landscape, rather than painting the landscape itself. It's quite a marvellous painting.

It was also lovely to see his small paintings of Sydenham and Upper Norwood from his years in and around London.

There are some gorgeous paintings my Monet, including five paintings from his 'Poplars' series, a beautiful painting of his garden with a courting couple in the background and this magical painting, 'Road at La Cavee, Pourville'. It's a lovely painting that draws you in as you gaze at it, wandering down a dusty path between two banks of grass and tiny flowers, down and round a hill towards the sea. But what is just round that corner? What surprise or adventure awaits the dreamer who just follows that path. I imagined a pirate ship sailing into view from behind the trees, coming to whisk me off an adventure on the high seas. It's a magical image that draws you in - I'd like to step into that painting and wander off down the road…

There are also paintings of everyday life and the everyday life of certain groups of people. We see Degas's racehorse paintings and the delightful 'Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando', swinging from a rope hanging from the ceiling. I like Miss La La for her athleticism, her bravery and her strong teeth. The painting is all about capturing movement, the feeling of her spinning around at the end of the rope and Degas has caught a split second of her act. Painted from below adds to the sense of height and danger and makes her an exotic character. Interestingly, we don't see her face. I wonder if he ever painted her with her face showing - I'm intrigued.

There's a lot to make you think in this exhibition and it seems to have been well thought out with text on the walls to give you an idea of what was going on and which exhibitions the paintings were part of. And slowly, the Impressionists started to become appreciated, welcomed and then lauded.

The final room includes the later paintings of some of the Impressionists and one that really grabbed my attention was 'Two Sisters (on the Terrace)' by Renoir - yes, another Renoir painting! It's the red hat that calls to me across the room, then the flowers on the little girl's hat and the flowers in the older sister's lap. They're a riot of dashes of colour brining fresh flowers to life against the greens in the background and the dark dress. I couldn't help but move over to that painting, by-passing some of the others to get lost in those impossible flowers. Nothing can be that colourful - I don't believe it but there they are, captured in paint forever. This picture doesn't do them justice at all - it's always so much better to see the real thing in front of you.

Also in that final room, on the wall beside the exit door is a quote from Paul Durand-Ruel from 1920: "At last the Impressionist masters triumphed… My madness had been wisdom". I like that quote. He honours the painters by calling them 'masters' and saying that they 'triumphed'. He also notes that his own judgement had been right all along.

This is a really good exhibition and is a must. If you visit only one exhibition in April go to this one. If you love the Impressionists you'll see new things to love and if you're ambivalent towards them, then this might make you think twice. Basing it around the life and collection of Paul Durand-Ruel is an inspired idea and it's great to see these wonderful paintings together in the same exhibition.

I'll leave you with 'The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil' by Monet. Let your eyes drink in those flowers and bushes and then wonder what that courting couple in the distance are talking about...

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