Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Pissarro retreats to Eragny

It is difficult to visit a show of Impressionist paintings without noticing the frantic consumption of all things Impressionist by visitors to the exhibition. Every scrap of the Impressionist story is consumed so enthusiastically by art amateurs that museums know perfectly well that any Impressionist exhibition will be a sure-fire commercial success. The Impressionists, in other words, are bankable. After all, the Impressionists celebrated pretty scenes of an unchanging rural countryside, right? That’s what much of the artgoing public wants. Not an art that engages, but an art that escapes from the modern world. 

Camille Pissarro is one of the premier league Impressionists, the only one, apparently, to exhibit at all eight of the Impressionist Exhibitions, and so a show of his paintings (at the Musee de Luxembourg in Paris) was always likely to be well attended. Question is, did the show present a new perspective about the artist that we did not already know? Did it challenge the standard view? Is Pissarro, in other words, a painter celebrating a fast disappearing rural ideal, or was there more to it than that? Audiences for art more than 50 years old are typically quite uncritical. Did the show challenge the viewer’s assumptions, or, better, did it reveal how the art itself could challenge those assumptions?

Of course, all the battles the Impressionists were fighting have now been won. We all believe that to capture a landscape we should really be painting out of doors. Our paintings should capture our fleeting impressions - and that these are more valuable than anything we dream up in a studio. And so on. But most viewers of Impressionist paintings are not seeking to change the world; instead, they seem perfectly happy to enter into a never-never world. I have to say that on looking at these Pissarro pictures for the first time - local landscapes, scenes of harvesting and work in the fields - they looked pretty comforting and unchallenging. 

Well, this show made a brave attempt to challenge assumptions from the very first room. This was almost entirely given over to photographs, reproduced very large – and without any paintings to detract from the message. These photos told the story behind this show. Pissarro moved to Eragny in 1884, and remained there for the rest of his life. The show doesn't mention that Monet paid for Pissarro's house there. Eragny was (and, it seems, still is) a tiny village then in remote Normandy, today almost a suburb of Paris. The decision to make your home in such a location does not suggest a great engagement with the social forces of the day, and the paintings, when viewed, would seem to suggest – at least on a first reading – an uncritical celebration of the kind of rural idyll that many viewers of Impressionist paintings would like to see; is that what Pissarro was setting out to depict?

Well, the photographs suggested something rather different. They told the story of a painter whose background was not quite what the audience might expect. He was born in the Danish West Indies, and only arrived in France at the age of 12. According to Wikipedia, he, like his siblings, “was forced to attend the local all-black primary school” because his father had been ostracised by the local Jewish community for marrying his deceased uncle’s widow. After studying in France, he spent two years in Venezuela. But none of this early life is mentioned in the exhibition. Instead, the exhibition concentrates on what Wikipedia describes in a wonderful phrase as “expressing on canvas the beauties of nature without adulteration” – as if such a thing were possible. The Wikipedia entry continues “He found the French countryside ...still mostly agricultural and sometimes called the “golden age of the peasantry”. Not, I suspect, a moniker the peasants themselves would have adopted.

You could perhaps question why an artist born outside metropolitan France would choose to spend the last 19 years of his life retreating in this way. But the exhibition does not choose to ask this question. Instead, the show focuses on Pissarro’s celebration of a rural life summed up in the painting Apple Picking, Eragny, 1887-88, a picture used on the cover of more than one of the several guides available at the exhibition bookshop. This picture depicts an apple harvest in an idyllic countryside, with peasants absorbed int their worklearly appearing to be happy in their work.

Yet there is more to the story than that. Interestingly, Pissarro took a great interest in anarchism, and there is one room dedicated to his drawings for a book entitled Turpitudes sociale  / Social Depravities, a set of remarkable drawings that almost look like caricatures of the filthy rich and the suffering poor – a completely different view to the big oil paintings in the other rooms. Here there is a perhaps simplistic but nonetheless very present social conscience. 

Pissarro, it seems, was a keen reader of Proudhon and found “his ideas are totally in sync with ours”. Well, it’s difficult to reconcile these ideas with the paintings in the other rooms of the exhibition. In fact, if anything, his painting moved more towards satisfying the requirements of wealthy bourgeois clients. The exhibition reveals that Pissarro's attempts to create pointillist works were very slow to execute, and, worse, failed to sell. It appears that he moved back to a more reliable type of art that sold readily. In 1894 he founded, with his son Lucien, the Eragny Press, which produced very short runs of expensive art books, destined then (and still now) to be acquired and held by private collectors. Not much sign of democracy in this art. Yet, as his letters reveal, Pissarro was certainly aware of events of the day – in 1894, during a period of anarchist bombings and consequent police clampdowns, he wrote “I am worried that as an outsider ... I might be investigated or expelled from France”, and considered selling the house in Eragny. Yet there are no signs in the paintings, apart from the Social Turpitudes set, of Pissarro feeling in any way an outsider. This exhibition could have been sponsored by the Council for the Preservation of Rural France (if such a body existed).

Perhaps the painting most admired by the visitors, judging from the number of people admiring and photographing it, is one by Pissarro depicting a woman washing her feet in a stream (Le Bain des Pieds, 1895). It is a large, unabashed piece of sentimentalism, a depiction of a female purity and innocence that did not exist then or now. It is a very poor painting – clearly not based around the Impressionist mantra of recording what the artist could see, more a picture of what the 19th-century artist would imagine in his studio about an unreal countryside populated by attractive women washing their feet in streams. The exhibition caption reads: “Inspired by ...Millet, Pissarro here reappropriates this classic subject, by his pictorial technique and the modern allure of the character represented in the natural environment”.  What “modern allure”? If this picture were exhibited without a label in any provincial gallery of European paintings from around 1900, it would not be noticed.

I'm afraid to say that this exhibition takes viewers on an escape, to a land where women wash their feet in streams, and the audience seemed to love it. What happened to the Impressionist ideals?