Impressionists in London review – how not to tell the origin story of modern art
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2017-11-02 Size:
This exhibition turns art history on its head. For more than a century it has ……

London seen through fresh eyes … The Avenue, Sydenham, 1871, by Camille Pissarro.Photograph: National Gallery

This exhibition turns art history on its head. For more than a century it has been assumed that modern art began in Paris. We’ve heard so much about how the bohemian atmosphere of the French capital, with its druggy poets and dirty novels, inspired the impressionists.

Now Tate Britain shows that it was the smog of Victorian London and not the lights of Paris that inspired Claude Monet and his contemporaries. In a very important sense, the most French of all art movements turns out to be British.

That’s how my review might start if I had swigged an entire bottle of absinthe and was some kind of deranged Brexit Little Englander.

Unfortunately, I must soberly report that Tate Britain has created the worst show about the impressionists I have ever seen. It comes close to achieving the impossible: making Monet dull. Instead of letting the light of impressionism into the stuffy drawing rooms of Victorian Britain, it smothers these spontaneous, life-loving artists in a brown study of academic gloom. Worst of all, the commercial cynicism of the enterprise is obvious. Monet on the poster will seduce unsuspecting art lovers into a desiccated seminar in third-rate history.

The Bridge at Hampton Court, Mitre Inn, 1874, by Alfred Sisley. Photograph: Wallraf Richartz Museum & Foundation Corboud

At the heart of Impressionists in London is what should be an intriguing tale. In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war drove Monet, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley to London. They were already well on the way to inventing a free, immediate style of painting that would soon get them – along with Degas, Renoir, Cezanne and other artists who don’t make it into this show because they somehow ignored London as a subject – the nickname impressionists.

The nascent impressionism of the handful of London scenes they painted during their brief stays are like a brilliant light thrown on the lost world of Victorian everyday life. It is lovely to look at Pissarro’s 1871 painting The Avenue, Sydenham, with its fresh eye for life in the London suburbs close to 150 years ago: Victorians as dapples of colour.

And that’s it, at least until Monet and Pissarro returned for holidays much later on.

That doesn’t worry the curators because, in spite of the Monet-heavy publicity, they don’t seem that interested in impressionism as such. Their real theme is the social history of French émigré artists. For while Monet and his mates got back to the boulevards as soon as possible, other French artists – really bad artists – made a home in the London art world. There is a vast room in the exhibition dedicated to the mediocrities Alphonse Legros and Jules Dalou. They were welcomed into Victorian art because they shared its conservative outlook. Another room is dedicated to minor late works by a much finer artist, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who followed the deposed dictator Louis Napoleon into British exile.

The Ball on Shipboard, circa 1874, by James Tissot. Photograph: Tate

None of these artists have anything to do with impressionism, yet the exhibition is called Impressionists in London. It’s intellectual murder to obscure and muddy impressionism’s bold new way of seeing the world as this does.

James Tissot is more tantalising. This French artist who made his home in London was never quite an impressionist – his forms are always conventionally clear – but he lets a shaft of their brightness into scenes of Victorian life. He is one of those artists who always seem ripe for rediscovery, but this encounter reveals how shallow and calculated some of his scenes are. A woman accidentally displaying her bottom perfectly plays to Victorian sexual hypocrisy.

Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1903, by Claude Monet. Photograph: MuMa Le Havre/David Fogel

This exhibition could have been a fascinating exploration of British links with impressionism, for those links do exist, though they are not made here. Why not start with Constable, who was painting in the open air, the basic impressionist method, in the early 1800s – and got a medal in France for it? Later, Whistler and Sargent moved freely between Paris and London and were friends with the impressionists. The Tate owns Sargent’s portrait of Monet at work, but doesn’t include it in this show. And Whistler, meanwhile, gets just three Thames views. Nor is there space made for Sickert, who saw London through the eyes of Degas.

To include such artists would have been a way of exploring impressionism itself: how it evolved, what it was and why it matters. Yet this show simply wants to claim the name without offering any such insight. The result is so pointless that when I finally got to what is meant to be a show-stopping room of Monet’s late paintings of the Houses of Parliament, I was too fed up to care. And I love Monet.

The artist who does shine through this pea souper is Pissarro. His pixellated 1891 painting of a cricket match at Hampton Court Green held me entranced. It is Pissarro’s complex tension between observation and abstraction that makes it just about worth buying a ticket for this infuriating exercise in how not to tell the story of modern art’s beginnings.

[Editor] 姜鑫