Monday, March 19, 2012

Impressionists and the Wall of Exclusion

Edgar Degas, "Singer with a Glove"
1878 (pastel on paper)
What are we listening to this morning? Why, Lemon Jelly (Experiment #6  it's the musical log of an in-vivo experiment; neither freaky nor hokey, but weirdly cool), David Gray, and a Sparkle Horse-Danger Mouse remix. Right, and Royksopp because my ears have a steady diet of Royksopp, especially Royksopp Forever. Slow to start, I know. But gorgeous once it gets going.

I'm about 26% (according to my Kindle) through Private Lives of the Impressionists. It's an impressive book, filled with specific details on the travails of each member in the group. At left and just below, I include some images of Degas' work, some of which I remember studying in college (a period when I was far more interested in 20th century Modernism--the Futurists' dynamism, the Expressionists' angsty goodness--than looking at flowers or landscapes or women in frilly outfits). Still, I appreciated the women illuminated by theatrical footlights (like the performer at left), since gas light always gave a ghoulishly freaky cast to everything. I recall a discussion in my Impressionism course about the woman's black glove operating as a kind of visual exclamation mark to this work, while the sound wave that appears to be coming from her mouth is almost auditory.

I'm now fascinated by Degas' ability to create texture and replicate the drama of stage lighting by way of a few broad patches of pink and white against the greyish purple meant to indicate shadow. I'm assuming he used chalk pastel rather than oil pastel, which is more like a creamy crayon. But his application perfectly simulates the airy quality of tulle.  
Edgar Degas, "Dancers"
(pastel on paper)

Interesting to me, too, is the backstory to Berthe Morisot, who was, by all accounts, beautiful and restless. Although the book doesn't go into extensive details on the subject--perhaps because there is not sufficient concrete evidence--she was a genuine threat to Manet's wife, Suzanne. Manet, who apparently recognized his own magnetism, was flirtatious with many women, while his wife (once his mistress, who'd born his child out of wedlock, until he finally married her) brooked his womanizing with a quiet anxiety. She attempted to befriend Berthe, but Berthe had a thinly-veiled contempt for Suzanne, whom she regarded as an unequal rival for Manet's attention. Even though Morisot was every bit as engulfed in the difficulties of the Impressionists and their public vilification, she was never given this kind of attention in my Impressionism courses. More attention was paid to paintings for which she posed than paintings she executed herself.

I'm to the point in Private Lives of the Impressionists where they have organized the independent society, a move perceived as markedly political, specifically leftist in a society scarred by recent war with Prussia and ruinous civil in-fighting percipitated by rebels hoping to sieze power in Paris. Any organized group seeking to dissociate themselves from the accepted system (in this case, the Academic Salon), like the Independents (soon know by their derisively intentioned nickname, "Impressionists," thanks to a satirical article by Louis LeRoy in Charivari) was considered an expression of leftist political ideals. To add insult to injury (or so the public believed), the Impressionists did not depict edifying or didactic subjects but instead painted from real life, using what looked like unfinished brushwork. Some didn't even paint recognizable subjects, but tended towards "the primitive", like fringe-Impressionist Cezanne--who was nearly kept out of the Independents exhibition for his technique and, interestingly enough, later in life accused Van Gogh of painting like a mad man.

Sales for all of them ceased after they made this unified act of individuation from the salon system, and they and their families (many of them still growing baby by baby, year by year) all suffered for it in the short term. Unless you've studied the public reception of the Impressionists, it's hard to imagine now the height of the wall of exclusion they ran against. Again and again and again.

Savannah Schroll Guz, "Girl with
Green Eyes" 2012
(ink and colored pencil on paper)

Fall down seven times; get up eight.  Look at them now. Dead, I know, the lot of them, and if they got up now, we'd be killing zombies. I meant that metaphorically. Their paintings are on tote bags, umbrellas, and puzzle boxes in every major museum of the western world. Take that, Louis Leroy. Posterity remembers you only for your relation to the Impressionists. I wonder, though, at the mental desparation this exclusion caused the painters at the time, the depth of sadness that descended on them when they saw that rebellion came with such severe punishment (their dealer Duran-Ruel, who had been keeping many of them solvent on the most basic level, had over-purchased their work and was himself in financial straits, having to stop paying each of the artists he represented and making matters worse for all). And yet they painted on. But I suppose, what else could they do at the point? One foot in front of the other keeps you from going down all together. 

For my part, I've been doing some general doodling by the light of the TV. Here's the most recent illustration, "Girl with Green Eyes", which I started before Doc Martin (awesomeness, truly) and ended by 9 a.m. this morning.    

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