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Looking at Impressionism

by Constantine Dodge

The exhibition at the Albertina in Vienna entitled, “Impressionism – Painting Light” brought together a massive collection of 193 works spanning Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. This substantial collection was greeted by record-breaking attendance for this reputable venue. The exhibition which was running in Prague at the Veletržní Palace, “Monet – Warhol”, by including Monet’s name in the exhibition title, had all but guaranteed its popularity – in spite of having only one relatively minor piece by the artist. Finally, it should also be noted that Monet, van Gogh, and Cézanne are all well represented on the list of the world’s highest prices paid for paintings at auctions or through private sales.

All this only goes to show what required no demonstration in the first place: people love Impressionism! Next to its beginning amidst a firestorm of outrage and controversy, the movement’s current popularity is inarguably a good thing. However, as is often the case with things popular, the understanding of what exactly “Impressionism” is has not tended to keep in step with the growth of the movement’s appeal. As the American Impressionist, Childe Hassam put it, “The word ‘impressionism’ as applied to art has been abused, and in the general acceptance of the term has become perverted.” And that was in the early 20th century!

My personal encounters with impressionist paintings have distinguished themselves as being uniquely passive experiences. Spending several moments staring at a portrayal of an instant, letting the colors hit and mingle with each other in my eye, walking towards the painting and watching all the distinct objects melt into one continuum of color – this is for me a typical experience of an Impressionist painting. I have never encountered an Impressionist painting that has made me think. And I have a feeling that that might be the point.

Before looking at Impressionism itself, it makes sense to first ask: what is an impression?

I have often thought of an impression as a perception without the presence or presupposition of a consciousness that processes, builds, and then imposes its view of the objects it perceives. Using this paradigm of we (the subjects) beholding the world around us, an impression is a one way street – the very first step of a process that makes up a perception. Given just an ear, you have vibrations in the air vibrating the ear drum. Given just an eye, you have light striking an eye. These are purely physical phenomena. There must be a consciousness to create the phenomena of sound and vision that take place in living beings. In other words, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, then no, it does not make a sound. Sound is, quite literally, all in your head. Without this element of the active subject, there remains only an impression – or what may be the closest we can get to unaltered, objective reality. That we are subject to impressions is one thing, capturing and portraying them – or recreating them for others – is something else entirely. In fact, it’s an art form!

So then, what is an Impressionist? People have been portraying things on canvas for centuries. What makes Impressionists different is simply that they weren’t interested in the depiction of things, but the very medium through which we perceive things. LIGHT. Cézanne’s assessment of Monet is starting to make more sense now: “Monet is just an eye – but God, what an eye!”

Capturing and portraying only an impression – and stopping there – would seem to be the defining goal of the impressionist painter: to be only an eye. To prevent oneself from interfering and allowing unhindered impressions to be made in order to portray something closer to reality seems to be what artist Catherine Taylor is speaking of when she says, “Sometimes I will look away very quickly, and freeze frame that first impression, pleased with myself that I have outsmarted my own smartness, and perceived a color as it actually is.” Color is light.

In a passage that could easily be speaking about the creative process of an Impressionist painter, Joseph Sachs, in his introduction to Aristotle’s, On the Soul writes, “… this receptiveness to being acted upon should not be confused with inertness. It is rather an effortful holding of oneself in readiness. Attentive seeing… requires work to keep oneself from distraction; it is a potent passivity that becomes activity in the presence of those things that feed it.”

Why should this activity be limited to the artists who create these paintings? If an artist’s process and intention is to inform our experience of their work, then shouldn’t the above also serve as a guide to our experience of Impressionism? This “effortful holding of oneself in readiness” can also be how we should approach and more fully appreciate these works. There is no concept, no symbolism, or allegory that we are called on to ponder and understand. We need only to open our eyes, stop, and let the painting do its work on us. Maybe an Impressionist painting also requires an Impressionist viewer. To exert ourselves to be nothing more than eyes should be our goal as well. As Alexandra Johnson writes while reflecting on Monet’s Terrace at Sainte-Adresse, “It is that rare impressionist painting where people don’t judge the light, but rather are judged by it.”

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