The Phillips Collection comes to the DMFA

OF ALL THE paintings in the Phillips Collection on display at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts until February 22, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party rightfully holds center stage of what we call Impressionism with a capital I.

The painting is the embodiment of pleasure, both in its subject matter and in the virtuosity of its color. Sunlight pushing through an orange and yellow awning suffuses the 13 young pleasure seekers, glancing off their yellow straw hats and the sensual delights of a table laden with wine bottles, fruit and half-empty glasses waiting to be filled again.

The characters are amiable and at ease, engaged in drinking, eating and flirtation. In the upper right-hand corner, a well-known actress of the Comédie-Francaise puts her gloved hands over her ears. What has Paul Lhote, a friend of Renoir’s and an ardent backpacker, said to her as he has slipped his arm around her waist? Two men in the foreground are dressed in their undershirts; the skin of their supple arms gleams with light and the exertion of rowing on the river. An Italian journalist named Maggiolo leans over another actress as if to overpower her, certainly to seduce her, his hand moving near hers on the chair. She leans away from him slightly. In the far left-hand corner, a beautiful young woman leans on a rail and stares into space above the head of a young man with his back to us. Is he looking at Alphonsine Fournaise, the daughter of the restaurant owner, as ardently as we are? He has to be. At the near left sits Renoir’s future wife, 19-year-old Aline Charigot, a seamstress. Her attention is fixed on a small dog; her mouth pouts in a kiss that doubtless the artist wishes for himself.

The picture’s size and complexity dispel the notion that Impressionists produced spontaneous and unplanned paintings. Renoir carefully studied a great banqueting scene at the Louvre, Veronese’s The Marriage Feast at Cana, before undertaking the arrangement of so many figures.

The depiction of middle-class people at leisure is one of the important themes of the Impressionists, and undoubtedly is a source of attractiveness to the contemporary viewer. The outdoor picnics and country excursions were the amusement of the expanding urban middle class. (When the land ceases to be a scene of toil for a largely agricultural population, it begins to be a source of visual pleasure, of respite from work. In that respect, we still live in the 19th century.)

The colors of the Boating Party reflect the Impressionists’ experimentation with vibrating color. Close examination of the painting reveals how complicated Renoir’s effects are. The dog is a swirl of blues and purples -even reds. The skin of the men’s arms is a complex assembly of flesh tones and purple, violet, yellow and blue. Step forward and the elements break apart; step back and they reassemble into the illusion of glowing flesh.

The use of primary colors -red, yellow and blue – and their complements – green, violet and orange -was an important discovery made by Renoir and Monet and followed by other Impressionists. They based their art both on the scientific studies of how the eye sees color as a breakdown of the prism and on trial and error.

By banning the black, brown and earth tones that had been the basis of painting for centuries, Impressionists achieved an intensity of color unmatched by previous artists. They discovered that by placing complementary colors next to one another in separate strokes of the brush they could create the illusion of a new, vibrant color that is impossible to achieve by simply mixing paint. (When two complementary colors of the same intensity are placed side by side on a canvas, they command an equal degree of attention, which produces a brilliant -almost pulsating -fusion of color.) This tendency of one color to affect another simply by its proximity led to a fundamental premise of modernism: The observing eye is not neutral.

Rather, the viewer of modern paintings participates in the creation of an illusion. The viewer who steps close to a “finished” painting of the earlier convention will see pretty much the same colors as he would see from a distance. There is an attempt in “finished” paintings to unify the picture with an underpainting, usually a “dead” color, that subdues colors and unites them. The brushstroke is obliterated; the primary emphasis is on the reproduction of the objects rather than on the physical act of painting. The illusion of depth is provided by using a single perspective and a point of convergence, or vanishing point – like railroad tracks coming together in the distance.

Both the illusion of finish and the illusion of perspective fell into disrepute in the 19th century; the viewer was constantly reminded by the painter that the picture was not the object it represented; it was simply a flat surface composed of daubs of paint. By emphasizing the reality of the process of painting, Impressionists involved the viewer in the development of a piece of art itself.

The most distinctive quality of modern art is its awareness of art as an expression of the artist rather than a visual reproduction of objects. Art must not simply reflect high-minded sentiments, but should create a new reality, and that reality does not rest in the object itself, but in the exchange between artist, object and viewer.

To express this new conception of reality, painting became less “realistic” or representative. The flamboyant brush-work of an El Greco or the intensity of a Goya seems to prefigure the brushwork of moderns.

Yet the Impressionists and moderns, in some respects, sought greater “realism” than their predecessors. Renoir recalled the comments made by his early master, Gleyre: ” ’Not bad! Not bad at all, that thing there, but it is too much in the character of the model -you have before you a short, thick-set man; you paint him short and thick-set. He has enormous feet; you render them as they are. All that is very ugly. I want you to remember, young man, that when one executes a figure, one should always think of the antique. Nature, my friend, is all right as an element of study, but it offers no interest. Style, you see, style is everything.’ “

It is, perhaps, easy to see now that beauty is a convention, not a truth. Modernism has taught us that some of our most cherished truths are really only cultural assumptions. The Impressionists seemed awkward and clumsy to critics of their time because new assumptions about the nature of painting were being explored.

Yet, how fresh and appealing those Impressionist works seem to viewers today. We marvel at the intensity of the colors, the serenity of the scenes. Seldom is an ugly or disturbing truth brought forth.

Along with the finished look of a painting, the Renaissance illusion of mathematical perspective was discarded. Instead of giving the illusion of depth, Impressionist pictures tend to emphasize the flatness of the canvas or sometimes play games with it. The post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh provides an interesting example of a dialogue with perspective in Entrance to the Public Gardens in Aries. Several layers of paint have been thickly applied, pronouncing itself as paint. A central yellow path recedes into the background – a classic triangle. Yet the hint of sky and the overarching trees seem to lean forward, asserting the picture plane as a flat canvas, rather than giving the illusion of depth. It is a dialogue with conventions of painting.

Probably no painter has ever dealt with this dialogue of conventions more dramatically and beautifully than Cézanne. In Still Life with Pomegranate and Pears, Cézanne contrasts his understanding of the roundness of pears with the simple outlining of their boundaries. It is as though he wants us to see two things at once, hold two ideas at the same time without committing ourselves to either.

The green pear closest to the center of the table is rounded with carefully built-up, modulated layers of paint. Its purple outline is sketched in so roughly that the blue background behind the pear can be seen between the outline and the green form. The subject of the painting seems not to be pears so much as perception itself, as well as the old debate in painting between drawing and applying volumes of color.

It is not hard to see that modern art has furthered this dialogue with its means of expression today. The huge paintings of Chuck Close, for example, which resemble photographs to the point that areas are painted “out of focus,” are a testimony to this impulse

It is tempting to see Impressionist paintings as highly decorative, attractive, pleasant and safe. They were not in their time, but seem so today, because the doors they have opened have led to more cerebral and challenging forms, such as cubism and abstract expressionism. This liberation has been exhilarating for artists and somewhat intimidating to the public.

We have few problems with the luscious sensuality of Renoir because we tend to forget the artistic struggle his art engaged. “Impressionism and the Modern Vision” may be a misnomer for the Phillips Collection. There are few Impressionist paintings with a capital “I” in the exhibition, if we mean Impressionists who exhibited together in the 1870s and 1880s under that label. Rather, these paintings are more representative of the direction that 20th-century art has taken as a result of the tremendous impact of Impressionism.

The term “Impressionism” was adopted as a result of the ridicule of an early critic who viewed Monet’s early work, Impression: Sunrise, in disgust. Art historian Anne Hanson of Yale reminds us that in French, “impression” means the first layer of paint applied to a canvas. The term was meant to ridicule the Impressionists as hasty improvisers who splashed the first thing they saw onto the canvas. A careful study of their technique shows that nothing could be further from the truth. Even spontaneity had to be thought about and planned, painted over and refined as artists explored their new freedom. There are many Impressionisms: neoimpressionism, post-Impressionism and so on.

The Phillips Collection should draw crowds to the first admission-charged ex hibition at the DMFA; the Boating Party alone is worth the $2 admission fee. The viewer also has a chance to see that Impres sionism was a beginning, an opening to the many modern paintings that Duncan Phil lips bought. Not to catch a glimpse of that continuity and growth is to miss out on the pure pleasure of looking at art.


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