The Impressionists Are Here

Well not really, because the new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts labelled ONCE UPON A TIME… IMPRESSIONNISM, contrary to the title, is not just another well-known impressionist hullabaloo designed to attract large crowds looking for pretty pictures of Paris and Parisians, there are a few academic and modern pieces in there also.

The pieces on display are from Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown Massachusetts, and were privately collected by Robert Sterling Clark heir to Singer sewing machine fortune. Mr Clark had a good eye, and certainly had the means to acquire such collection. However, as many a time prior, a private collection fails to display the strength of a movement, no matter how high in volume are the pieces.

In most cases the paintings are mundane examples, and there is only Degas’ Little Dancer to represent the sculpture medium, and yet that particular work might not be an original as the Little Dancer has many copies all over the world in many museums and collections, so one is forced to gauge the worth of this exhibition by paintings.

Try as I may, I can only single out three paintings worth mentioning, and all three are substandard works by the artists who painted them, nevertheless due to the importance of the artists and the significance of their other work within art history, I am compelled to proceed with descriptions that are at best conditional.

The Bath by Berthe Morisot painted in 1885-86 is a later exhibited work, yet one of the more important impressionist works on display due to the fact that Morisot had been exhibiting with the Impressionists from the start. “Societe anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc” which is now known as the First Impressionist Exhibition included nine pieces by Morisot which were oils, watercolours, and pastels. Morisot sought to tell a story through her art be they comments on the progression of artistic styles or social norms imposed on women in particular, portraying them in private quarters which was not done by other artists with such empathy.

The social conventions existing in 19th century frowned upon women undertaking professions deemed unsuitable like oil painting; however Morisot through perseverance and dedication managed to pursue her choice in the arts amidst a wave of discouragement. Being a professional artist was seen as a masculine profession, and some women were ridiculed and labelled as “not true women” for pursuing such activities, in some cases masculine adjectives were given to women artists and writers.

A popular caricature at the time showed the horrified spectators at an all women exhibition in 1880s sighing disgusted, whilst in the background proper, suitable women were being escorted by their male companions. It was regarded as necessary for women of certain class with well to do upbringing to be escorted out by men or chaperones. The Ecole des Beaux Arts, the sate art school did not accept female students until 1897 and only then because of much appeals and numerous petitions put forward by women artists.

In 1867, when copying a Rubens with her friend Rosalie Riesener, Morisot came to meet Edouard Manet. Manet was an older painter of a somewhat wild reputation, especially after his much scorned entry to 1865 Salon “Olympia”. Manet, like Morisot, came from an upper middle class background and soon befriended Morisot and her family.

This brings us to the second piece in the exhibition which is worth seeing: Moss Roses in a Vase by Manet painted in 1882. Manet painted almost exclusively flowers toward the end of his life, and these small paintings can be seen as an old man not being able to undertake monumental work, or as I see them Manet’s realization of his own mortality.

Cut flowers have a short life span, they wither and die, and so does man. What Manet seems to be doing is trying to give us art that defies death and mortality. He seems to want us see his life in those flowers, and as a keepsake we are left with his creativity and ideas.

Final piece you should see, being an offensive culprit of the misogynistic, racist art of the 19th century is: The Slave Market painted in 1866 by Jean-Léon Gérôme. This painting embodies the qualities that gave rise to feminism in art, and the reason why Modernism set to destroy academic painting. It approaches art with such ignorant, male dominated manner that I really cannot see anyone not be offended by it in this day and age.

First of all it is a nude, but nothing like Manet’s Olympia. This nude is a slave, painted bare for your lustful gaze, and if you had any doubts about that do not worry because she is not confronting you at all, she is lost in trance, almost drunkenly looking at her new master checking her teeth like a horse.

You have the best seat in the house, because you get a sneak peek at her for free, and you don’t even have to buy anything so your conscience is clean. And those men selling her and buying her are all from another, distant, exotic land. Of course they are savages you tell your wife, but you praise the artist for his immaculate brushstrokes. If there was ever any uncertainty that the majority of academic paintings from those periods were done for the male gaze, this work with one gesture proves the sceptics wrong.


ONCE UPON A TIME… IMPRESSIONNISM will be at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until January 20, 2013.

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