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IMPRESSIONS OF BEAUTY RETHINKING THE IMPRESSIONIST STYLE

FROM THE first, impressionism glorified middle-class pleasures. Free of fabricated histories, staged tragedies and the happy male myth of goddess-nudes, it was the perfect antidote to aristocratic thinking of all kinds.

The American middle class has a different use for impressionism: nostalgia. As nature recedes further and further out of reach, impressionism seems practically the source of Beauty itself, a "natural" expression outside the limits of art. And it is also the source of values and proper emotions. The impressionists were the last modern artists to engage observed reality, which seems comforting from the vantage point of a media-confused society.

Little wonder that art book publishers continue to produce a welter of books on the movement.

But there's more to this year's offerings of books on the impressionists than glossy illustrations and adulatory prose. The books considered below range from hard art historical analysis to lively popular explication. The books that attempt to place the movement in its broader social context -- and almost all of them do, to some degree -- are especially rewarding. They show the impressionists to be intellectually astute and socially aware artists.

"Impressionist Dreams: The Artists and the World They Painted," by John Russell Taylor (Bullfinch Press/Little, Brown, 192 pages; 190 illustrations, 160 in color; $40): The silly, pandering title is unfortunate, but Taylor's no slouch. He attacks such subjects as "Art and Industry" and "Flesh and Fantasy" with verve and originality. And he doesn't duck the tough topics, either. His comments on the impressionists' attitude toward the erotic and women are especially well-taken.

"Monet's Cathedral: Rouen 1892-1894," by Joachim Pissarro (Knopf, 96 pages; 39 illustrations, 33 in color; $35): A tall, thin volume with a text as finely articulated as the decorations on a cathedral wall. Pissarro, Camille Pissarro's great-grandson, is flawless in this first book. His analysis of Monet's most challenging series reveals the staggering complexity of the artist's thinking, and in the process expands and revises ordinary ideas of what constitutes impressionism's "illusion" and "objectivity."

"Renoir," by Sophie Monneret, translated by Emily Read (Henry Holt and Co., 160 pages; 147 color illustrations; $29.95): A solid account of the artist's life. The artist's work is displayed here unapologetically, both the sublime and horrible presented in quality reproductions. There's the book's lack: no critical evaluation, something that Renoir's uneven production always needs.

"The Impressionists," by Steven Adams (Running Press, 208 pages; 300 illustrations; $35): This book comes on like an all-the-facts chronicle. It even has a "gazetteer" with photos of the impressionists' landscape subjects. Boxes summarizing the impressionists' relationship to such topics as fashion, Japan and music interrupt the otherwise chronological text.

"World Impressionism: The International Movement, 1860-1920," edited by Norma Broude (Abrams, 424 pages; 517 illustrations, 300 in color; $75): This is an astounding book that follows impressionism's merry incursions into nearly every nook and cranny in the world. Thirteen writers skillfully demonstrate how the luminous palette and spontaneous effects of the impressionists are adapted to contrary artistic traditions already in place.

Imagine, for instance, impressionist techniques and attitudes employed by Japanese artists. The results are odd, to say the least. Or envision dark Nordic luminism recast in impressionism's light-shot paint.

There are some truly ugly conjoinings of artistic styles here, and a lot of stretching of the usual definitions of impressionism. But then there are wonderful little-seen works by artists from everywhere from Germany, Spain and Italy to Switzerland and Canada. This book, with its superb illustrations, gives new meaning to even the well-defined tenets of French impressionism. With the corrective vision of such artists as Lovis Corinth and Ferdinand Hodler, to take just two examples, impressionism seems to have more wide-ranging capabilities. It is able to lap over into expressionism, even encounter the tragic in new terms. It can be nervous or romantic. And most tellingly, world impressionism is shown to be perfectly capable of taking on themes that go well beyond the thin middle-class visions of the French bourgeoisie.

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