Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Museum Review: Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces of the Musee D'Orsay @ The De Young Museum in San Francisco

The Birth of Impressionism:
Masterpieces of the Musee D'Orsay
at the De Young Museum
San Francisco, CA.
May 22- September 6th

   A critic is a lot like a surfer.  The surfer sits in the ocean, on his surf board, assessing the waves.  The waves come in groups or "sets."  The first task of the surfer is to assess which set to pick.  Once the set is selected, the surfer selects a wave within the set, and puts herself in position to ride the wave.  This involves being in front of the wave and paddling away from it so that the combination of forces carries you to the top of the wave.  Then the surfer stands up and rides the wave to shore.
   For the critics, the ocean is the universe of things he can write about.  The sets of waves are the specific discourse the critic chooses to have opinions about.  Riding the wave is the act of criticism.  In both scenarios, the person standing on the shore, watching the surfer, is the audience.
   Aside from the analogy itself, the comparison offers other insights.  For example, the figure of the person watching the surfer is key.  That person might be there just to watch the ocean, specifically to watch the waves or even to watch the surfer.  Also, the same person might argue first, that the person on the shore doesn't matter to the surfer AND that the audience doesn't matter to the audience.
   What can a critic say about the impressionists?  Only that they are the most financially significant group of artistic products produced in the 19th and 20th century- at present, in fact, impressionist paintings dominate the top painting 100 sale prices of all time.  A materialistic take on great art for sure, but the impressionists are the most appropriate group of cultural products to subject to economic analysis because the records are so clear.

  This fact stems from the nature of the art market in Paris, France in the second half of the 19th century.  The market was made by a royally designated art show called "the Salon."  The Salon was a yearly show where individual patrons decided how to buy art.  These patrons are what you would call "institutional" purchasers: government officials, city fathers, church officials.  The Salon was a fully developed culture industry institution, and though it antedated the rise of bourgeois art market as well as market capitalism,  it none the less directly influenced painters working then through it's all pervasive roll as the arbitrator of what patrons would buy.

     In addition to being the market maker, the Salon also had it's own art-presentational aesthetic.  All readers are familiar with the contemporary museum aesthetic in current art museums: low lighting, one painting for x amount of wall space, etc.  That was not the style of the Salon.  The Salon filled every available inch of the wall surface (and these were big walls) with huge canvases in ornate frames.  In that sense the Salon represented the taste of the patrons: looking to fill wall space, pretty vulgar, etc.  The prominent time period of the Salon was from 1725-1890s, when modern art really got it's game on.

     The Museum Audio Tour manages to incorporate the voices of various Impressionist figures, though obviously read in English and not French.  I think, actually the speaker was Claude Monet (1840-1926).  Anyway, he complains that people won't buy his art because his art isn't in the Salon show. The Impressionists as a group became known as such because they were the first group of artists to D.I.Y.  Specifically, in 1874 the Impressionists had their first art exhibit in a photographer's studio in Paris, and the rest is fucking magic.

      Strolling through the Birth of Impressionism exhibit, I was struck by how thoroughly the individual artists just  nailed it.  These guys... understood what the bourgeois purchasers wanted to see.  Dark colors, realistic themes, interesting use of color, abstraction.  It's not like these intellectual themes were somehow unique to French painters, they were just anticipatory, they were in the right place at the right time and they had the technical ability to integrate techniques utilized by sophisticated "Salon" style painters in the service of their own modernist vision.
      Through staging their own art show, they managed to create their own market, outside of the salon.  This move coincided with the emergence of the industrial class as art purchasers.  Wealthy French, British and Americans, in some cases the children of wealthy industrialists, in other cases the industrialists themselves, had money to spend and they didn't give a FUCK about the Salon.  In fact, you could say they hated it, seeing as it was directed toward the pre-capitalist aristocrats and autocrats of French society.

    Ultimately, success validates itself, and at this point, as the Impressionists continue to sell museum tickets and paintings at the highest level of the art world, there isn't anything left to do but ask "how?" and "why?"  A viewer in 2010 doesn't need to see impressionist paintings AT ALL to appreciate their splendor, since their own advances in technique were incorporated by subsequent modernist artists and THOSE art works were hugely successful.  It's not like "Impressionism" has any possible current relevance to the world except to just say, "Man, what a hit."  but that is surely enough, since Impressionism is such a huge smash.  Furthermore, the triumph of impressionism is so utter complete that it could serve as the basis for observing a documented change in the culture taste of the entire world.  That makes Impressionism a worthy subject of thought, as indeed, it has been, almost literally since inception.  As it continues today, and as it will be for as long as this particular world is still around.


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