Sunday, November 25, 2007

Opening Windows: Impressionists and Joyce

(Reflections on the exhibit "Inspiring Impressionists" at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, following which I attempted another foray into Ulysses by James Joyce.)

My brand loyalty to Impressionism is very strong. At art museums, I save the Impressionists' displays for dessert. I sigh when I hear music associated with the "impressionists," and I'm liable to weep for Debussy's last three sonatas. So Atlanta's High Museum special exhibit Inspiring Impressionists was a special treat.

Most of the big names were gathered there. There were Cassatt, Degas, Sisley, and my favorite impressionist dark-horse, Pisarro. Here, Pisarro is represented by a close view of a young female servant carrying an empty drink glass on a tray. Just as I was noting how often an unfamiliar impressionist painting that I like turns out to be Pisarro's, I noticed the first impressionist painting in the exhibit that I didn't like, and it was his: desultory depiction of a servant sweeping a floor around a carelessly drawn table.

The big stars are Monet and Manet, and now I will be able to remember which is which. Monet is the bad boy, and Manet is the team player. Manet's modest words, writ large in the first chamber, tell us, "No one's work is less spontaneous than mine: I learned it all from studying the old masters" (quoted badly, from memory). This is the thesis statement of the exhibit. At the other end of the exhibit, Monet strikes the opposite tone, claiming total spontaneity and nothing owed to tradition. The exhibitors juxtapose his works with others that he would have known by Dutch and French artists of the century previous to his to show that his work owes something to them.

The outstanding pieces, though, were interesting precisely because they were not typical and not necessarily even likeable. It was a bit startling to see, for example, that a big canvas re-telling of the Biblical story of Jephtha and his daughter, done in the grand old style - only more stiff, more drab - was by Manet. Early work, it falls flat between the two stools of illustration and impressionism. Nearby, we see Manet's smudgy version of a Renaissance scene of the Crucifixion, beside a photo of the original. His blurring of the original's crystal-sharp images adds nothing good to the scene, but his comment about his version helped me to understand what he was after, and what he and the other impressionists do achieve in their most characteristic work. He remarks that, while he admired and copied Italian and Spanish Renaissance painters, "one cannot breathe the air" in their works.

Manet is so right! Run-of-the-mill Renaissance works are so neatly realized, so purposefully arranged, so rich in detail, that the viewer can only appreciate them, as if admiring a display through a frame, behind glass.

Impressionists seem to have opened the window to let the viewer breathe the same air as their subjects. I've always felt this about my favorite Monets, and it's true of the ones, here, too. We see some windmills under grey-white sky; we see a Dutch church at the end of an avenue bisected by a canal; we see a distant town from a curve of the Seine. We do get the impression of water's lapping, of the haze in the air, of motion, of our just happening by a scene. We feel the temperature, we hear the rustling of the tall grass. I suppose, if I were a Martian or a Saharan, I might not understand that those blurred green waves in the corner there are thick tall grasses; but, having been in fields and streams before, I feel strongly the power of these works to evoke sense - memory. Their practices of cropping the frame, of hurrying and broadening the brush strokes, of choosing subjects that are ordinary, of blurring the distinctions between objects and backgrounds, also blur the distinction between observer and observed. We feel like the artist has opened a window onto real life at some moment, somewhat carelessly, instead of feeling like the artist has staged a tableau.

To use a slightly different analogy from my own experience, it's the difference between watching a play and being in it. The blurring, the odd cropping, the lack of apparent story-telling, all leave room for the viewer (the actor, in my analogy) to imagine the environment and the feel for himself.

The impressionists are not the only ones to get this effect. For example, the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, Vermeer especially, have that same quality of opening a window onto real life, and it's no accident that windows so often figure in their works, as the source of light for interiors, and as a source of interest as we get glimpses through them in depictions of Dutch streets. A few of those are here in this exhibit, too, including a portrait by Hals, whose work always impresses me with this quality and something else, too: good humored affection for whoever appears in his work. Another artist I didn't know, Fragonard, b. 1730, uses those same broad brush strokes in a painting of a young woman reading that achieves the same effect.

Curiously, while the Impressionists were ridiculed for their triviality and carelessness in a time when artists were expected to portray the great and to teach religious ideals, it is the impressionists' work that speaks religion as I understand it. It revels in the beauty of creation and perception itself, dignifying the homely people and objects with their close attention. It's a prominent theme of the Bible, that God is present in the smallest, the weakest, the most overlooked (cf. Joseph, the Jews, the suffering servant, the widow's mite, the Good Samaritan, and the cornerstone which the builders rejected).

All of this came to mind as I struggled once more through chapter 6 of ULYSSES. I know that Joyce struggled mightily to write it, and it's a struggle for me to read it; but when I do "get" what I'm reading, there's that same feeling that the mediator Joyce has stepped aside, and I'm really there with Dedalus and Bloom and whoever else. Again, I'm having to read like an actor, learning to make the mental connections between one line and another, with no director there to lead me through it.

I wonder if anyone has ever tried to re-write ULYSSES in a conventional narrator's voice, stage - managed and careful to distinguish thought from spoken word, past from present, main action and side-show? It wouldn't be very interesting in itself, but it might help someone (the writer, perhaps) to appreciate Joyce even more.

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