Still beautiful after all these years

Nowadays, it may be unfashionable for art to delight the heart and eye, but the Phillips Collection's impressionist still life show does.


September 23, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In this era of sophisticated cynicism, no critic wants to be caught dead touting yet another impressionist show, unless of course it's to spout something suitably postmodern and dismissive, such as "Impressionist paintings are the world's most overpriced art form, blah, blah, blah."

But I'm not gonna do that.

The exhibition of impressionist still lifes that opened yesterday at the Phillips Collection in Washington left me feeling unconstrained by the contemporary art world's fashionable consciousness of diminished possibilities.

This is truly a show that renews one's faith in the pure pleasure of an art that sees life as beautiful. In a Washington that felt strangely subdued last week in the wake of a terrorist attack, the Phillips was one of the few places in the city that seemed relatively untouched by the prevailing mood of gloom.

Granted, this also seems like the gazillionth impressionist essay in recent memory, and it's not even the only one scheduled this season: Baltimore's own Walters Art Museum has its own impressionist extravaganza planned for early next year.

But it's a welcome reminder that a good part of what great art is about is the nourishment of the soul, the bracing of the spirit and, yes, the delight of the eye. The impressionists may be familiar as an old shoe, but theirs are still some of the loveliest pictures ever painted, and this exhibition of some 80 works by the usual suspects -- Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, etc. -- undoubtedly will make everyone who sees them grateful for such simple blessings.

Birth pangs of an era

There is, too, a compelling curatorial rationale (if indeed one is needed) behind the Phillips' effort: Most people associate impressionism with carefree, light-dappled outdoor scenes of the belle epoque, but the happy band of bohemians who created the movement also breathed new life into the depiction of fruits, flowers and domestic utensils in ways that clearly heralded the advent of modernism.

The line of development initiated by Manet's studies of the most humble everyday objects led directly to the pictorial innovations of Cezanne and Gauguin and on to the radical abstractions of cubism in the work of Picasso and Braque. This is a show as much about the birth pangs of our own era as about an age of pictorial innocence that now seems part of the remote past.

None of this will come as any surprise to viewers who saw last season's stunning exhibition of Manet's still lifes at the Walters, which was perhaps one of the best conceivable introductions to the subject.

As in so many other areas, Manet was a pioneer and leader in reinvigorating the still-life genre in mid-19th-century France -- so much so that a contemporary kindred spirit like Renoir, in his Still Life With Bouquet (1871), painted a virtual homage to the master in which practically every detail refers directly or indirectly to Manet's treatment of the form.

The impressionists did not, of course, invent still life, which had been around since ancient times and which first emerged as an independent genre in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting, later achieving new levels of refinement in the hushed domestic tableaus of the 18th-century French painter Jean-Simeon Chardin.

A new way of seeing

What the impressionists did, led by Manet, was to transform a form that previously had occupied the lowest level of importance in the academic hierarchy into a powerful expression of the emerging modern world of machine-age capitalism and its glittering metropolises.

The impressionists did not do this by painting pictures of machines (as later generations of modernists were to do) but by inventing a new way of seeing that reflected the new consciousness of seemingly limitless possibilities offered by the rapid pace of scientific and technical developments.

As the critic Robert Hughes observed in his popular survey, The Shock of the New, the last quarter of the 19th century witnessed the invention of the steam turbine and the machine gun, the Ford car and the phonograph, the diesel engine and the electric light bulb, the Kodak camera and the radio telegraph.

By the second decade of the 20th century, the dizzying pace of technological innovation had become such an accepted part of life that the French writer Charles Pequy could remark that "The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last 30 years."

Virtually all the elements that later would be recognized as hallmarks of modern painting -- the "flattening" of the picture plane, the appropriation of non-Western motifs, the juxtaposition of pure colors in increasingly abstract patterns -- are already present, with varying degrees of emphasis, in the still lifes produced by the impressionists during those four seminal decades between 1860 and 1900.

This is the art historical significance of the Phillips exhibition, and the catalog that accompanies it offers a fascinating overview of the social and cultural background out of which impressionism emerged as the pre-eminent expression of its era.

But you don't have to be an art historian to appreciate this show. The impressionists were not theoreticians or social philosophers, but painters, and their pictures are quite simply gorgeous, requiring no explanation whatever.

Despite the passage of time, they remind us that art can be both beautiful and true, and that, in the hands of the greatest masters, art speaks unequivocally, universally and unfailingly to the heart as well as to the eye.

'Impressionist Still Life'

Where: The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. N.W., Washington

When: Through Jan. 13

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 7 p.m.

Admission: $15 adults, $12 students and seniors

Call: 202-387-2151

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