Metroplitan Museum:   Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity    Feb 26 - May 27, 2013


Auguste Renoir
Lise (Woman with Umbrella)

oil on canvas
72½ x 45½ in

Museum-goers seeking examples of exuberant style, and its influence on our own tastes, will find the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” an unadulterated delight. Exquisite garments and accessories from the 1860s through 80s—dresses, ensembles, hats, bonnets, undergarments, men’s frockcoats and trousers—fill the central spaces of eight galleries. Surrounding them on the walls are French paintings from the era, depicting people wearing similar attire (and in one case, the very same garment). And then there’s us: milling between costume and canvas, in a striking conformity of scale, fellow museum-goers display their own degrees of current fashion consciousness.

But for museum visitors hoping for the visual equivalent of Bach or Tolstoy–generosity of spirit, resolve, and curiosity as expressed through a high art form–the exhibition represents something of a pact with the devil. The installation allows a glimpse of some of the very greatest paintings of the era, if you already know what to look for.  And if you don’t—well, this doesn’t seem to have been a concern. Dreadful paintings are hung next to masterpieces, their order determined not by any intrinsic value but by the style of depicted garments: paintings featuring white outfits fill one gallery, black outfits fill the next, blue another. Some walltexts have the breezy tone of a fashion magazine. (“Carolus-Duran turned heads—and turned his career around—[when he]…packed the lessons of Manet and Monet into a real crowd-pleaser.” The accompanying painting, in fact, bears little evidence of the signature virtues of either Manet or Monet.) It’s no surprise then that one of the iconic paintings of the century, Courbet’s “Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine” (1856-57) has been squeezed onto a side wall, where it receives from most onlookers the same fifteen seconds they devote to a vapid canvas by James Tissot across the gallery. If curators used to struggle to overcome the passivity and casual preconceptions of many museum-goers, this exhibition seems to count on them.
Museums, of course, have for decades been combining major and decorative arts. Some exhibitions have featured conscious pairings of “high” and “low” art. Many have contextualized masterpieces with examples of decorative arts. This is the first museum installation in memory, however, in which great works of art serve as the accessories to trends in the decorative arts. If, in the wake of the McQueen exhibition (the Met’s most-visited installation ever), we have a new paradigm—blockbusters of great art organized by fashionistas-cum-curators, we have truly sold our souls.

In fairness, the walltexts and catalogues essays make an intriguing point. As art and fashion historian Birgit Haase relates in the exhibition catalogue, “The representation of contemporary fashion, demanded by Baudelaire as proof of artistic modernism and realized by avant-garde painters in programmatic and often scandalous works, was established by the 1870s as an accepted subject of modern as well as popular art.” Indeed, the installation’s walltexts and catalog essays tell of a compelling confluence of factors: the emergent consumer class, the advent of department stores and ready-to-wear apparel, the proliferation of fashion publications and dress patterns, and the modernizing of entire Parisian neighborhoods under Baron Haussmann. Fashion trends were nothing new—Roman busts can be dated according to the rapidly changing hairstyles of the era—but the aspirations to be moderniste, and the possibility of conveying it in wardrobe, reached a new intensity. And—here’s where “high art” enters the picture—forward-looking painters strove to authentically catch life in all its spectacle.

But was Impressionism’s triumph really so dependent on fashion? After all, the Impressionists painted unpeopled landscapes and still lifes as well as the human figure, and when it came to showcases for fashion, they rarely depicted either department stores or society receptions. Moreover, in presenting Impressionism and academic painting as two sides of the same coin, the installation glosses over what may well be Impressionism’s single greatest legacy: its breaking of the stranglehold of the French Academy, with its program of polished technique and artificial poses—a recipe followed, as it happens, by a good many of the lesser works in this show. Most notably, the installation neglects the intrinsic language of painting, and how its demands connect the significant artists of every era. The most vigorous Impressionist works here reflect the motivations of all great painters: the urge to employ the essential elements of the medium to respond, in honest and original ways, to the optical stimuli of their environment. Seen from this perspective, “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” represents not the intended cross-fertilization between two cultural disciplines, but a curious pop-up-show-within-a-show: a few great paintings borne, like gems in a rhinestone tide, by a general stream of superlative fashion and mediocre art.

The eighty paintings in the exhibition include important loans from the Musée d’Orsay and the Art Institute of Chicago (the exhibition’s originating and final venues, respectively) as well as numerous other collections. Seven paintings by Monet reflect his familiar, bold renditions of the paradoxes of sunlight, along with an occasional woodenness of modeling and composition. But his large painting of figures in a garden, “Luncheon on the Grass” (1865-66) stuns. Consisting in fact of two large fragments of a single, damaged canvas, this work palpably captures the effect of figures, rimmed in sunlight, rising above the broad swathes of shadowed blue-gray fabric spreading across the ground. Unusually for Monet, the painting captures a sense of the moment, not just in the most obvious way—through brushy technique and topical subject matter—but also in its climactic rhythms.
Renoir’s monumental “Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children” (1878, from the Met’s own collection) reminds us of how seamlessly this artist wrapped rigorous color and form within an indulgent technique. Among the biggest surprises of the exhibition is his “Lise—the Woman with the Umbrella” (1867) from almost a decade earlier. Smoothly blended rather than feathered, his strokes of colors turn the subject’s dress into a radiant pillar of white, strongly but delicately elaborated, with reflected light deliciously illuminating her shadowed face.

The exhibition provides a particularly good look at Manet, in nine canvases revealing his masterful gifts as well as, to my mind, his occasional lapses into mere facility. His “Young Lady in 1866” (1866, from the Met’s collection), hanging between two Monet figure paintings, shows how thoroughly Manet’s modeling skills surpassed most of the Impressionists’. With extraordinary vigor, Manet conjures the luminous pink flow of the subject’s dress and its effortless resolution in the complexity of the hands, each of them a marvel of independent detail. His portrait of Berthe Morisot in the same gallery—supple, yet comprehensive—is hardly less impressive.

Curiously, though fashion-conscious in person, Manet was distinctly less successful in donning the painting style of the Impressionists. The fluttering textures of his “The Parisienne” (c. 1875) seem to me a matter of calculated stylishness rather than edified observation.

There’s rarely been in New York City a better look at the underappreciated Berthe Morisot, whose vigorous colors move through the deepest darks and most limpid lights without losing their intensity. In paintings like “The Sisters” (1869), the spare darks of eyes and hair beautifully anchor entire zones of pale skin and garments. More than most painters here, her eight canvases here reveal a consistent, empathetic respect for her subjects, evident in the bold, broad appraisals of form in “Woman with a Fan” ( 1874) and, less satisfyingly, in the tentative elaborations of “Young Woman Seated on a Sofa” (c. 1879).

And then there’s the single canvas by Courbet, who founded, and indeed embodied, the mid-century movement dubbed Realism. Although the largely self-taught artist insisted on painting only what he could see, his realism relies less on veristic recording than on a profound sense of rhythmic composition. Nature always appears in his paintings through the prism of his own sensual appetites; what prevents his paintings from slipping into gauche indulgence is an extraordinary sense of the pictorial weight of colors and forms.
No seascape painter has surpassed the moody resolve of Courbet’s beach scenes, with their vision of advancing wave upon implacable wave. “Young Ladies” holds the eye with similar force, with each of its horizontal forms laid weightily behind the previous: the ground plane receding viscerally below; the powerful extension of one figure, echoed by the second; the sudden horizontal escape to water/sky; the final band of dense overhanging leaves. This tiered rhythm propagates smaller, more detailed ones: the horizontal of the closer figure restarts, in smaller scale, as an extended arm, which in turns culminates in a single straightening finger. The result is an extraordinary sense of charged scale, with bold masses resolving momentously in final, delicate details.
To my eye, the only painting in the exhibition that might rival the Courbet is a small figure painting produced by the 78-year-old Camille Corot. Often considered the link between classicism and Impressionism, Corot’s forms have the vitality of original observations—as if sight were a fresh gift— located with a graceful authority that accords each element its indispensable role. In his small masterpiece, the sweeps of a blue dress coalesce as the impression of a figure resisting gravity, her form culminating in the pale, diverging of face and arm, with the tiny fingers succinctly measuring the space in-between. Drawing locates the significance of masses; colors weight each interval. It’s no wonder that Corot was an almost god-like figure to the Impressionists. 

The brilliance of such works stands out all the more next to the many lesser works in the exhibition. These include Gustave Caillebotte’s several paintings, which reflect adroit modeling but a merely business-like aptitude for composing; no one element matters more than another. The principal achievement of his huge painting “Paris Street; Rainy Day” (1877) is to illustrate intriguing life styles. Albert Bartholome’s large canvas of a woman standing in a conservatory doorway impresses for its vividness of light, but forms are located with a passivity precluding any deeper characterization. Its most poignant aspect lies in its context: the walltext tells us that subject, the artist’s young wife, died several years later; the very dress she posed in appears in a nearby display case.

And if fashion is the discipline of artfully revealing oneself, it’s ironic that this exhibition so cruelly overexposes painter James Tissot, represented by more works than any other artist. While his early “Portrait of Mademoiselle L.L.” (1864) has some merit, the rest of his ten works reflects a painful indifference to the expressive possibilities of color, and misplaced confidence in the redeeming powers of a meticulous technique. Walltexts struggle to make Tissot relevant; one describes the artist as offering a “...a snapshot of a person in a familiar context, in clothing that defined the individual character. Figure paintings that gave models an infinite number of possible lives proliferated.” Painting, from this standpoint, serves simply to aid fashion in its projection of infinite personalities.
Speaking for themselves, the best paintings here make a different argument: that painting is a major art, in which artists prove their own character in attempting to commit to canvas, in the language of paint, an understanding of the visual world. By these lights, only the lesser artworks rely heavily on the social dynamics of fashion, a field in which no one knows why a hemline need to be high or low, or a brushstroke fine or coarse, yet everyone recognizes a hot trend.

The issue resonates in our time, because this very dynamic—of few being able to define ultimate values, yet everyone recognizing a successful career—seems to increasingly to define today’s artworld. Rather than battling this trend, academia sometimes encourages it, treating painting as a “low” art—an evocative craft on the order of basket-weaving—to be elevated by the criteria of their own disciplines, which are liable to deal with encodings and significations. As one cynic claimed, cutting-edge art has become the marriage of convenience between fashion and academe, with fashion supplying the thrills, and academia the justification.
Museums face a formidable challenge if they hope to engage both academic thinking and the broader public. The Met’s spectacular Courbet exhibition of 2008, however, struck a happy balance, presenting the French master’s publicity-seeking habits as an antecedent to today’s media-savvy artists. The Courbet-as-proto-Julian-Schnabel premise was irrelevant to the greatness of the work—to the pictorial eloquence and power that prompted both Matisse and Picasso to collect his work—but it afforded a glimpse of dozens remarkable paintings.

And why not connect the public directly and intimately with great art? Consider this possibility: instill in museum-goers the notion that they will get out of painting exactly what they put into it. After all, we all begin by seeing little, and having difficulty even imagining what we’re not seeing; the perpetual temptation is to deny it even exists. But knowing art depends on possessing at least an inkling of great art. Museums should remind gallery-goers that while a one-in-ten-million painter like Rembrandt overwhelms, students of his (like Nicolaes Maes) work on comprehensible levels; comparing works by the two, we get glimpses of how Rembrandt transcends. Similarly we can compare Veronese and his student Bassano, Courbet and his lesser contemporary Thomas Couture, Corot and Daubigny, or Seurat and Signac. At some point, character will impress us more than talent; generosity more than effect. We’ll see what Delacroix meant when he wrote that exactitude was not truth, and why Cézanne would weep over the watercolors of Delacroix. We’ll appreciate why Matisse would devote a lifetime to finding a modern equivalent to Giotto. Give painting its due as a major art form, in other words, and in time painting will vastly repay the effort.

Picasso and Matisse didn’t collect Courbet because he was a producer of evocative craft items, or a barometer of social trends—and least of all because he was an exemplar of fashion. We should savor the many memorable moments of “Impressionism,” but also fear what it portends. Museums should present reminders of the enduring, the deep, and the complex, not easy delights and quick rationales. If they don’t, who will?

This review was originally posted on paintingperceptions.com on July 5, 2013.

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