(Visual) Notes on Culture
The North Carolina Museum of Art is currently exhibiting "Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism," a collection of 40 some-odd French and American proto-Impressionist and Impressionist works from the Brooklyn Museum. This is as close to a "blockbuster" exhibition as the NCMA is likely to get (the paintings have already been at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, FL) and it lasts until January 13, 2008. The show has been - and will continue to be - successful, but it is not without flaws. The fairly small selection, though representative, is far from panoramic. The language of the program materials and guides is fairly panoramic, but suffers from a number of key omissions.

At one point in the proceedings a plaque speaks to the relative lack of urban paintings by impressionist painters, as compared with the shear number of scenes of country and pastoral life. The plaque rightly points out that many of the patrons or buyers for Impressionist artwork were part of the urban bourgeoisie, a group who could hardly escape the cities and instead sought scenes of a serenely royal world, a world of vicarious wish-fulfillment. Information like this brings that perfect blend of historical context, critical view, and elicits those great "Gee, I didn't know that" responses.

The show stumbles, however, by not giving enough historical context. At entry, the viewer is told of the direct links these paintings share to Barbizon School painters of the 1850s - the plein air technique, the rediscovery of the provincial, etc. What the show fails to explain to viewers is what I would characterize as the key impetus for the Impressionist movement (and the perpetuation of Impressionist technique beyond the so-called Impressionists): the invention and popularization of photography. Photography meant documentation, a kind of naturalistic documentation that could not be achieved in plein air painting. Photography yielded unprecedented verisimilitude. Ingres and the virtuoso Neo-Classicists could not compare, nor could contemporary painters. Thus, the reaction to the photographic invention and its consequences was a retreat into the subjective "impression," in pastorialism, color, and inexact feeling over the city, stark contrast of shade, and direct social intervention. Impressionism was revolutionary because the camera was revolutionary. It staked its claims where this new technology could not.

The best experience of "Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism" is - and this is cliched, but true - the ability to closely scrutinize images which have so often been reproduced and commercialized (think of your Monet drink coasters or your Renoir tea towels). The selections of Monet paintings is respectable and allows for a pocket view of what that artist was capable of. If one can escape the little kids and noisy families, scrutiny is possible. The residue of the painter him or herself...the globs of paint extruding from the canvas, the bits of brush stuck in the streams of paint, the occasional finger print, the illegible signatures...these traces show the real, physical, painterly quality of these Impressionist works.

There is, of course, a fully-stocked gift shop at the end of the line. You can buy a book of John Singer Sargent postcards, but you can't by a reproduction detailed enough to see the blemishes. Let photography be the massively reproduced artifact of 19th century art and enjoy the works on the wall.
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