Saturday, January 1, 2011

Great Show at the Frist Center in Nashville

The Frist Center is just going from strength to strength.  Each show that I see there seems better than the last.  Right now, there's a show there called The Birth of Impressionism, with paintings from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

Some of these paintings are familiar, like Manet's The Fife Player:

And "Whistler's Mother," which is really called Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1, or The Artist's Mother, 1871:

One important thing to notice in both these canonical paintings is how there are large areas of basically flat, relatively unmodelled shapes.  When you take an art history course, you learn that this was a new thing in mid to late 19th century painting, especially in Manet.  Apparently French painters were inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, which had large flat unmodelled areas.  But this show makes this innovation really jump out at you, because the first room is full of Salon-style paintings, which were highly modelled and much more "realistic," except for the fact that they included so many winged cherubs and mermen, and the fact that none of the women have any body hair except on their heads (Ok, maybe not so realistic, but realistically modelled.)

Impressionist painters and (big R) Realist painters like Courbet were reacting against the silliness of these paintings of mythological subjects.  They preferred portraying peasants and ordinary people, like the exhausted haymakers below:

These two paintings, though worlds apart conceptually and thematically, are both equally huge.  So painters like LePage, who painted the haymaking scene, were stating that ordinary people were as heroic in their own way as the gods and goddesses of mythology.  Some of the paintings of peasants at work remind the viewer of Soviet realism, with its  idealized portraits of muscular peasant women.

I have always been sort of ashamed of the fact that English and American painting could never rival that of France in the 19th century, and well into the 20th century.  But a wall plaque in this show pointed to the influence of Constable on French landscape painters, particularly on the Barbizon school, the members of which painted in a forest near Paris.  But Renoir ventured further afield, to Algiers:

This kind of painting--devoid of narrative, a "painting of nothing"--drove the academicians and traditional painters in Paris crazy.  But you can see what it owes to Constable's
Dedham Vale, painted in 1801, eighty years earlier:

  But the Impressionists of the late 19th century had an advantage over Constable, namely, new colors!  When you enter the room with the Algerian painting, everything suddenly lightens and brightens up.  The colors are fresher and clearer, fewer shades and more tints, and the tints are very pure hues.  This is due to the presence of colors like viridian (a clear green), aureolin (yellow), cerulean blue (a greenish blue) and a new, cheaper synthetic ultramarine blue.  These are colors that I've taken for granted my whole painting life, but they were brand new toys for the Impressionists.

Another advantage for the Impressionists over their mentor Constable:  paint in tubes.  Constable had to mix his own paints and store them in little skin containers.  But Renoir could carry his colors outside in tubes, as we do today.

There are many more interesting things to look for in this show, such as the influence of photography on the way painters cropped their paintings; the appearance of "art within art," as in the painting of Whistler's mother; and the effect of the disastrous Franco-Prussian war on the nascent modernism of French painting.  We in Middle Tennessee are lucky to be able to see these paintings from the Musee d'Orsay in Nashville.