Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Impressionists

If I could go back in time and speak French to Claude Monet, I'd tell him "I love your work, and I feel your pain, man." I'd tell him about my high school art teacher who never appreciated me and always gave top marks to a hack whose father was an artist. Then I'd tell him to lose the goatee. Does he really want to be remembered by future generations with that rodent thing stuck on his chin? Richard Armitage looks better with a few days stubble and since he plays him in 'The Impressionists', he should cull that thing for the greater good.

The chin thing

I held off watching The Impressionists because of facial hair reviews like this one, but after Nat's one  it got a second chance. It looks like the stuff plucked from a shower drain, but in full body shots it's easy to get distracted by the enviably long legs. The short waistcoat and hunch make them look extra spindly.

Tall Claude

The work of Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne is now well loved but like most art revolutionaries their work was considered as detestable as kiddy porn in their day. In the mid 19th century the French Art Police valued only historic or religious themed grandeur; dark and gothic was very in. People didn't bat an eyelid at frolicking nude Venus, but painting outdoors with visible brushstrokes? Never. A woman painted with a direct gaze? The horror. The Impressionists didn't sell well until much later and were often in debt.

In this show Monet and his fellow rebels aim to capture some intangible 'moment' unique for each of them. They are fascinated by interplay of light, colour and movement. Monet sprints after it, dragging Renoir and Bazille along. Degas hides from it but it haunts him nevertheless, while Manet pretends he doesn't care. Cezanne wrestles with his distrust of it all, his inner demons push him to realise perfection of composition by recognising tricks played by the eye. He steers past colour to contemplation of basic shape and human perception.

Cezanne in Province

The Impressionists is also about acceptance by your peers and the general public. Yeah, who needs it!...even me. I had no clue until starting to write stuff and thus becoming a neurotic comment junky overnight. If there were no comments, why didn't anyone like me? Why does my work stink? I hated that my self-worth was directly proportional to how popular my stuff was. It wasn't even my day job; how much worse if it was my bread and butter? Or for the Impressionists, their beans, bread and cheese? No wonder artists are such an odd bunch.

Occasionally Monet's support group felt like a Seinfeld clique - a bunch of misfit personalities frequenting the same cafe to gripe about art critics, the establishment, money, parents, wives etc. Monet is Jerry, the cheerful guy who is the glue of the group. Renoir is Elaine, his pseudo partner with some claim to common sense. Degas is a mixture of George and Newman, a self-serving weirdo railing against society, and Cezanne is Kramer the wild-eyed and canvas-hurling eccentric.

 Degas: Who moved my cheese?

Just as you would expect in a show about art, the lighting, imagery and costumes demonstrate the artists' awareness of shifting brightness and shadow. The light beams in each scene flicker temptingly, beckoning come hither. See the way it dapples the faces and figures of brightly-dressed Monet and his friends in the two images below? Whenever they're indoors, rays of light filter through from a window or some strange sunroof creating interesting shadows as the artists move about. It's very arty. Monet dresses arty too. His neckties, vests are almost cartoony bright; his coat is always a lighter shade than others for he basks closest to the brilliance.

Renoir and Basille watch Monet out the window

Basille and Monet, regulars at Cafe Guerbois

Apart from the picturesque and dazzling outdoor shots, my favourite scene is right at the start with Monet sneakily sketching the other train passenger. That little smile, those furtive glances out the corner of his eye. The other guy can tell something's going on but is too polite to say anything! So sweet. We had to do the same in art class on our yearly pilgrimage to the state art gallery.

More cravats and train stations (no Miss Hale though)

If you're familiar with Impressionism then you'll squeal in delight whenever the scenery morphs into the infamous painting inspired by it. Seeing these beautiful creations placed in historical, geographical and emotional context for each painter is a moving and fascinating art lesson, and ultimately this is how I saw The Impressionists. Unlike in high school, now I'll never forget Manet's Olympia, Degas' brothels and ballerinas, Monet's Woman in the Green Dress, or Bazille painting his beloved recovering from a discus hit on the leg. I'm even growing fond of haystacks and apples.

Ultimately there is more information than drama, for the drama kept getting interrupted and lost some momentum in the second half. You might tune out every time the interviewer guy comes on screen; he's just a device to disguise leaps in time and narrative. You might feel unfulfilled by the big gaps later in their lives as they reach artistic maturity, particularly because you've just gotten to know and care about them. I googled their surnames to fill in the blanks and find out whether some of them were as unhygienic, charming or misogynistic as they were portrayed, and will visit the library to read up more.

It feels almost like researching a friend's family tree. My high school art teacher would have been proud of me, though he'd still give full marks to that hack whose father was an artist. That fool. I could've been a Monet! Nevertheless, it's time to try out some of the art filters on my image editing software and go on a gallery crawl this weekend. See how well this docudrama has brought history alive? I'm inspired.


Nat at RA FanBlog said...

HAHA! That "chin thing" in the first pic is seriously horrible. :) I hate to admit, but it was one of the main reasons I avoided the movie in the first place. Shallow, I know. Hey, I think we had the same art teacher in HS! Why didn't anybody appreciate my paper sculptures anyway?
As always, another great review. I was laughing through the whole thing. You pick up on the tiniest details and make the best comparisons... I never thought about Seinfeld but you're totally right! :) That gallery guy could've been the Soup Natzi. "No art for you!"
I agree- the blogging world can create an addiction to comments and posting. I soon realized I need limits and couldn't be wasting too much time on the net while my kids ran around fending for themselves.

Mulubinba said...

I loved The Impressionists. I delayed watching it because I wasn't put off so much by RA in wigs and goatees as I was at the thought of a boring documentary on art. I did art in high school -it was taught badly and I remember the theory exams where we were given photocopies of works of art (in black and white) where we were to identify the work, the artist and the period of painting/sculpture or architecture. As Impressionism was based on colour and light, the way we were taught about it was less than satisfactory.

It was with a degree of reluctance that I bought The Impressionists but as soon as I watched the scene in the first art class with Monet, Bazille and Renoir, I was hooked. The beauty of the sets and scenery, the language, the music, the characters....what can I say? I watched the whole three parts in one sitting. I was one of the people in raptures when a scene in the film became one of the paintings.

We recently had a Monet exhibition in the Sydney art gallery. I felt it was a "must see" having watched this series. It was truly an emotional experience seeing the paintings in real life ... some of which were featured in the BBC production. Thanks to a work featuring Richard Armitage, I rediscovered a new interest in art.

Starheart said...

Mulubinba there's nothing like seeing a painting in real life is there?!!! Seems like not many enjoyed their art experience in high school. One of my teachers was so blatantly biased, and didn't care who knew.

Glad you liked my review Nat. One of the good things about being an obsessive compulsive is that you notice so much irrelevant stuff.

Nat at RA FanBlog said...

Do you take requests?
I'd love to hear your take on "Little Dorrit" with Matthew MacFadyen. It's another one of those period dramas I've seen lately and enjoyed, but none of my friends/fam have seen... and I need someone to analyze it with!

Starheart said...

Hey Nat!
Little Dorrit? Never heard of it, but haven't caught much on tv as it came out. Will keep an eye out for it on DVD and let you know.

Maria Grazia said...

I loved watching the Impressionists and, now,I've just greatly enjoyed reading your review. I have a double reason: RA, my "one weakness" and Monet- Renoir- Degas, my favourite painters. You are right saying that seeing a work of art live is extremely exciting. I was nearly moved to tears and shivering all the time, the first time I entered a big museum: it was in Spain, El Prado, Madrid. But it happens to me again and again. Last April I was so excited at seeing my avatar (one of Monet's Wenstminster paintings) at the National Gallery! It was my third time there but ... I must go when I am in London. In conclusion, Loving RA and Monet I could but love this series. THANK YOU.

Nat at RA FanBlog said...

Ragtag, are you an American? That's the vibe I got. Anyway, "Little Dorrit" is out on DVD in the US. I checked it out from Netflix and it's one of those mini series like "North & South."
I get a feeling you'd like it because it's not just about the interesting characters... like N&S, there's an underlying message, but this time it's about debtors prisons in old time London rather than the working conditions. I loved the characters though. There are so many quirky supporting actors! I can only imagine how your obsessive compulsive brain would pick it apart. Okay, I'll stop pushing for LD now, I promise! :)
I look forward to your next review, whatever it may be! And no, I don't just read your blog for RA stuff, although it's enjoyable. :)

bZirk said...


Well, I think I just had my first experience with convulsions. I may send you my doctor bill. For now just be satisfied with your clever self that I have tears in my eyes. :D

Nat at RA FanBlog said...

You've been awarded the "Honest Scrap" award. (Check out my blog to see details.) So cheestastic! (Cheesy in a fantastic way.)

Starheart said...

Hi Bzirk, thanks for reading, and er... convulsing! (i think?)

bZirk said...

I was showing a friend of mine this blog, and she and I started laughing so hard we made ourselves sick. I have not laughed that hard in a good long while, and every time I look at the deer in the headlights look on Cezanne, I lose it again. In fact, I can barely type this comment. ROFLOL!!!

OneMoreLurker said...

I love the Impressionist! I first watched it because I was in RA's withdrawal syndrome, I saw a 'trailer' in YT and I didn't give it a 2nd thought, I search it I watched it.

I especially like the 'effect' of real scenery become the art pieces and even if subconsciously you feel like you're back into art class, you want to keep watching because as you said 'you've just gotten to know and care about them.'

Starheart said...

Hi OneMoreLurker, I hope you watched Impressionists on a bigger screen than the YT one! Those artworks are much better appreciated on a tv screen where you can taken in all the details. Lovely show isn't it.

I understand about the RA withdrawal. Once spooks 8 was all over I had to pop in N&S to get me some 'happy ending RA time'.