herald

Monday 20 November 2017

Impressionists broke with convention to change the way we see the world

Constable's The Hay Wain is probably the most popular of all English art. We see it often on calendars and in books. A famous English critic said that it inspired Impressionist painting. The painters themselves were furious and they said that Impressionism was a natural growth: it was a reaction against several centuries of what is called Classical painting.

To say that The Hay Wain inspired Impressionism was nonsense. All the painters in this revolution were individuals and even though we hear about the school of Impressionism, there was no such school. They were all fiercely self-motivated. Most of them lived in Paris or nearby and they met quite often in some congenial cafe.

Cezanne, even though he was probably the most individual of all, regularly attended but sat in the quietest corner and seldom spoke. Between those painters there was, of course, envy and jealousy but the sense of camaraderie overcame all. They were young men embarked on a great adventure and this more than made up for any ill-feeling between them.

Manet was the most articulate of them all. He made one of the few puns in the Latin language -- Manet et manebit --which means more or less, I am Manet and I will remain. There was no record of Van Gogh ever attending those meetings. He said "I have nothing to learn from Impressionism." And he probably hadn't. The Impressionists created a revolution that has lasted down to the present day. The critics scorned them and, of course, the public followed the critics and many of the painters were lucky to have a private income.

We saw a similar reaction in Irish poetry. The classical tradition reached its ultimate in the work of Aogan O Raghallaigh. It was like Welsh poetry. It was based on complex structure. You can see a reaction in the poetry of Owen Roe O'Sullivan. You could call this romantic poetry as distinct from classical poetry. Owen Roe is probably the most popular of all the Irish poets.

The Impressionists broke all the rules: they used colours in combinations that had never been seen before. They broke even the rule of perspective so that some things got bigger as they receded. This was sheer apostasy. Even though Cezanne did not think of himself as an Impressionist, he did not use concentional perspective.

He did this deliberately but when he painted his most popular work about the countryside around his homeplace, he kept to the rules fairly well.

Cezanne was lucky in his father: he was a solicitor and a businessman but he gave his son an income that would last him all his life. He spent his early years in Paris with his friend Zola. His friend wrote a novel in which he depicts Cezanne as a failure but he became more popular as the works of Zola lost favour.



Novel

Has there been a similar revolution in the English Novel? It is hard to say. There have been several attempts. Joyce may have thought that he created a revolution with Ulysses but nobody followed him. The book is rubbish except in the minds of American 'scholars'. DH Lawrence described it as "A mess of pottage" and it is hard not to agree.

We will go back to the Impressionists. Manet's Girl Behind The Bar In The Olympia is deemed the greatest of all the Impressionist paintings. Monet became famous as a painter of flowers. Utrillo became famous for his paintings of the rooftops of Paris. Van Gogh, even though he claimed to owe nothing to the Impressionists, left behind a marvellous painting of Paris at night as seen from a cafe in Monmartre. We cannot but be impressed by Impressionism even if we do not admit it.

Cezanne stayed on in Paris until the war came and then he went back to the South and painted the countryside all around him. Many people deem this his best work: that was natural because in both senses he was very much at home there. His most famous painting in this period is his Chestnut Trees In The Jas de Bouffan. And his depictions of the hilly country around his birthplace are all evocative and memorable.

He was respected and liked by a little group of intellectuals in his hometown and so his life wasn't as unhappy as he gave us to believe. He painted and painted with great dedication until one day he collapsed on the roadside and was brought home in a post office van. On the morrow he was up and painting but he died two days later of pneumonia. He is now more popular than ever.

Fogra: Congratulations go to John Coghlan and Fionnuala Britton on setting new records in the Tom Brennan Memorial 5k on New Year's Day. Fogra eile: My very best wishes go to my old and dear friend Cora. Get well soon.

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