Knowledge Mushohwe Art Zone
IMPRESSIONISM may have its origins in a small part of France but the art movement’s ramifications may be felt even in today’s art world.
1874 will forever be widely renounced as the birth of modern art. An exhibition mounted at the studio of photographer and journalist Felix Nadar in France became the starting point of a style that subsequently expanded into what art has become today.
Before then, art, and in particular painting was considered to be a time-consuming practice that was epitomised by the near-realistic depictions of subjects. The range of subjects covered by paintings was very narrow, with religious artworks and those commissioned by affluent members of society being the most common.
But the nineteenth century exhibition changed all that. A group of artists that included now famous individuals such as Edouard Manet Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro defied the norm by presenting to the public rejected artworks that formed the basis of what is now referred to as Impressionism.
The exhibition was a direct rebellion against the set artistic standards set by Academie des Beaux-Art, the institution at the time considered to be the authority in painting.
The impressionists changed everything, including choice of subject matter and painting technique.
The new artists took little time to finish each composition, and most commonly painted out of doors as a way to capture the more immediate consequence of light and colour and the combined effect of the two on objects during particular times of the day.
This particular approach is typified by ‘Sunrise’, a painting by Claude Monet. Monet’s style did not exactly develop a realistic painting of the sun going down on the horizon, rather, he juxtaposed monochromatic hues, employing quick brushstrokes that when the composition is viewed at a close range, would look messy and unrealistic.
But when viewed from a distance, the colours blend and show among others the regressing quality of light with distance and perhaps more importantly for the artists, the effect of light on objects.
The subjects painted by impressionists also challenged custom and created a new standard. Paintings were no longer about mythical and religious figures, neither were they the kind propagandistic depictions of the elite.
Impressionists instead varied their subjects and often showed in their compositions vivid landscape depictions, effect of sunlight on anything from water to trees, and common members of society going about their daily routines.
The effect of their painting was displeasing to the art critics of the time, mainly because it was a direct revolt against set standards. But to the general public, they became instantly famous, possibly because the art was colourful enough to please the eye, looked overtly uncomplicated and was relatable since the subject was often what was always around them.
Impressionism also impressed other like-minded artists and the likes of Paul Cezanne, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Berthe Morisot joined the pioneers and helped spread the movement across France and beyond.
Arguably, it was Impressionism that triggered the notion of commercialisation in art as it was the first time that artists could start and finish a painting within a day. An artist could therefore develop and display several artworks a month and if the works establish a market, the producer could get rewarded for the multiple products.
The fact that the subjects became more relatable to the greater population meant that art drew closer to a bigger market and became more acceptable to those that previously saw the practice as a direct benefit only for the rich, the powerful and the clergy.
Impressionism indeed became a catalyst for mass production and a tool for the acceptance of art as a part and parcel of the community where it is created.
But the very nature of Impressionism meant that detail impressions were no longer a priority and the quality of artworks was not as rich as before. Their obsession with ‘capturing the fleeting moment’ subtracted minor details that were the hallmark of painting before.
This cannot be viewed as a negative effect, because it aided the development of art from being just about capturing a likeness to more complex renditions based primarily on emotional expressions. Post-Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and a whole host of art movements that emerged after Impressionism can find their roots in the ‘rebels’ art.
Though dozens of artists are now considered to have been Impressionists, it is interesting to note that each employed a style that retained individuality.
Edouard Manet preferred paining everyday objects while Pissaro and Sisley enjoyed depicting French countryside and river scenes. Degas was obsessed with ballet dancers and horses, and Morisot developed a liking for women doing their daily chores. Renoir used colourful dots to show effect of light on vegetation and people, and Monet was more interested in colour effects on the atmosphere.
But whatever their choice, Impressionists showed that there is no standard for good art. An artwork may look revolting if the viewing public is used to something else but there is little to be gained if the boundaries are never stretched.
The roots of commercial art, that created for marketing, entertainment, commentary or informative purposes may be traced back to Impressionism where art became quicker and more relatable. Though it is unfortunate that mass produced art has a tendency to lose acres of quality, the practice of working with deadlines has been necessitated by the high demand for graphic information and the wide availability of relevant media and tools.
And as the world become more technology based, the ‘new Impressionists’ have a duty to generate quality work that is relevant to whoever the target audience may be.
Mass produced groups of artworks showing only a infinitesimal change from one to the other can only be seen as ‘template’ crafts that barely achieve their purpose and consequently stall further development of art.