mon 15/08/2022

The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution, BBC Two

The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution, BBC Two

The artists who broke the mould, only to be later dismissed as 'chocolate box'

Who could argue that television isn’t a great medium for learning about art? In its pared-down, visually literate way it delivers what dull, theory-laden extrapolations often can’t (if only because artists don’t think that way when they make things, and we don’t think that way when we look at things). It can breathe renewed life and vigour into a subject we think we know well, and, as a medium for simplified, pocket-sized information, it can get straight to the heart of a matter. Perfect. Possibly. And so we come to The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution.

Waldemar Januszczak gave us this new three-parter on a group of French artists who’ve had more than their fair share of television exposure. The Impressionists are both loved and loathed for exactly the same reasons: their paintings are seen as soft-focus, chocolate-box confections – sweet to the point of nausea when over-indulged, and boy, have we all over-indulged (indeed, there’s a reason you wouldn’t catch Picasso’s Guernica on a tin of French fancies).

La_Loge_Renoir-jpgBut Januszczak argued, as almost every critic and art historian does, that this is an injustice: the Impressionists were true revolutionaries, the Che Guevaras of the art scene whose sun-dappled lawns and bathing beauties opened the door on a world that was brave, bold and ballsy. Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Degas (of whom more in the second episode) were the “Gang of Four”, with Bazille somewhat playing the part of fifth Beatle (this supremely talented artist died, at just 28, in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 as an enlisted soldier, four years before the Impressionists’ first exhibition). (Pictured right: Renoir's La Loge, 1874, which featured in the first Impressionist exhibition.) But Januszczak gave him his due, for Bazille’s en plein air paintings placed, for the first time, the figure centre stage, in the glaring sunlight, painting the contrast of light and shadow on the flesh. But he did this with only partial success: Bazille’s figures are unreal, as if “captured in a very sunny ice cube”. We are left to imagine just what might have been.

And what of Pissarro, the comparatively little-known satellite to the eclipsing stars of Monet and Renoir? Older than both by a decade, Pissarro’s quiet, sensitive paintings - of the unremarkable suburbs outside Paris and London and the fleeting figures of ordinary men and women – were undoubtedly revolutionary in their way. But, importantly, the artist was also the glue that held the group together.

'Presented with the evidence who could argue that the Impressionists weren’t brave, weren’t revolutionary?'

 And with their choppy, fractured brushstrokes and their focus on the world around them, what exactly were these young revolutionaries fighting against? Why, the stranglehold of the Paris Salon and the École des Beaux-Arts and its jury of stuffy academic painters. They were the enemy establishment, the keepers of the gate and they included painters like Alexandre Cabanel, whose Birth of Venus, with its quintet of syrupy cupids, was painted as late as 1863.

A close-up of an Impressionist painting was proffered in contrast to Cabanel’s alabaster nude, as “smooth and shiny as the paintwork of a new car”. Presented with the evidence, who could argue that the Impressionists weren’t brave, weren’t revolutionary? Indeed, so contemptuous was Januszczak of the old guard that neither Cabanel, nor his egregious painting, even got a name-check.

Januszczak is fantastic at fleshing out little-known biographical and contextual details which can open our eyes to new ways of thinking about an artist. Pissarro was a Jew, and this information mattered, because he was the first Jew to defy rabbinical law and become an artist, whilst Renoir was apprenticed at the age of 14 as a painter of porcelain plates, and this was where he had honed his flickery, feathery technique.

This is why Januszczak’s televisual portraits of single artists are so good. His one-offs on Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec were utterly compelling. One could learn much from them. And because he makes the biographies so rich, so vivid, a sketchier group show seems, well, sketchier, lacking in that full-bodied richness of colour.

Luckily, there are two more episodes to come. But I do hope that in these our presenter might be less inclined to show off quite so much bare leg (those stumpy pins are not exactly "chocolate box", and rather more Lucian Freud than Cabanel).

  • Watch The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution (Part One) on BBC iPlayer


This is a great review about the BBC programme ; I will agree, those pins are scary !..,but the presenter's personality is so colorful, we will remember those bios...,

I'm sorry to say that WJ's gimmick-strewn presentation in this series has already bored and palled and I fell asleep in the second part tonight as there's actually not much of interest being said to keep my attention. Kenneth Clark, John Berger, Huw Wheldon, knew how to make a programme on art, to talk wisely and interestingly and to keep your attention, and WJ is just another of those third-rate journalists who believe their 'take' on the history of art needs their unattractive 'mug' in close-up dominating the programme and not the art itself. When I was still awake I kept hoping WJ would slip on those cliff tops and spare everyone more of his curdled and potted oik-ish presentation.

In last Saturday's program WJ whose 'in you face' presentation is irritating at the best of times, suggested that Monet, whist painting steam engines was in danger of suffocation from all the smoke. Can someone please inform Mr Januszczak that steam engines produce steam not smoke, which is unlikely to have caused Monet any serious problems.

Tim's attempt at archness reveals more about his enthusiasm to have a swipe at "WJ" ( whom he is entitled not to like, I suppose, though he doesn't need to tell us all about it - why would we be interested in what Tim thinks?) I am interested, however in in helping poor Tim hone his next jibe a little more carefully: how does he think those steam engines produce all that heat to produce all that smoke? Has he ever been near a steam engine? Does he know they burn coal? Or does he think that sensitive artistic souls like himself are exempt from the need to be scietifically accurate?

Brilliant again, the commentary so concise helpful and beautifully spoken. One small quibble though; the meaning was unclear, or opposite to that intended when the presenter used the phrase 'as was his want'. I presume he meant 'as was his wont'. Far from wanting or lacking, the artist in question was doing what he was accustomed to doing.. Sports commentators are fond of this expression, so it is surprising that anyone gets confused by the difference in the spelling, pronunciation and meaning of these two words; 'want' and 'wont'

his suggestion that the woman holding a parasol in the painting by caillebotte of le pont de l'europe is a prostitute is not the opinion of us all something I would like to know is the name of the french singer and her song from last weeks programme

to Mr. W. Januszczak: Still you hold the secret of impressionists unrevealed. Is that intentionally?

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