Little Daubs Will Do You
"Too much of a good thing," Mae West once quipped, "can be wonderful." That's pretty much the position we're in this season in South Florida.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the embarrassment of riches on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in "Paris 1860-1930: Birthplace of European Modernism." Now it's time to consider an exhibition that, by a fortuitous coincidence, nicely complements the Boca Museum's show: "Impressionism to the Present: Camille Pissarro and His Descendants," now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.
Where the Boca show goes for breadth -- 131 works by 77 artists, including a dozen by Pissarro -- its Fort Lauderdale counterpart goes for depth, showcasing 157 pieces, most by Pissarro, but many by his sons, grandchildren, and great-granddaughter. The museum has devoted its entire second floor to the exhibition, and the preponderance of Pissarros gets so potentially confusing that a wide corridor linking the main upstairs galleries to the smaller ones has been transformed into a sort of Pissarro resource center, complete with an elaborate family tree, a wall of family photographs, and a long reading table stocked with several books.
The fuss, of course, is over a major retrospective focusing on the painter widely acknowledged as the patriarch of impressionism. That movement may have been considered radical in its own time, but given the upheavals of latter-day modernism and postmodernism, today there's something almost comforting and reassuring about impressionism -- it's not too far removed from realism to be as unsettling as, say, abstract expressionism, and yet it's not as intimidating as more classical or academic art. Which probably explains, at least in part, the popularity of the Pissarro show.
I was surprised (and a little appalled) to overhear several people approaching the show as a sort of chic travelogue, examining the paintings for landmarks that reminded them of their vacations in France: "Oh, there's the Louvre!" "Remember that bridge?" But most visitors seemed content to bask in the celebration of light and its many manifestations that is a hallmark of impressionism and neoimpressionism.
Although he seems quintessentially French, Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born in 1830 on St. Thomas, now one of the U.S. Virgin Islands but at the time part of the Danish West Indies. He went to boarding school outside Paris, then spent a couple of years in Venezuela before settling in France in 1855. There he became friends with such fellow painters as Monet, Gauguin, and Cézanne.
After a brief residence in England in the early 1870s, Pissarro returned to France in time to help organize the first impressionist exhibition in 1874. He went on to participate in the seven subsequent impressionist exhibitions, the only artist in his circle to do so.
"Impressionism to the Present" groups Pissarro's works, most of them oils on canvas, by general subject matter. The first section focuses largely on rural landscapes that are typically anchored to very specific places, such as Eragny, where Pissarro had a country home. Sun Setting at Eragny (1894) and Sunset at Eragny, Autumn (1902) offer contrasting takes on the play of light at sunset in different seasons.
The former is a stark, wintry landscape, with tall, bare-limbed trees set off by unexpected accents of purple and orange and with the sun reduced to a vaguely defined blur of pale yellow that seems to have been snagged by the treetops; the latter captures what might be the first moments of a fall sunset, with a pale gold glow settling over the trees and the faintest hints of salmony pinks beginning to show up in the clouds.
With Poplars at Eragny, an undated pastel, Pissarro turns to a different medium and a different technique, with striking results. Here he uses soft smudges of greens and browns to suggest, rather than to portray, a beautifully simple hillside landscape.
A fourth Eragny painting, hanging at the overlit juncture of the first two galleries, introduces human and animal elements more prominently into the mix. Girl Tending Cows at Eragny (1886) offers a shimmering range of subtle colors, and the artist has applied the pigment in little daubs that leave behind a highly textured surface.
The second gallery includes more than two dozen pieces, most of them with a much greater emphasis on the human form. There are several gouaches and a watercolor portraying peasants at work, along with a wall of mostly unremarkable portraits. (The exception is Portrait of Rodo, Reading, from 1893, a vibrant, colorful image of one of the artist's sons sitting at a desk.)
When he tries to capture the nuances of the human face, Pissarro doesn't quite hit the mark. The people in Woman Digging (1883) and Figures on a Grey Morning, Eragny (1899), for instance, never rise above the generic. Even with Seated Peasant, Sunset (1892), one of a series of peasant paintings done from the mid-1880s on, Pissarro has his self-doubts. "[T]he difficulty is that there is no room for mediocrity, otherwise it will become romantic," he wrote in a letter to a critic. "I hate romanticism. How can I avoid committing this crime?" To my mind he doesn't, at least not here.
An extraordinary piece called Market at Pontoise (1895), unusually crowded with shoulder-to-shoulder people painted in bright, intense colors, prepares us for a shift in focus. The next gallery features a dozen uniformly fine paintings, most of them urban landscapes of the sort that preoccupied Pissarro just before and after the turn of the century, right on up to his death in 1903.
The show's organizers have hit on a simple but highly effective strategy for this gallery, which typically juxtaposes two views of a specific place side by side, thus highlighting Pissarro's fascination with the subtleties of light under different circumstances. There are two almost identical views of the Louvre, both from 1902, one set on a spring morning, the other in a muted, moodier winter mode.
Two takes on the Tuileries gardens, from 1900, offer similarly varied interpretations of their subject matter under different lighting conditions. An information panel informs us that Pissarro painted these pictures from an apartment he rented across from the gardens in the winters of 1899 and 1900. The geometry of the streets and fountains and gardens so fascinated him that he did a series of 14 each time he was there.
This gallery also includes two slightly different views of the Pont Neuf, one from 1901, the other from 1902. The wide bridge, crowded with horse-drawn carts and clusters of people who are suggested by little daubs of paint, is viewed from an angle, with tall buildings looming in the background. Rounding out the cityscapes is Pissarro's justly famous Boulevard Montmartre: Winter Morning (1897), its sharply receding perspective drawing us deep into the image, with its tree-lined street bustling with carriages and pedestrians.
An adjacent gallery has nearly two dozen pieces by Pissarro's oldest son, Lucien, with whom he shared a close relationship and whose style greatly resembles his father's. A pair of watercolors shows a pronounced pointillist influence, and the lovely Rye From Cadborough, Sunset (1913) is a sort of variation on the elder Pissarro's country landscapes, with more-sharply defined contours and brighter colors. (Lucien moved to England in 1890, which accounts for the distinctly different feel of some of his landscapes.)
I wish I could muster more enthusiasm for the remainder of the exhibition, which is given over to the next three generations of Pissarros. But once you pass through that wide corridor connecting the main galleries to the smaller ones, there's really nothing to compare with what you've already seen.
There are half a dozen more or less realistic city scenes by Ludovic-Rodo, seven pieces by Georges Manzana, half a dozen by Paul-Émile, and five by Félix, Pissarro's remaining sons. Lucien's daughter Orovida weighs in with a pair of lackluster Asian-influenced silk paintings, both from 1927, and Georges' son Félix is represented by two agreeably moody landscapes from the 1950s.
Two of Paul-Émile's canvases -- contrasting views of the Orne River -- have pleasing echoes of his father's work, but the most bracing pieces are the ones that depart most dramatically from the elder Pissarro's style. They're four very large oils from the 1990s by Paul-Émile's son Hugues-Claude (whose daughter Lélia also has a quartet of thickly stippled landscapes in the show).
Hugues-Claude follows in the family tradition of painting city and country landscapes, but his technique is about as far as you can get from impressionism. And in his most striking piece here, The Kidd's Bouquet (1992), he applies brilliant red, yellow, and purple in thick, clumpy swaths of paint that recall the congested surfaces of Frank Auerbach's work.
It's no mystery why the curators were drawn to the idea of an exhibition covering four generations of Pissarros -- there's no comparable dynasty in art history -- although I can't help thinking that a slightly scaled-down version of this show might have been more forceful. Then again, Mae West was probably right: Too much of a good thing really can be wonderful.
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