Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, ‘Impressionists in London – French artists in exile 1870-1904‘, would be as much at home in a museum as in a gallery. My companion wanted more information about the brush-strokes, but markontour was happy to explore the social history of late nineteenth century London through the medium of some wonderful paintings.
The destruction of many French towns in the aftermath of Prussia’s annihilation of Napoleon III’s army in 1870, followed by an equally bloody end to the brief Paris Commune, sent a host of French artists scurrying to safety in England. Congregating in London, around the art dealer Paul Duran-Ruel it seems, Monet and Pissaro et al, many of whom had lost their life’s work in the ensuing pillage, sought to build a new career depicting their new surroundings. Impressionism was born in the process.
A few, including James Tissot (whose work I had never previously seen), first painted vivid images of the carnage they had left behind. This is how the Tate’s exhibition starts, with a powerful scenes of executed Communards being tossed off a high wall, a gutted Hotel de Ville, and a wounded boy-soldier. One hundred thousand French and Prussian soldiers perished in a few short brutal weeks of warfare, followed by 20,000 brave revolutionaries in Paris, their cobblestone weapons no match for a heavily armed and vindictive military (most of the deaths were reprisal killings, according to the accompanying audio guide).
When the emigres arrived in London they joined nearly three and a half million people were crammed into the boroughs that now sit inside the inner ring road, more than the present day number in what was then the largest city in the world. Their pictures reflect this, capturing all the hustle and bustle, but also the clash of country and town in what was then the Dulwich suburbs.
Some of the scenes look remarkably modern and cosmopolitan, with recognisable police officers, traffic congestion, Hackney carriages with licence plates, and a Sikh street cleaner. The artist emigres clearly noticed that London not only had (and has) more parks than Paris, but that people were allowed to frolic on the grass unlike in the French capital. Many of the paintings delight in such settings, including Monet’s ‘Hyde Park’, but they also depcity the awful air pollution. They could hardly miss it. Indeed, the French artists seemed to have spent so much time working out how to paint fog, that markontour can’t help wondering if air pollution is really what inspired impressionism.
Certainly, Monet criticised contemporary British artists for painstakingly painting in bricks that no Londoner would ever have been able to discern in the real-life Big Smoke. Whistler in his ‘Nocturne’ series seems to have started from the principle that as Londoners regularly couldn’t even see across the road, so gallery-goers wouldn’t grumble at a few indistinct building-like shapes.
That said, my favourite painting in the London series was Pissarro’s ‘Charing Cross Bridge’, replete with a Thames sparkling in the sunlight. It reminded me of a day I enjoyed in Beijing a couple of years ago when, after having been unable to leave the hotel on a previous visit because the air was so toxic, instead the sky was as clear and blue as if looking upwards in the most remote wilderness.
Monet’s famous fog paintings, on the other hand, left me a bit cold. Maybe that is what he was striving for. He certainly spent a considerable part of his last years perfecting the art of capturing fog on canvas. In any case, they probably needed a bit more staring time than we had available as the gallery closed and there was a Euros Child’s gig to get to. I wonder if a modern-day Monet is painting Delhi, Beijing, or even diesel-blackened London in 2017?