They’re back!

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They’re back! After being closed for nearly five months, gallery 201 at the Art Institute reopened on November 20. The Impressionist collection as a whole is slated to reopen in December, so when I found out that this particular gallery had opened that day I felt as if I were an insider who had been invited to an exclusive opening. Indeed, there was hardly anyone in the room (usually it is packed); it was almost too quiet, like the hush before a terrible storm, so that my delight at having these paintings all to myself was mixed with a tinge of apprehension, of anxiety. Ah, dangerous, tingly pleasures! (That this was dangerous and tingly to me should tell you something about my age, number of years being married, and lack of living on the edge lately.)

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There is no doubt that Impressionism has star status in museums: what the Beatles are to rock, Impressionism is to painting, which makes me wonder if all museums shouldn’t think about tucking away their Impressionist paintings for a few months so that people are forced to discover something else – a little Wilco (Hopper) or Nine Inch Nails (Giovanni de Paola – just check out the the decapitation of John the Baptist if you don’t believe me and make sure you click on enlargement so you can see the blood spurting out). The Art Institute displayed Seurat’s La Grande Jatte during renovation to keep visitors who wanted to see Impressionism from rioting, but on the whole I think that the rest of the European painting collection was flush with all the attention; it seemed as if all the Madonnas had a rosier blush, a kind of come hither look.

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Anyway, back to gallery 201 where Gustave Caillebotte’s monumental painting Paris Street: Rainy Day greets visitors upon entering. For those who think that Impressionism is all about blobs of unmixed color and dizzying spontaneity to the exclusion of form, this painting reminds us that some of the most celebrated Impressionists, among them Manet (though he didn’t claim himself to be one), Degas, and Caillebotte, found both form and content paramount to painting and situated themselves in the Academic tradition, albeit in an attempt to modernize it and change dusty attitudes.

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The composition of this painting has a rigorous, geometric quality to it. The gaslight anchors the painting vertically and serves as an axis: the rest of the painting radiates from its position, much like the famous circular hubs (like the one by the Arc de Triomphe) that were put into place during the Haussmanization of Paris.

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The colors, too, are restrained: the yellowish haze of the sky, the gray of the pavement, the black of the clothing, punctuated by the green gaslight and the red storefronts have more in common with Academic painting than with Impressionism, where black and half-tones were normally eschewed.

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Perhaps the most amazing feat of this painting is that it is serene and classic in its composition and at the same time it explodes with visual markers that anchor it solidly in a new, modern time. A list of these markers, surely not exhaustive, includes: the new, wide boulevards, the gaslights (giving way to shopping and going out at night), the discreet bourgeois couples (sign of the sudden rise of the middle class), the profusion of umbrellas (mass-production of umbrellas begin in France in the 1840s, the English beat them by ten years, but it rains more there), and the new Parisian pastime, la flânerie, taking a stroll (to see and to be seen). The clean, orderly streets and well-to-do couples also point to what isn’t in the painting, namely the poor who had been displaced to the outer limits of the city during the rebuilding of Paris and the narrow Medieval streets (Haussman, acting in concert with Napolean III, built wide boulevards that could be easily managed by the French Army in case of insurrections such as the bloody Commune that had taken place only six years before Caillebotte painted Paris Street. People, desperate and poor after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, had used cobblestones such as the ones in the painting to build barricades).

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One final little detail, perhaps my favorite, is the small figure of a painter in work clothes with a ladder, who I believe is Caillebotte modestly referring to himself, for among many of the criticisms leveled against the Impresionists was the one that compared them to mere workers, to house painters. This modest reference would be in keeping with Caillebotte who saw himself as an amateur painter and worked tirelessly behind the scenes supporting the Impressionists, both financially and through promoting their art.

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Paris Street: Rainy Day. This giant moment in time, still as it is, has embedded within it the speed of progress (cars, trains, and tramways) the likes of which were unknown to previous generations and which left the past smoldering (literally) behind. Adolf Stahr wrote in 1857 about Paris that you had to make haste to see the city for “the new ruler, it seems, has a mind to leave but little of it standing.” I imagine that many Parisians looked at this painting, admired the new, and also shuddered that the old was irrevocably gone. In some ways, our modern sense of nostalgia was born in the 19th century. This is one of the reasons that Impressionism has such star quality for us, for we are still part of the modern high speed train of progress that began in the 19th century and with it we have inherited this notion that we are constantly cut off from the past. We look at Impressionist painting and feel like we are, in some respects, looking at photos of deceased family, friends, and landscapes. Proust (as usual) says it best: “The memory of a certain image is nothing more than the nostalgia of a certain moment.”

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Extra reading if you felt dangerous, tingly pleasures while reading this post:

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The Parisian Peasant by Louis Aragon. There is an outstanding translation of this book where Aragon meanders through Paris as the city he knows literally disappears before his eyes. He even includes a reprint of a menu for cocktails from a bar that was torn down during the Haussmanization. Alas, we will never have a Porto Flip at the Café Certa, favorite hang-out of the Surrealists. The translation is by Simon Watson Taylor and published by Exact Change, Boston.

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Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire. Doesn’t the title say it all? Make sure you get the translation by Louise Varèse. Baudelaire is a modern urban animal, preying on all the scenes he sees in the streets (1869) of his city and ruthlessly describing them in these prose poems (the first of their kind).

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Finally, this site (despite the dorky pictures) has loads and loads of information about pre- and post- Haussmann Paris.  “Loads and loads” takes on a whole new meaning while looking at this site:  underground sewers where put into place for the first time.  Hmm…

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France in the Age of Les Misérables

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