The news of National Gallery Singapore’s latest collaboration with Musée d’Orsay was a big deal for me, especially owing to the fact – like my sister likes to joke to me about – that this exhibition basically sums up my degree. Or at least, my favourite style and period in art history, which is 19th century French art.
So you can most probably tell how excited I was to see it, and what made it even better was that I got to see a preview of it before it opened, and I could take all the photos I wanted without the swarms of people that I’m sure the Gallery is seeing right now.
With a popular theme like Impressionism (although what could beat Yayoi Kusama’s polka dotted works in popularity?), I feel like this exhibition is easily appealable to many people, though I have a few misgivings about the way the artworks were grouped by… colour.
| Cover Picture: Claude Monet, Champs de tulipes en Hollande (Tulip Field in Holland), 1886, oil on canvas |
Gustave Courbet, Branche de pommier en fleurs (Apple Branch in Flower), 1872, oil on canvas
James Tissot, La Rêveuse (The Dreamer), c. 1876, oil on wood
I guess the title of this exhibition pretty much gives it away, since it is simply named Colours of Impressionism. Along with Between Worlds, comprising works by Indonesian artist Raden Saleh and Filipino artist Juan Luna, the two exhibitions are combined under the title of Century of Light, which would be running until 11 March 2018. Just a note: This post only covers Colours of Impressionism.
Eugène Boudin, La Plage de Trouville (The Beach at Trouville), 1865, oil on board
The exhibition opens with paintings featuring a lot of black, before moving on to whites, mainly in snowy landscapes. I gripe about curating according to colour because it seems to simplify all of the artworks into “looking pretty”. While there isn’t any problem with appreciating artworks purely for their aesthetic, it’s sad if the stories and changes surrounding Impressionism itself is overlooked along the way.
Impressionism, as exemplified by name-stays Monet and Renoir, was part of the beginnings of what was considered Modern in art. Starting from subject matter, these artists started painting their surroundings like the serene landscapes that is heavily featured in this exhibition, and scenes of middle-class people who were starting to spend more time out and about, such as in Boudin’s La Plage de Trouville shown above.
Claude Monet, Argenteuil, 1872, oil on canvas
Triptyque May (The May Triptych): Camille Pissarro, Entrée du village de Voisins (Entry to the village of Voisins), 1872, oil on canvas; Claude Monet, Bateaux de plaisance (Pleasure Boats), 1872-73, oil on canvas; Alfred Sisley, L’Île Saint-Denis (Saint-Denis Island), 1872, oil on canvas
I love how these three paintings are put together, which I’m assuming was purposely done so for this exhibition?
To capture these scenes of the outdoors as best as they could, Impressionists went out to paint en plein air (translated literally in the outdoors), which at the time was a very new approach to painting. Artists often prepared studies of artworks they were going to create, so painting was very much centred within the artist’s studio. Impressionists began to break the mold by going outdoors to paint what they saw best represented their times and their society.
Alfred Sisley, La Barque pendant l’inondation, Port-Marly (Boat in the Flood at Port-Marly), 1876, oil on canvas
Berthe Morisot, Le Berceau (The Cradle), 1872, oil on canvas
Morisot, one of probably two female artists active at the time, is famous for her paintings of mothers with children. This painting is very famous and I remember my professor pointing out the clever layering of white on white with the veil. I was super excited to finally see a painting that I learnt about in class in real life, though there are others later in this post (and in the exhibition) that were even better experiences for me.
Paul Gauguin, La Seine au pont d’léna. Temps de neige (The Seine at Pont d’léna, Snowy Weather), 1875, oil on canvas
An early work of Gauguin’s, who was best known for his “exotic”, “primitive” artworks that he did on trips to Tahiti. While those works are entirely different from these Impressionist works, this one fits in with the rest of the white, snowy images.
Claude Monet, La Pie (The Magpie), 1868-69, oil on canvas
Alfred Sisley, La Neige à Louveciennes (Snow at Louveciennes), 1878, oil on canvas
Renoir’s paint box and Degas’s palettes
Claude Monet, Les Barques. Régates à Argenteuil (The Boats: Regattas at Argenteuil), c. 1874, oil on canvas
Moving on to the next gallery, and the next colour scheme of darker tones, which is pretty evident in all the paintings grouped together here.
Claude Monet, Un Coin d’appartement (A Corner of the Apartment), 1875, oil on canvas
One of my absolute favourites in this exhibition! This has to be seen in real life – the colours really pop, and the effect of the angled floor tiles doesn’t get captured well enough in a photo.
The boy in the centre of the painting is Jean Monet, Claude Monet’s son, and at the back of the space is Camille Doncieux, Monet’s first wife and Jean’s mother. I wrote an essay on Monet’s paintings of his family about two years back, and this painting came up during my research. Most of Monet’s paintings of his family involved Camille and Jean, not so much for his family after he married his second wife Alice Hoschedé after Camille’s death. A lot of the time, Camille and Jean are seen from a distance, positioned at the recesses of the space of the painting, and surrounded by plants and flowers which was clearly a passion of Monet’s.
Some people/scholars argued that Monet used his family as props for paintings that were chiefly about plants and flowers. I also read one argument that said that Camille and Jean were often portrayed as expressionless because they were tired of modelling and waiting for Monet to be done painting them. Plausible?
While I can’t say it’s entirely out of question, I disagree on the perceived apathy on Monet’s part. My official reasoning is that the association of Monet’s beloved plants and flowers with the careful placement and posing of his family within it would have meant at least some affection on his part.
The unofficial reasoning is that Monet painted scenes of nature without human figures within them perfectly fine – see: all of his Giverny works, including one below, although these were done in his later mature years – and another reason being that his paintings of the Hoschedés were frankly not as good.
Gustave Caillebotte, Voiliers à Argenteuil (Sailboats in Argenteuil), c. 1888, oil on canvas
Paul Cézanne, Cour d’une ferme (Courtyard of a Farm), c. 1879, oil on canvas
Paul Cézanne, Le Golfe de Marseille vu de L’Estaque (The Gulf of Marseilles Seen from L’Estaque), 1878-79, oil on canvas
I loved seeing Cézanne here as well and I realized how much more striking his paintings are in real life. Although he was a fellow contemporary alongside the Impressionists, his works are today considered part of Post-Impressionism as he had already began looking further ahead of the Impressionists in terms of composition, shapes and so on. I definitely want to see more of Cézanne in future!
Auguste Renoir, Pont du chemin de fer à Chatou (Railway Bridge at Chatou), 1881, oil on canvas
Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas, harmonie rose (Water Lily Pond, Pink Harmony), 1900, oil on canvas
The all-important Giverny painting of this exhibition. Monet lived in Giverny in the later years of his life, and his famous garden is still maintained and open to visitors!
Paul Signac, La Bouée rouge (The Red Buoy), 1895, oil on canvas
The next section was dedicated to Pointillist works, also considered part of Post-Impressionism. Based on colour theories of the time, Seurat invented this method of painting by having dots of complementary colour placed next to each other, and when extended across the entire canvas, would supposedly blend together in the viewer’s eye and achieve greater luminosity.
Georges Seurat, Etude pour “Une Baignade à Asnières” (Study for “Bathers at Asnières”), 1883, oil on wood; Etude pour “Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte” (Study for “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”), 1884 and 1884-86, oil on wood
I was quite surprised to see that the Pointillist works included in the exhibition weren’t as good as I expected them to be in real life! The dots in Signac’s painting above felt too separated to me, which took away from the scene that he was trying to depict. Though this makes me more curious to see how Seurat’s works appear in real life, since he was after all the inventor of Pointillism and his dots/points appear much subtler even in digital images.
Paul Cézanne, Rochers près des grottes au-dessus du Château-Noir (Rocks Near the Cave above Château Noir), c. 1904, oil on canvas
Claude Monet, La Cathédrale de Rouen. Le portail et la tour Saint-Romain, plein soleil (Rouen Cathedral: The Portal and Saint-Romain Tower, Full Sunlight), 1893, oil on canvas
I’m constantly surprised by the difference between looking at digital images of paintings and seeing them in real life. Sometimes, like with Morisot’s The Cradle, it still feels familiar, meaning that digital images captures it well, but in other cases, like with Cézanne, the Pointillist works, and this one painting in Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, a photograph of the painting is incomparable to how it is in real life. Some things just have to be seen for yourself. And re-seen!
Berthe Morisot, L’Hortensia (The Hydrangea), 1894, oil on canvas
Claude Monet, Vétheuil, soleil couchant (Vétheuil, Setting Sun), c. 1900, oil on canvas
I like the pastel colours of this painting, but I don’t think it’s that good a painting of Monet’s. If this exhibition is all about colour, then I’ll say that I don’t think colour best determines the effectiveness or quality of a painting.
Going back to the question of curating by colour: While the art world brings up a lot of talk about having more experimental methods of curating, and displacing chronological ways of presenting artworks, is curating artworks according to colour really such a good idea? Whatever overall theme that paintings within an exhibition might be fitted into, I personally think it’s important that I can understand how each exhibit fit within its time and colour doesn’t contribute much to that.
But one thing I really liked about the exhibition was the colours of the walls! That might sound pretty funny, but making an exhibition also involves deciding what colour walls would best display the paintings on show.
Loved the blue walls for Between Worlds!
Colours of Impressionism is showing at National Gallery Singapore until 11 March 2018, ticket prices and more information can be found here.