Tuesday, December 3, 2013

PEM/Impressionists on the Water

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Oarsmen at Chatou, 1879, National Gallery of Art
Link to the Exhibition Website: http://www.pem.org/exhibitions/159-impressionists_on_the_water

Co-Curators: Christopher Lloyd, former Surveyor of Queen Elizabeth II's collection, Phillip Dennis Cate, former director of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, and Daniel Charles, author and historian. PEM coordinating curator, Daniel Finamore

The PR Buzz: "Through nearly 60 oil paintings, works on paper, models and small craft, this exhibition illuminates the importance that access to the sea and France's extensive inland waterways played in the development of one of the world's most enduring artistic movements."

This exhibition was organized by the Fine Art Museum of San Francisco and opened there in June of this year to positive reviews, for example here and here.

The Globe review of the show in Salem can be found here.

Recommended For: a compelling portion of a day-long visit to PEM, but don't have it be the only reason you went.

The Experience:
Impressionists on the Water is a difficult show to write about. It is, in the end, an object lesson on the tremendous pressure that museums are under to capture media attention and generate "draw." This pressure causes some uncomfortable compromises to be made and this can, in many cases, undermine the effectiveness of an exhibition when it finally hits the galleries and opens its doors. Impressionists on the Water is such a show. It could have been, with largely the same checklist, a eloquent show about the evolution of water as a subject and inspiration in 19th century French fine and decorative arts. This would have encompassed a time of radical social, cultural and aesthetic change. It would, ultimately, have been a show that included, but was not about, Impressionist works.  It would have been original.  It would have been unique. But would you have bothered to go?

It was a sleepy weekday morning at PEM when I made my way up to the third floor special exhibition galleries. Although visitor traffic was light, a little admission desk eavesdropping confirmed that my fellow visitors had also come to see the Impressionists. I was greeted in the opening gallery with 2 paintings and a racing yacht model. The show's title was awkwardly placed to the left and the opening text was on the right. Although these objects make sense, given the lens of the show, there was nothing visually strong enough to really establish what you are about to see and why.

The show then proceeds thematically, exploring in turn, Masters of French Marine Art, Harbors and Coasts, Rivers, Gustave Caillebotte Artist and Yachtsman and the Open Ocean. This thematic hang does provide visitors with clusters of artworks that share a subject. This is useful in a show like this one where there is a variety of media- paintings, prints, photographs and ephemera- that are shown together. However, the sections are uneven in the number, size and quality of the works. It wasn't until I got to the third section on Rivers that I was greeted with the kind of visual punch that this show needed to start with.  This gallery featured a vibrant, large Renoir (Oarsmen at Chatou), the sleek and elegant rowing boat Nana, and (finally!) a large map of France that helped orient me to where all of these works had stemmed from.

Gustave Caillebotte, Boating on the Yerres, 1877, Milwaukee Art Museum
The section on Gustave Caillebotte gave the most coherent justification for the blending of models and painting in the show and could have, as Sebastian Smee rightly points out in his review, made for a compelling boutique exhibition on its own. It was my opinion, however, that Caillebotte, however avid a yachtsman he may have been, was nowhere near as good a painter of the waters as Boudin, Isabey and Renoir, all of whose works we had already seen by the time we meet Caillebotte.

The final section, The Open Ocean, was again weak visually, so the show has no real big finish. This section features seascapes by Courbet and Monet that unfortunately remind you how many other artists painted the sea and surf better than they did. Le Gray's photograph, The Brig, was a standout exception to this last gallery.

Ugh, I hate being so negative, but Impressionists on the Water is a show that should not have privileged the impressionists to the extent that it does (as much as I recognize the seductive lure of doing so.) The show does not demonstrate that water was an exceptional subject for impressionism, nor that impressionist representations of water were particularly influential.  It was very telling that as I was in the gallery, I overheard a docent-led tour begin by declaring to the group "This is not an Impressionist show." She was right, so why was it billed as such?

Gustav Le Gray, The Brig, 1856
I can't wrap up this review without mentioning some of the truly exceptional works that are in the show. There is a glowing, if modestly-sized Vernet (The Bathers, 1789), two wonderful Isabeys, three very good Boudin views of French ports, a strong Pissarro paired wonderfully with a lively Matisse, a couple of outstanding Le Gray photographs, and a brilliant Raffaelli (View of the Right Bank of the Seine, Paris, 1880).  All of these works are supported by a spectacularly diverse array of French print work from the period.

While You're There: see the impressively-expansive and revealing Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion and the exquisite Toshio Shibata: Constructed Landscapes.

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