Everyone's seen a Renoir, most people know about Degas' dancers, or recognize Manet's Balcony. The ubiquity of Impressionism inspires films, fiction, and even credit card embellishment. "Two Girls at a Piano" reminds a father of his two daughters, so he finds a knock off online; an art student stares endlessly at Van Gogh's self portrait pondering the brushstrokes and the life of a successful artist.
But the overwhelming presence of Impressionist painting can also lead more than a few critics to beg for something different. Please, curator gods, not another Impressionist show! This month alone, Impressionism is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and San Antonio's McNay, and, no surprise, the Kimbell Art Museum -- North Texas' biggest proponent of the art movement.
But who can resist "Starry Night" or Renoir's Dance series? The consistent presentation of the art movement might be considered pandering or populism, if the paintings and the artists weren't so important to the development of modern art. And if you're going to see one of the numerous Impressionism exhibitions that have or will come through Dallas/Fort Worth, see Faces of Impressionism at the Kimbell, October 19-January 25.
When he introduced Faces of Impressionism at the media preview, the Kimbell Art Museum's curator George T.M. Shackelford, told the story of a security guard who expressed his delight in seeing Degas' "Family Portrait" on the wall after seeing it in books all his life. For those of us who can't afford to travel to Paris, the Kimbell Art Museum has brought the Musee d'Orsay to Fort Worth. This is the Orsay's largest loan to a museum, ever.
But it's not just Impressionism on display, it's portraiture that happened late in (some would argue after) the movement's existence. Often known for landscapes, which they would paint quickly as if taking an "impression," the artists in this exhibition also challenged the previously held notions of what a portrait could be. Manet and Degas were painting portraits as scenes of everyday life. The faces in these paintings are not of nobility, but of peasants. And in keeping with the speedy "impression" paintings, they often don't attempt to answer questions about what kind of people they're painting. This is not a picture of the stately, stern king or the kind-hearted princess, but of a drunken girl in a bar ("In a Cafe (Absinthe)" by Degas) or the bartender (Manet's "The Beer Maid"). And as Shakelford points out, they also serve as portraits of a Paris struggling with the social problem of alcoholism.
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At the heart of the exhibition, Shakelford and co-curator Xavier Rey of Orsay wanted to ask the question, "What is a portrait?" It's a question that these artists asked in their work. Painting with generous color and drama, these paintings provoke the viewer to ask questions of the subjects, using the situation, and more important, the face, to offer a glimpse into the lives of the average Parisian in the 19th century. It was this interest in combining painterly practices with reality that propelled art out of realism and closer to abstraction.
Clearly, Impressionism's emphasis on the beauty in the everyday scene resonates in its continued prevalence, and is one of the many things responsible for the Western romanticization of Paris and Parisians. And on the chance that you may never make it to the City of Lights, you can get a taste of it right here at home.
Plus, as Shackelford pointed out, the last week of the exhibition overlaps with the first week of the rodeo. He laughed when he asked me, "Where else in the world can you see five Manets and then go to the rodeo?"
See "Faces of Impressionism" at the Kimbell Art Museum October 19 - January 25, 2015. Admission to the special exhibition is $18. More info at kimbellart.org.