If only the curators had given Impressionists in London a different name: “How some artists crossed the channel to escape from war-torn Paris with some sculptures and stunning riverscapes by Monet and Derain thrown in at the end”.
If only they had focused more closely on the deeper significance of that traumatic, rich and fascinating time when artists fled Paris in 1870.
The events surrounding the Paris Commune were a turning point that helped to shape modern France. They had a big impact on revolutionary thinkers around the world including Karl Marx. Britain, thanks to its porous borders in the late 19th century, became a place open to those seeking safety, political asylum and economic security, including those who figure in this show.
In July 1870 France declared war on Prussia, but Emperor Napoleon III’s forces were quickly defeated by Bismarck’s armies. The Second Empire collapsed and a government of national defence was established.
Prussian troops laid siege to Paris in September. French National Guard units numbering around 300,000 organised an alternate government based in the city. A conflict arose between the government troops, sent in to seize cannon from the National Guard.
On 28 March 1871, a Commune council was elected. It consisted of 92 members, one for every 20,000 residents of Paris. Led by anarchists, socialists and communists and Jacobins, the Commune, which had the revolutionary Louise Michel amongst its members, sought to democratise the economy, education, the status of women and the church.
Meanwhile, the discredited former government fled to Bordeaux and then to Versailles, to plot their counter-revolution.
Jean-Baptiste Corot was 74 years old when the Prussian forces marched on Paris. He painted his apocalyptic dream of a devastated city – an eerie premonition of events. He was to keep The Dream – Paris Burning “almost secretly” in his studio until he died. Corot’s flowing, agitated sea of brown and red looks forward to 20th century abstract expressionism.
Art historian Bertrand Tillier has provided a roll-call of the artists who enlisted to defend their city against the Prussians (see the exhibition catalogue). They include an artist whom some see as a superficial dandy – James Tissot. Tissot’s relationship to the Commune is disputed – some think he was a Communard – but like Manet he stayed in Paris during the siege and enrolled in the Mobile National Guard.
Never seem before in public is James Tissot’s first-hand sketch, made during Bloody Week, when some 20,000 Communards were executed by the forces of the Versailles government. His small watercolour shows a dozen men lying dead after a mass execution, with one falling through the air. Along with a graphic written account, he presented it to the wife of a Liberal peer in the hope of making the atrocious repression of the Paris Commune better known. The new government in Paris had banned descriptions of events.
Tissot is better known for his chic society images, depictions of the rich upper classes at balls and at play than for his republican or Communard sympathies. But documents have recently been discovered about his role in the Paris conflict – 70 drawings made on site. He worked as a stretcher bearer and made portraits of the fighters.
The Goncourt brothers described Tissot as a “complex being” and indeed he was a successful society artist, an acute ironic observer of social mores, moving between France and England artists with ease. He lived with Kathleen Newton, his beautiful Irish lover, in St John’s Wood until her premature death. And, like so many of the others who feature in this show, he was hardly an Impressionist.
Edouard Manet, who remained in Paris throughout the siege, captured the crushing of the Commune workers in two lithographs – with haunting shades of Goya’s The Third of May 1814. Manet symbolically signed his name on one of the cobblestones used to build street barricades.
Many others also took the side of the young Republic. Some, like sculptor Jules Dalou openly sided with the Communards. On 13 April the Commune formed a Federation of Artists with a 47-member executive to organise salon juries, award commissions and organise competitions. It began to democratise art education in primary and professional schools. Members of the Federation included Many well-known artists, sculptors and caricaturists such as Corot, Courbet, Daumier and Manet, as well as the sculptor Jules Dalou.
The Commune only lasted eight weeks. But the experience of self-rule by the workers, citizens and artists of Paris – and its savage repression – was etched in the minds of those who experienced it long after the moment had passed. Monarchy never returned to rule France. Integral to the rise of Impressionism was the casting aside of the A(a)cademic approach, which promoted the tastes and ideology of the ruling elite.
Pissarro and Monet and their fraternity including its female members turned to the contemporary life of the growing big cities of London and Paris, newly created suburbs, as well as new techniques and materials, including photography.
The wonderfully talented Italian Giuseppe de Nittis also celebrated London’s city life. Two large paintings by de Nittis, who died in 1884 aged only 38, are truly stand-out images. His Piccadilly: A Wintry Walk in London captures the fleeting and helter-skelter movement of people and traffic and “rusty mist” just after rain has stopped.
His grand, nearly two-metre wide views, with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben looming against a glowing orange and purple sky, includes a group of workmen and passers-by on Westminster Bridge. Painted in 1878, more than 20 years before Monet’s series of the same subject, de Nittis evokes London and its people in an exceptionally moody and lyrical way.
The central section of the show features Alphonse Legros and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux who were not Impressionists by any stretch of the imagination. They provide an artistically conservative backdrop to the movement which is yet to come. It’s great to see the work of sculptor Jules Dalou.
Given a life-sentence for his participation in the Commune, Dalou fled to London in July 1871. During his eight-year exile, he had a huge influence on art training in England. He taught privately as well as art schools in London, with a focus on daily life, freeing sculpture from formal academic constraints.
Camille Pissarro and Monet –who were not yet “Impressionists” – stayed in England for only a few months between 1870-71, but long enough to create some iconic views. Monet focused on central London – the Thames, Hyde Park – while Pissarro came closer to a free Impressionist style at this time, capturing the new suburbs created by the extension of the rail network to southeast London.
Pissarro produced some 17 paintings during his first Londonsojourn are Of them the show includes Fox Hill, Upper Norwood and The Avenue at Sydenham, all from the National Gallery. But his sparkling depictions of Dulwich College, All Saints Church Beulah Hill, St Stephen’s Church Dulwich and others are missing.
Monet returned to London in 1900 and 1901, determined to capture the fog effect that intrigued so many artists. The result was some 100 canvases which he had on the go at the same time in his room at the Savoy Hotel. Eight are hung together in a stunning ensemble. Once you’ve seen their shimmering, glowing evanescence you can never view the Houses of Parliament and Charing Cross Bridge in the same way.
Monet’s triumphantly radiant canvases did not find a single British buyer when they were shown in London in 1905. But they transformed the image of London forever.
And finally. Tate Britain’s effort to document cross-channel fertilisation over a 34-year period was a good idea. But unfortunately it got a bit lost in translation.
Impressionists in London is a good argument for ending the era of blockbusters. The bottom line is that curators need to justify huge admission prices (in this case £17) by creating rambling displays at the expense of a moving visual and emotional experience.
Impressionists in London: French artists in exile 1870-1904 is at Tate Britain until 7 May 2018.