Bad Impressions: Ned Denny Is Relieved by the Lack of Prettiness in Pissarro's Suburban Landscapes. (Art)

Article excerpt

If impressionism really is "the most popular artistic movement in history" (the faintly absurd self-claim for "The Road to Impressionism" at the Wallace Collection), then it is also the most badly misapprehended. It may well now be the inevitablefate of all radical art, every stab at authenticity and intensity, to end up on the mugs, mouse-mats and novelty T-shirts of corporate gift shops. But this should not blind us to the irony of the least ingratiating painters in 1 9th-century France having become a byword for prettiness--that a movement whose highest value was exposure to nature has been relegated to the status of domestic eye-candy. Naturally, there are those who see the commercialisation of high art as benign, some kind of cultural victory even. The best answer to this was that given by Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man, first published in 1964 but as damningly pertinent as ever. "Coming to life as classics," he writes, "they come to life as something other than themselves; they are deprived of t heir antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth." If the price of popularity is emasculation, then the "victory" is a pyrrhic one.

"The Road to Impressionism" is doing its bit for the rebranding of the movement as a paragon of niceness, claiming to find its origins in the work of some decidedly minor French painters of the mid-l9th century. This is wrong on a number of counts. First, it perpetrates the cosy myth (long beloved of English critics) that the great revolutions in art were not revolutions at all. Emphasising continuity with the past, this kind of revisionist thinking seems as scared of the impressionists' innovations as were the fulminating critics of the 1 1870s. Then there is the fact that the decisive influence on French art of the period came from over the Channel, from Turner's spectral radiance and Constable's fearless delineations of stone, thicket and brutal light. Finally, there is the small problem of the paintings themselves. To be fair, there are some charminglittle landscapes here, but the delicacy and underlying slickness of a work such as Eugene Deshayes's View of a Village among Trees mean that it bears no mor e than a superficial resemblance to true impressionist painting. As for the rest, it's a funereal selection of Second Empire kitsch, from cloyingly honeyed Arcadias to sentimental scenes of rural life, complete with freshly laundered peasants. Suggesting that all this somehow leads to impressionism is like identifying Marie Antoinette as a key strategist in the French revolution. …