Magazine article The Spectator

Move over, Monet-Maniacs

Magazine article The Spectator

Move over, Monet-Maniacs

Article excerpt

On 30 January 1999, not long after the Royal Academy had mounted its second Monet exhibition, The Spectator published my first exhibition review. It was about a renewal of Cubism in the sculpture of Ivor Abrahams and began as follows: 'The end of a century, like a wedding, notoriously calls for something new.

A millennium apparently calls for New Impressionism, although in a recent speech at the Royal Academy Gordon Brown made a special point of not claiming Monet for New Labour, despite his admiration for the great man's credentials, such as his stance on the Dreyfus case.' We had yet to experience Monet 3 and various subsequent shows, at the RA and the National Gallery, for example, in which the magic turnstile word Impressionism featured, but my glancing reference to Monet 2 provoked a response from Frank Johnson, The Spectator's editor. The queues of apparent Monet-maniacs forming like sheep outside Burlington House had puzzled and irritated him a little. He wondered if I would write an article attacking Impressionism.

I knew how he felt. Although a Monet haystack is more complex and systematically less standardised than a beefburger, Impressionism had already been dubbed 'the McDonald's of the art world'. The word Impressionism has been stretched to breaking point and exploited for decades by galleries and auction houses. Yet over a century ago had not Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Seurat achieved closure over the search by Monet, Sisley and others to register those charming, evanescent effects of light which became the essence of Impressionism, thereby earning their Post-Impressionist tag?

Hadn't this particular Big Four moved on to explore weightier problems, new methods of registering volume on a flat surface, new pictorial architecture, Symbolism, expressive pigment, Divisionist techniques and more exotic locations? And hadn't their discoveries in turn opened up new vistas and countless isms?

Wasn't it, or rather isn't it, about time therefore for popular taste to achieve closure, move on and become Post-Impressionist too? Should not cultural institutions lead public taste forward -- or at the very least away from Renoir's chocolate-boxy children's cheeks and Monet's pretty poppies and the vulgar lilies he did when his eyesight faltered? The answer is a resounding yes, but in what direction should public taste be led?

Should it be led into a tent by Tracey Emin, for example, or is there a somewhat more spiritual option? (A little thought will produce a rather obvious candidate to replace or at least to match Impressionism. ) In the event I declined Frank Johnson's offer of a chance to pour scorn on Impressionism for a number of reasons.

Sneering at popular taste should not be a critic's priority, and a Monet show in Burlington House was neither the time nor the place for an attack on Impressionism. As Chancellor Brown pointed out at the time -- he even made a pun featuring the words Monet and money -- the Royal Academy is proudly independent and doesn't ask the Treasury for the latter. As regards Monet himself, American Abstract Expressionism had created an awareness that there was more to his work -- his brushwork, for example -- than even his own contemporaries among painters had realised.

In the current RA show Impressionists by the Sea, we take that old familiar journey from darkish early works to late light paintings -- Monet again, of course (see picture) -- but in the catalogue a pattern of social history is also disclosed in which painters and writers first 'discover' remote fishing villages, which then become popular enough to 'ruin' the primitive lifestyle of the 'noble' natives. …

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