The Clapham Junction of Art History

By Glazebrook, Mark | The Spectator, March 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Clapham Junction of Art History


Glazebrook, Mark, The Spectator


There are brunch joints in New York in which Vivaldi's Four Seasons are played so loudly and so incessantly that a part-time New Yorker I know, a painter, is being made to hate a once favourite composer. Another friend has gone so far as to call Impressionism `the McDonald's of the art world'.

Seeing crowds queuing in large numbers for another Monet exhibition at the Royal Academy provokes mixed thoughts, therefore. First comes thankfulness at having been lucky enough to see the show at the opening, when the pictures were easily visible. Second comes the worry that a second unimpeded viewing might be hard to achieve. Third, the thought that it's wonderful that so many people are able to expand their awareness and enjoyment, especially of the series of Thames-scapes in the second room; here Monet astonishes by his power to transfix the same bridge or building in an array of utterly different lights, like a composer playing variations on a theme in different keys; not to mention the late, large, transcendent, Giverny pondscapes in the last room. Fourth, the unkind thought that the earlier chocolate-box little lilies, and the small unchallenging, pretty views of Venice, some of which are nothing more than a series of embarrassing cliches, are in the show to fill it out and to pander to a real or imagined popular taste.

Is Monet, like brunch-time Vivaldi, in danger of being done to death by his own box-office appeal? Is the current popularity of Impressionism as a whole excessive in the sense of being out of proportion to its long-term importance in the whole history of painting?

The sheer extent of Impressionism's current popularity (including Post and Neo) is well documented in the February issue of the Art Newspaper, which has published world-wide attendance figures in 1998 at some 350 leading museums and art galleries, both per day and in total. Who would have guessed that Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, in Switzerland, would come fourth in the league table in terms of grand total with 379,260 visitors? That it was a Gauguin show helps explain it. The top three crowd-pullers per day were three different Impressionist-related shows in Washington, Boston and New York. The first column of the Art Newspaper's statistics lists 65 institutions. Of the 14 Impressionist-related showings in this column, 11 are in the United States (Degas and the Little Dancer in Omaha missed it to the top 65). Washington's National Gallery had three: Van Gogh's Van Goghs, which attracted nearly half a million visitors; Degas at the Races; and Monet, Manet and la Gare St Lazare. This last one started life at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris. That the Paris version attracted less people to the same show is an interesting pointer in the process of Impressionism's westward migration. Clearly England has had far less Impressionism than America last year, and London has had far less Impressionism than Washington. London emerges triumphantly from the Art Newspaper's statistics. It beats Paris 11-2 in terms of mentions in the first 65. Our National Gallery alone scores four times and with shows which strike an excellent balance between scholarliness and popularity.

Monet is the quintessential Impressionist, warts and all, and the truth is that we are very lucky to get Monet in the Twentieth Century from Boston. It follows on logically from Monet in the 1890s, shown by the Royal Academy not so long ago. The demand for a second instalment does not amount to Monetmania in Britain. (No one should grudge the RA its box office receipts, incidentally, because it receives no government subsidy.) The reason why interest in Monet will continue unabated at the popular level is that he still speaks to us movingly and legibly, but not too legibly not as legibly as a photograph. …

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