It is something of a cultural miracle that we in Adelaide are privileged to view these paintings from Paris. As the title suggests, the exhibition is aesthetically colour co-ordinated. Descriptive panels inform visitors about the colour theories and science and the critical interpretations which swirled around the Impressionist school of painters, so called polemically by critic Louis Leroy (1812-1885) after the title of a painting exhibited in 1874 of an impression of sunrise by Claude Monet. The artists whose work was impugned with lack of definition defiantly embraced the abusive term as evoking their intent to capture the transient effects of light, often painted in the open air rather than the studio, in all weathers.
Advanced publicity for the exhibition indicated that the exhibition would be deliberately light on the social history of this modernist artistic movement, primarily associated with both urbanization and the semi-rural outskirts of metropolitan Paris. Nevertheless, there are some fascinating glimpses of the social history of the late 19th century to be seen at the exhibition, and in the chronology given in the guide booklet purchased with the ticket to it. It is upon these aspects of class conflict and national crisis we shall dwell here, associated with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the subsequent Paris Commune uprising in protest at national defeat, to which the decadent Second Empire had brought France, Napoleon III having launched himself disastrously upon the battlefield, much to the delight of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismark. The doomed Commune or patriotic municipality of Paris was drowned in blood after a long siege effected by troops released from imprisonment by the Prussians to the command of the reactionary bourgeois administration at Versaille, horrified at the democratic socialist experimentation to which the Commune resorted in 1871. After the massacre of the Communard defenders of the city by the victorious Versailles troops who devastated the city’s starving working-class districts, the uprising was immortalized by the socialist Karl Marx, who had foreseen its defeat but sought to contest its demonization throughout bourgeois Europe. Thus the Commune passed into socialist legend. The reference in the song The Red Flag to the labour movement’s martyred dead commemorates the thousands of Communards lined up and shot as their urban barricades were taken, one by one, by French government troops. In the repression, some Communards were exiled for years to hard penal servitude to Devil’s Island in the outer Caribbean and as far away as Noumea in the South Pacific.
The first painting to be seen to the left as one enters the exhibition refers obliquely to this tragedy. It is a realist still life in the somber tones of the Dutch masters, entitled Apple Branch in Flower, which influenced the Impressionists. The artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) painted it whilst recovering from his imprisonment for his participation in the Commune. Courbet debuted in the Salon of 1850-51 with scenes of rural working-class life in his native Ornans in Franche-Comte in eastern France. He progressed to scenes of bohemian café culture in urban Paris.
The life of Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was also marked by the traumatic events affecting the City of Light, capital of 19th century Europe. A painter of rural and village life who held the hard-working peasantry in high esteem, Pissarro moved to Louveciennes in the Parisian outskirts in 1869. He fled to London with his family from the war in 1870. He returned to his house in 1871 to find that it and his studio had been looted.
Do aesthetically treat yourself to the colours of impressionism. But take note, too, of the indications of its social context.
David Faber is an Adelaide historian, poet & activist