Sunday, 19 September 2010

Impressionist Exhibition at Rouen

At the café Jeanne d'Arc, just off la place du vieux marché

The exhibition at Rouen's musée de beaux arts of impressionist paintings has been drawing huge crowds apparently, since its inception in June. People, says P, have even been coming from Paris especially to see it.

Today might have been one of these days as the musée was stuffed with people, to such an extent that you virtually had to move around in a long line, in the way I remember having to do at the palace of Versailles, where there was only a corridor of space available that was not roped off, and the viewing public moved obediently along the it. There was no hope of turning around, going back, you were in this moving snaking mass of people and you had keep in line. It began to cohere into an organism of its own. While it was not quite as bad as that at today's exhibition, at least at the beginning, it was close. If you wanted to see every painting you would have had to wait a long time. If you'd wanted to study them all you would have had great difficulty for it was virtually impossible to move a step without getting between someone's line of vision and one or other of the paintings. Almost as soon as I entered I felt that familiar of tug of claustrophobia from being in a confined space with too many people. Of course, had there been only 2 or 3 others it would not have been confined but that was not the case. There was nothing for it but to plunge in there, cut in front of other people's views and head for the painting you wanted to look at, abandoning any vestige of politeness.

Incredibly, all the paintings were of Rouen. Monet's paintings of the cathedral are well known but it seems that many other painters visited Rouen, including Pissarro, Turner, and Gaugin, among the most famous. Later there was a 'Rouen school' of painters.

So apart from Monet's famous Rouen cathedral, there was a plethora of misty bridges, rain damp narrow streets [rue du gros horloge], rooftops and rivers and boats and a more detailed rue de l'épicerie.

I decided the only way to approach this was to home in on a few that really struck me. These were Albert Dubois-Pillet's hommage à Pissarro – quai de Lesseps, Rouen. An old-fashioned sailing boat by the quay, a couple of horses on it. The quai with pink and purple colours of the cobbles and the water with yellows and greens and some purples too, all somewhat pointillist
e and all lovely.

Pissarro painted many of Rouen's bridges but my favourite was le pont Boieldieu, effet de brouillard, 1898. Yes it was foggy but there was also smoke coming out of tall chimneys so the bridge and its surroundings were smeared with a pale, luminous ash. In so many of the paintings, these tall chimneys, with their plumes of smoke.

Robert Antoine Pinchon had some lovely ones. La Seine à Rouen au crepuscule, 1906 - close up it looks like a bizarre bank of clotted cream at the side of grey daubs. But when you move further back, it transforms into a truly magical twilight. His Le Chemin, Neige also has an evanescent atmosphere, you can feel the silence of the path lightly dusted with snow, its evening or late afternoon peace. His Les prairies, inondées shows leafless trees sticking out of the water, their trunks an intense blue, and though there's something hallucinatory and strange about the painting, the blueness of the trees looks quite natural, the strangeness seems to come from the silence you can almost hear, because of the water covering the ground and the places where the trees emerge from the earth.

Charles Frechon's [1900/1] Rouen depuis la rive gauche is more detailed and less typically impressionistic, with just a hint of naïve style. There are several boats on the water, and a line of finely drawn shops with narrow awnings. The cathedral spire rises in the background.

Several of rooftops, in this city of 100 spires. And Leon Lemaître's smaller and very lovely paintings of people in the rain-wet rue du gros horloge.

Léon Jules Lemaître, La Rue du Gros-Horloge 1890. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen.

Léon Jules Lemaître, La Rue du Gros-Horloge 1890. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen.

But the main impression created by this whole experience – the fleeting glimpses of such lovely images between the passing people – the sense of the crowd almost forming a snaking shape and coherence and flow of its own – the exhibition ending inevitably in the boutique, where expensive books and catalogues were for sale, as well as the humble post cards – was of the gulf between the painters and the process of painting, and the massive machinery that feeds off it.

The paintings possess an almost overwhelming sense of peace and serenity – in most of them there are few if any, people in the streets or crossing the bridges. In most, the light is never flat, but suffused with change - either through dwindling with evening or rich and thick with morning, as in Albert Pillet's quai, or heavy and drugged with water and smoke, as in Pissarro's effet de brouillard. I think of the places you go to when you paint or write, the effect it has on you, at least when it goes well. The gulf and the distance between that original solitude and the high commerce you encounter now.

Well, I enjoyed the coffee in the café Jeanne d'Arc, with the smiling waitress, and all the astonishing buildings in Rouen look even more intricate and old and exceptionally beautiful, as if my focus has been sharpened, and I can see more - not in the panoramic sense but in that filigree'd and detailed way that catches a leaning angle of an old stone pillar, subtle patterns in brickwork. I empty my bag when I get back, pull out notebook, camera, tarte au citron and a yellow beech leaf.

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