Hurricane Irene and Impressionism

By Cressida Smart

Discoveries are often made by not following instructions, by going off the main road, by trying the untried.” (Frank Tyger)

Hurricane Irene came and went without causing major damage in the city that never sleeps, New York. If you live in Manhattan, you will have probably mass bought food and water and prepared yourself for a few days inside. Mayor Bloomberg warned us all, “This is not a joke. I repeat, this is not a joke.” – just in case you thought otherwise. The news reporters gave plenty of recommendations; one in particular I attribute to my well-being, “The best way to stay safe is to keep away from danger.”

I ventured out on Sunday morning to see the West Village streets lined with enormous puddles and debris. Heading to the Hudson River, I noted the shops and restaurants carefully boarded up had survived the hurricane, but then again, so had the buildings that had not taken these precautions. The waters were choppy and I watched with amusement as one TV crew tried desperately to catch scenes of devastation, which quite frankly didn’t exist in the West Village.

Keen to return to normality, I headed to my local bar, Corner Bistro (W4th and Jane Street) which not only serves the best burgers in town, but also shows a variety of sports and most importantly, the tennis and English football. I settled in to watch the second half of the Manchester United v Arsenal match, which resulted in an 8-2 win to the Reds. I was later joined by a friend and wolfed down a cheeseburger and guzzled on a Jack Daniels on the rocks.

Why am I divulging the above information? Bear with me and all will become relevant to this week’s article. On my right sat a young man, whom, after enough cursory glances, decided to try his chances with us. From his broken English – he was Brazilian and had been here since 4 July – we learnt that he was a painter and his favourite artist was Monet and that he loved Impressionism. My heart sank. There you have it, the topic of this week’s column. I want to look at the reasons behind the popularity of Impressionism.

The world’s love affair with French Impressionism began in the US around 100 years ago, when the Parisian dealer Durand-Ruel introduced the Impressionists to the American public and Mary Cassatt was a substantial contributor to the eighth and last Impressionist group exhibition in Paris. Erwin Davis, a New York collector, had bought two important paintings by Manet even earlier – in 1881 – and when he gave them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889, he inaugurated one of the world’s most majestic holdings of Impressionism. Remembering how much visitors enjoy what has been acquired for American museums as a consequence of this century-long passion, could we conclude that French Impressionism is one of the greatest single sources of happiness that have come our way in the last 100 years?

I am all for people enjoying themselves, but declaring Impressionism or an Impressionist artist your favourite is terribly predictable. Many forget that not all French Impressionist paintings are good. What was initially a pioneering and much-misunderstood aesthetic often petered out in triviality. Might there not be something disappointing about a generation that rolls up in the hundreds of thousands for French Impressionism – good or bad, commanding or enfeebled – and doesn’t even notice, let alone care, that art of a higher and more consistent order can be found in the same building and just a few yards away?

True Impressionism is not only a way of painting, but a way of life, a school of truth and candour. Those broken touches of paint were open and spontaneous, and made all other modes of painting look inferior. The French Impressionist painters had a twofold achievement – organisational, on the one hand, aesthetic on the other. They proved that it was possible for painters to break the monopoly of the Paris Salons by showing on their own, on a regular basis, and prosper. Anyone who doubts its popularity has only to study the crowd at any Impressionist exhibition. Pleasure there is, everywhere and in super-abundance.

There will be those who prefer a more scientific explanation and such theories do indeed exist as to why Impressionism is so popular. Harvard neuroscientist Patrick Cavanagh believes that the images put forward in Impressionist works of art force the brain to create a more corporal interpretation of the work. In particular, the blurry shapes and splashes of colour push the viewer to draw on their own memories to complete the missing visual details. So each painting is interpreted differently by each individual, making the experience more visceral.

These paintings may be attractive because their blurred forms speak directly to the amygdala, a brain sphere involved in the processing of emotions. The amygdala acts like an early warning system, on the lookout for unfocused threats lurking in our peripheral ghost, and it tends to react more strongly to things we haven’t yet picked up consciously. Impressionist paintings may exploit the same effect. “The texture and crude dabs and strokes of Impressionist duplicity may be enough to delay our conscious response to the ease of the painting, allowing the emotional centres to fire more repeatedly,” says Cavanagh.

I did a quick Google search of the different Monet products available. They ranged from the usual – prints and postcards – to the bizarre – shoes and skateboards. There is something for everyone. Far be it for me to dictate the public’s opinion, but I do ask that museum visitors, in particular at The Met, in New York, bear in mind that there is more to art than Impressionism. Explore the unknown and challenge your tastes.

In case you’re wondering, the Brazilian painter was unsuccessful with both myself and my friend. I do however hope that he devours the art scene with its splendid museums and galleries, beyond Monet and Impressionism, in the city that slept this weekend.

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