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9 December 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 11:29am

From the NS archive: Entente Fluviale

5 January 1973: The impressionists in London's Hayward Gallery.

By Stephen Spender

In this exhibition review, the poet Stephen Spender mused on whether the impressionist painters were changed by London or whether it was changed by them. He started off somewhat lukewarm, pointing out that many of the painters might as well have been working in France as in England since the themes they chose were essentially the same – the Thames rather than the Seine, London’s parks rather than the Tuileries Gardens, the British coast rather than Brittany. But when he began discussing Monet his tone changed. Here was a painter who was also a visionary, one who found in London’s fogs and bridges the perfect subjects for his gifts. Alone of his peers, Monet was the painter who could depict “the intensity of a vision which imposes itself on the spectator”.

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The title of the new exhibition at the Hayward is not meant to be strictly accurate, for several of the painters were not impressionists and by no means all of them painted in London. The exhibition provides no fanfare for England. The first arrivals here, Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet, came in 1870 for the not entirely Anglophile reason that they wished to escape the Franco-Prussian War. They did not greatly care for London, a place where, as Pissarro wrote to a friend, “one gathers only contempt, indifference, even rudeness; among colleagues there is the most egotistical jealousy and resentment. Here there is no art; everything is a question of business.” When Sisley (who was of English origins and who did in fact study business here before he became an artist) visited the Isle of Wight in 1881, in his role of French impressionist, he found it overrated. Much later however, in 1897, at a time when there seems to have been something of an entente cordiale between English and French modern painters, he discovered French impressionist motifs in Cornwall and in Wales. Renoir, visiting England in 1883, because he was drawn here by “the Turners, the Lawrences and even the Constables” found himself consoled by the Claude Lorrains. Visiting Guernsey, his aim was “to see the rock on which the great poet moaned for 18 years”. The paintings he did there show his talent undented by English influence.

Nor did the English care very much for these French painters. The works of Monet and Pissarro were rejected by the Royal Academy; and even though the intelligent art dealer Durand-Ruel was also a refugee and rented a gallery in Bond Street, he could do very little to promote them. Alan Bowness, in his excellent introduction to the Hayward catalogue, suggests that the compatriots of Turner and Constable, being more interested at that time (1870-71) in Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Albert Moore, found the work of Pissarro and Monet rather unfashionable. But that, surely, is understating the degree of English hostility and indifference. Ruskin during his years in Paris took not the slightest interest in living French painters, while Rossetti in 1864 declared that “the French school is simple putrescence and decomposition”. Henry James, reviewing one of the impressionist exhibitions in Paris, found them “cynical” and preferred the poetry and seriousness of the pre-Raphaelites.

When they came to England Monet and Pissarro painted very much the subjects they would have chosen in France: the river, the parks, the seaside, figures in a landscape rendered with the same detachment with which they painted the trees. Impressionist painters were not concerned with analysing and portraying national characteristics, showing the difference, say, between the essential qualities of the London of Dickens and the Paris of Baudelaire. They were in search of motifs of light and colour and movement which would make good subjects for impressionist paintings.

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The wonderful exception, of course, came to be Monet – but the Monet of 1900, not of 1870. The National Gallery’s The Thames below Westminster (1871), beautiful as it is, is an opportunity seized by Monet to extract a woodcut silhouette in the Japanese manner (another of the impressionist preoccupations) from the planks and supports and platform of the landing-stage in the foreground with the figures on it almost like lettering and the hyphenated brushstrokes, dark reflections on the ripple of river underneath.

Pissarro’s London is not as metropolitan as Monet’s. The “snow effect” at Lower Norwood might just as well be an effet de neige done in France; on the other hand, the picture of Penge station with a steam engine emerging from it with the air of a broody hen squat across the parallel sickle curves of the lines does have the implication of a young Frenchman looking at the English scene with amusement and exclaiming “tiens!” Twenty-six years later, in Bath Road, London, Pissarro beautifully catches the spirit of the London suburb: the vermilion brick roofs, gloss-white window frames, viridian hedge (with each hooked-on leaf looking very distinct), star-fish-shaped saplings, sand-coloured road – such an odd combination of the cheery and the dreary.

Renoir paints Guernsey as though it were Brittany. And for Sisley, Hampton Court, the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and Wales simply provide occasions for French impressionist effects. At the same time, they stimulate him to produce some of his finest work. Storr’s Rock (1897), done from below the Osborne Hotel in Totherslade Bay, has a massive compactness reminding one of Henry Moore’s Interlocking Forms. Moreover, England suddenly becomes exotic for him when he is painting The Regatta at Moleseyle sport (1874). This is an exhilarating affair of windswept flags, clouds and water blown like spume, a landscape which moves with the rhythm of the sky. This marvellous picture is, as it were, pinned down from flying away by the flag-poles with pennons on them on the right, and three elongated white-dressed scullers in the foreground on the left, very upright and holding their oars vertically, like staves.

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Atmosphere, especially mist and fog, was what fascinated the impressionists about England, and it was the depiction of atmosphere which they had found wondrous in Constable and Turner. The London fog of those days (how uncordial to disperse it before entering the Common Market) offered them especially rich opportunities. With its effects of light, its unrolling curtain held between the object seen and the eyes of the spectator as though the object were suspended in that atmosphere, and with its way of blurring everything, it might almost have been specially invented for them.

Monet never forgot the London fog. In 1880 he started planning to paint a series of views of the Thames, and he strengthened his connections with England, partly through his friendship with Whistler. In 1899 and again in 1900 he worked from a room at the Savoy Hotel (and also from one at St Thomas’ Hospital) painting the scenes of Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, some of which are exhibited at the Hayward Gallery – for there are many others besides those on show. He described how he would keep up to a hundred canvases going at a time: “By means of searching among my studies feverishly, I would choose one which did not differ too much from what I saw before me.” One is reminded of the heroic effort to produce a masterpiece made by Proust at the end of his life.

Monet was a literalist of the imagination. He imposes the vision in his pictures by means of photographic exactitude in the placing of objects. He does not, like Turner, transform sea, air, fire, water, architecture into an imaginative world in which mermaids, amputated thighs, caskets, can float on a sea which seems real, without their appearing to belong to another order of reality. Nor does he turn the Thames into a butterfly-wing of azure blue and drops of gold, like Whistler.

Everything in his pictures seems anchored to literal reality and that which is “imaginative” seems real in the same way. We are so accustomed to dividing art into the visionary and the prosaic that the question arises with Monet as to whether he is not merely a superb observer of the naturalistic with total recall of effects of atmosphere which are really cinematic. Herbert Read, in his enthusiasm for surrealism, raised this question when he wrote that Monet had painted 37 pictures of the same haystacks at different hours of the day, and asked: “What could be more boring?” The answer to which is that, in Monet’s case, it would be more appropriate to ask: “What could be more interesting?”

What Monet conveys is a vision which combines extraordinary accuracy of observation with the energy and rhythm of his own temperament. The spirit weaves its web across struts of the literal; and this is very much what happens in Monet’s pictures of London. It happens most, or works best, in the pictures of Charing Cross Bridge, because the literalness of the straight-lined horizontal and verticals of the bridge is so uncompromising. It becomes a kind of grid in front of and through which there is the fiery sun, smoke making visible the air, the weaving water. The bars of the bridge are like those of a furnace beyond which one sees glowing cinders of the river and the fog. With his controlled yet imitative brushstrokes Monet states the contrast between the elements; air and water and those of earth – the iron of the bridge, the brickwork of buildings. The effect of the brushstrokes is usually to imitate the contrasts between the horizontal line of the bridge and the verticals of its piers and the tall smoke-stack chimneys beyond; but sometimes a coil of smoke transforms the whole scene into a dance, as in No 17, Waterloo Bridge, effect of sunlight with smoke (1903).

In the Waterloo Bridge series there is traffic going over the bridge; in one particularly a procession of scarlet and gold buses, with purple smoke flying across and above and below them, as sumptuous as purple-dyed ostrich feathers. Through the blotting-out or fulgurous fog the Houses of Parliament are seen in silhouette, a strange cut-out, a sleeve of tasseled battlements, with upright arm.

After the Monets comes Derain, whom the dealer Ambroise Vollard despatched to London in 1905, having had a hunch that he would “do” the Thames as Monet had done. The results are certainly striking, but, as with the earlier artists, they show what London could do to Derain rather than what he could do for London. What happens is that the then fauviste Derain, in these strident, almost clanging pictures of wharfs and cranes and girdered bridges, angular and harsh in their primal blues and reds and yellows, brings fauvisme very close to German expressionism. One feels Hamburg over the ocean just waiting for Derain’s brush.

Leaving that concrete barn, the Hayward Gallery, at sunset, I walked on to Waterloo Bridge. There was a slight fog made luminous by the remains of daylight. I had an immediate overwhelming almost oppressive vision before me of the crude long line and tubular columns of Charing Cross Bridge a deep pure ultramarine, and of water, sky, the Embankment, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament in different tones of mauve, an enveloping coloured atmosphere, flecked by lights in windows, squares and oblongs of gold. The spell, as strong as floodlight, imposed by Monet and fortified by the sunset, lasted until I got into a taxi. Of all the impressionists Monet is the one who seems most completely to affect one’s actual sight. He does so, I think, because, in his greatest work, his penetrating observation raises his impressionist naturalism to the intensity of a vision which imposes itself on the spectator, who is forced, when he sees the subject which he painted, to see it with Monet’s eyes.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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