Thursday, July 4, 2002
Photo: City Scapes- "Chinatown, Stockton and Clay Streets," by Jules Page (far left) and "The Financial District, Manhattan" by Colin Campbell Cooper, both at the Monterey Museum of Art, illustrate the movement called California Impressionism.
Aclever exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art pursues a thesis that will be of interest to students, collectors and other aficionados of California Impressionism: Your favorite movement doesn''t exist.
Organized by the Laguna Art Museum, In and Out of California: Travels of American Impressionists, posits the notion that the painters associated with early modernism in California were not based here so much as they were globe-trotters whose West Coast residency was temporary or concurrent with an East Coast or European address. The misnomer "California" Impressionist, then, obfuscates the true nature of these artists'' careers and should be dropped from the lexicon of art connoisseurship.
According to the exhibition''s curator, Deborah Epstein Solon, Adjunct Curator at the Laguna Art Museum, the plein air painters working in California during the first half of the 20th century were part of the bigger community of American artists in the way they were educated, formed professional affiliations, and exhibited. Training at American big city design schools and European studios or academies, living in Europe for long periods as expatriates, residing in one or another of several well-established art colonies on the East Coast, traveling extensively, the artists in question were just too worldly to be pigeon-holed as "Californian."
The exhibition catalogs by Solon and Dr. Will South, curator of collection at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery, point out that during the first decade or so of the 20th century, as more painters found their way to the West Coast in search of intriguing subject matter, a milder climate, or some kind of personal freedom, California also experienced a sharp increase in the general population. The developers and promoters of California talked up the virtues of the state in alluring advertising campaigns.
The California art world, such as it was during that same period, sponsored its own promotional campaign, with art critics waxing poetic in newspapers and journals about the "California" Impressionists who were doing a grand job of capturing the golden light and expansive drama of rolling hills, crashing waves, majestic mountains of the state. The critics claimed these Impressionists as the state''s own, as if it were those very sunny hills, lupine fields, eucalyptus groves and rocky crags that spawned the artists-a transparent effort to remind folks that this corner of the United States had a thriving cultural life.
South and Solon claim it was the public relations effort that distorted the truth, treating the artists as natives and promoting, as one unified group, an array of artists whose talent was as varied as their national and international backgrounds. The grouping of first-, second- and third-rate painters besmirched the good and great ones'' reputations; repercussions were felt 3,000 miles away. The critical reception of "California" Impressionism by the East Coast art establishment, say the essayists, tended to be dismissive or guarded at best. The art was too uneven.
When scholarly examination of American Impressionism took off in the 1970s, according to Solon, it was the East Coast centrism of these scholars that caused the "California" artists to be overlooked or maligned as inferior. After all, who had ever heard of them? And look at all that derivative painting! Instead, the scholars'' research pursued William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Julian Alden Weir and the habitues of the East Coast art colonies.
Solon and South maintain the broader label "American Impressionism" should be applied to both the California painters and the East Coast ones because the California artists were not even true California artists, and have everything in common with the accepted East Coast practitioners of Impressionism. Solon''s rigorous efforts to sort out biographical information to prove this thesis is impressive; her ferreting out of the paintings from private collectors to illustrate her points is admirable.
Now, the next step for scholars is to look at the paintings carefully. To put Armin Hansen on the catalog cover of an Impressionist exhibition sends up warning flags. If the label "California" can be debated, certainly the appellation "Impressionist" can be as well. A cursory glance at the surface of a Hansen painting reveals nothing of Impressionism. And Hansen was not alone in this. Scrutiny of works painted by one after another of the exhibition artists illustrates a predilection toward broadly handled forms and bright colors, a kind of sketchy abbreviation of nature that only resembles the experiments in light and color of Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, et. al.
The French Impressionists had as their goal the sublime experience of light as it falls across their largely neutral subjects-leisure activities of the middle class and landscapes. Some, notably Pissarro, were politically sensitive, and chose subjects that could be construed as socialist statements about the conditions of the disenfranchised classes.
Pursuant to their desired goals, the French painters followed either the letter or spirit of color theory as expounded by people such as Chevreul, a 19th-century French scientist of optics who developed the theory of the simultaneous contrast of colors. We see the results in the "broken color" comma strokes forming the surfaces of French Impressionist paintings.
It is the extremely rare "California" or "American" Impressionist painter who exhibits the same theoretical base. Instead, we too often see a shorthand of drawing/painting wherein broad strokes of pigment-laden brushes define forms. Colors are unnaturally heightened and a lazy acceptance of landscape conventions makes numerous pictures appear impressionistic at first glance.
It would be a ground-breaking enterprise for scholars to look at the relationship of artists residing on the West Coast, artists full of the rugged spirit of the West, to the spacious land itself. Their attempts to speak to the vastness of sky, broadness of valley, ruggedness of mountain, essential drama of coast-and the existential participation in such-form the philosophical underpinnings of a uniquely American approach to painting that saw its realization in Pollock, Abstract Expressionists and the San Francisco Bay Area Figurative painters.
In and Out of California: Travels of American Impressionists continues at the Monterey Museum of Art''s Civic Center through Sept. 1.