July 15th, 2007

Modernity: Yearning For The Infinite

Personal: Taking In the Pissarro Exhibition with Diane

Diane had suggested when we hung out on Tuesday that we should reserve Sunday for going to see the Camille Pissarro exhibition down at the lovely Milwaukee Art Museum. This was something I'd been intending to do – had tried and failed to do due to the crowds and parking conditions on the East Side because of Summerfest while on a date a few weeks ago – and so it seemed just the thing for such a pleasant afternoon. I met her over at her place and then we just walked across the East Side over to the Museum, enjoying the day and the light and talking about the last few days' news as we went along.

The exhibition, "Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape," took all our time in the museum. Diane had hoped to show me some Haitian art she wanted to take another look at before we left, but as five o'clock rolled around, we were the last people leaving the exhibit, with the guards not speaking to us but standing behind us as we looked at the last paintings, silently encouraging us to be on our way. A featured quotation by Camille Pissarro, highlighted at the beginning of the exhibit – “… the eye of the passer-by who is too hasty will see only the surface. Whoever is in a hurry will not stop for me.” – provided the perfect lead-in for the crucial question I wanted to ask Diane: "Are you a slow museum-person, or a fast museum-person?" She thought she was somewhere in-between, and likely faster than me, but in this case she found herself wanting to go slow, read most of the texts, talk over things as we went along, and even trek backward to check on items again after seeing something further on. So we ended up being perfectly paired as far as pace went, which is a Good Thing in a museum. The only thing we really couldn't agree on was which paintings we would steal.

I have never been much for the Impressionists, actually, unlike my Mom and (I think) my sister. I recognize the importance of what they did, the attention they draw to the working and effects of light and atmosphere in their work, but I suppose that their sheer popularity today made me more indifferent to them as a matter of taste, as though they were more "decoration" than art: the kind of thing put up in offices to break up the barrenness of the walls, but expressly designed to not upset anyone (not that I think upsetting anyone is a particularly critical function of art). In fact, I really don't know that in my years of reading art history that I'd ever really noticed Pissarro's name in any significant way. It wasn't until that I read a striking review of a New York exhibition called "Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885" in the pages of America a few years ago that I really took any notice of him. Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J.'s (the president emeritus of Georgetown University) 29 August 2005 article, "Mutual Teachers" was a fabulous piece of popular art writing and really drew me into the significance of the collaboration of these two as they pushed one another to achieve new visions of their shared world. (I saved this particular issue just for that article, so it turned out to be handy when this exhibition came to town.)

This exhibition, originally put together at the Baltimore Museum of Art, picked up where the NYC one left off, as it were, and continued this introduction to Pissarro and the origins of Impressionism in a very satisfying way for me. Diane's quiet but equally-interested willingness to ask even such basic questions as "So what do you think Impressionism really is?" made the experience even more interesting: going back and asking the most basic questions is so often the very best thing to do in the classroom, and this was no different. "Light" and "Atmosphere" is what we kept coming back to: it was interesting to me how much we were caught up in the air, weather and temperature of the landscapes. It was as though each one was a glimpse outside a window and we had to decide what we were going to wear in order to face the day: the conditions of the air at any given moment in each canvas was the most important "player" in each scene. The selections gave a grand sense of the evolution of his ability to convey these scenes, and the occasional photograph of one of the areas provided an interesting contrast in how unable a photograph was able to convey the atmosphere, though some of that was due to the limits of photography at the time, of course. Like the New York exbition, this exhibition had borrowed from the Art Institute of Chicago the breakthrough "“Banks of the Marne in Winter” (1866), which I had read about in the O'Donovan article. It was interesting to see how sort of startled and shocked we both were by the painting before I read the text and discovered that this was that painting: the decidedly un-Romantic character of its dark or bleak glimpse of nature was startling after being started off with more conventionally Romantic pieces. The exhibition climaxed with three of the five pieces Pissarro contributed at the first "Impressionist" show in Paris, which seemed a fine closing-point for the intentions of the show, giving us a sense of what he understood to be his own achievement by that point. I'll likely go back and take it all in again.

After leaving the Museum, we wandered up to the Lincoln statue outside the old Museum building, finding refuge from the too-cool breeze blowing off Lake Michigan in lying down on the sun-heated stone of the base of the statue and staring up at the clouds and writhing American flag as we talked over what we had seen and drifted into a long talk about relationships and fidelity. In time, we moved away from the Lake and its chilly breeze and wandered over to Cathedral Square and the Bastille Days festival. Walking through the vendors and food we people-watched, continued our conversation at times, and eventually opted for our own food and drink, grabbing dinner at the MetroMart deli and heading back to Diane's to eat while warding off the advances of her cats. Diane crashed soon thereafter, as I figured, once I'd heard she'd had all of four hours' sleep the night before, and we left our plans for wine, cookies and movies for some other time.