Impressionist works on display in Seoul

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Impressionist works on display in Seoul

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Claude Monet, one of the leading figures of impressionism, once recalled the experience of being astounded by his obsession with color even at the bedside of his dead wife.
“Finding myself at the bedside of a dead woman who had been very dear to me and who was always very dear, to my surprise I kept staring at the tragic temple while mechanically looking for the sequence, the appropriation of the color degradation which death had just left on the motionless face,” he wrote in his diary. “Blue, yellow, gray tones, and goodness knows what else. That is what I had come to.”
Indeed the central idea behind impressionism is all about light and colors. Impressionists held the belief that light changes the perception of an object.
It’s true.
In his “House of Parliament: Effect of Sunlight, 1903,” Monet tests the ephemeral effects of light in a series of paintings of London’s House of Parliament, showing the drastic changes of the same landscape to human vision in differing natural light.
Yet there was a whole world of impressionists besides Monet who violated artistic conventions of the mainstream French art scene in the 19th century, leading to one of the most original inventions of Western art.
“French and American Impressionists in the Brooklyn Museum,” which is currently on display at the Hangaram Museum, is a touring exhibition from the Brooklyn Museum.
In an unusual case, the exhibit brings together the works of American artists who were active during the last quarter of the 19th century and deeply influenced by French impressionism.
Over the course of Western art history, the idea of impressionism has become an artful cliche. Images have been reduced to reproductions on postcards, refrigerator magnets and calendars sold in museums around the world, almost to the point that the actual paintings have lost their original meaning.
The public’s enthusiasm for the artistic style, though, is a drastic shift from the advent of the movement, when the term “impressionism” was introduced by a newspaper critic Louis Leroy, in a review criticizing an exhibit at the Salon de Paris by a group of impressionists. Leroy said Monet’s painting was an unfinished work, calling it “a sketch” that merely depicted the superficial impressions of an object instead of the “essence” of nature.
Ironically, the concept of impressionism was exactly the opposite. The movement focused on capturing the essence of a subject rather than its details. Indeed, the style triggered a scandal among mainstream art critics within the French art scene for that precise reason. When the old school of French Academie advocated strict standards of tradition, impressionists insisted on violating conventions of style, stressing unusual visual angles based on mood and atmosphere in their paintings.
The Academie focused on grand subjects of history and religious themes; impressionists turned to romantic visions of nature.
The Academie preferred somber color; impressionists drew on inspiration from nature using free, choppy brush strokes and unmixed colors.
The Academie valued portraits that stressed craftsmanship; impressionists valued landscape as an expression of the artist’s emotions, abandoning formalism.
Indeed, the exhibit in Seoul from the Brooklyn Museum of Art is a tribute to sentimentalism.
It begins with the work of Charles Francois Daubigny, who as part of the Barbizon school of painters was considered the artist to best portray the accurate depiction of natural light.
In “The Arch,” Henry Ossawa Taner captures the melancholic mood of Paris surrounded in mist. Renoir’s still-life painting presents a lush bowl of red and yellow strawberries shining in a room.
Robert Reid depicts the back of a helpless mother clad in a shabby outfit, referencing her working class status, mourning over a baby’s casket in “Death of Her First Born.”
In stark contrast of mood, Mary Cassatt, an American Impressionist painter, depicted the back of a middle-class woman in a red bodice carrying a happy child in her arms.
Some of the most interesting works in the exhibit, however, stem from smaller works of art.
“Twilight, Evening-June” by Dwight William Tryon, is one of them. To the casual observer, it’s a simple painting of a rising sun amidst a forest of trees. Yet a tiny pinch of red and orange representing the sun in the middle of the canvas poses an entirely different mood.
It’s uncertain whether the entire landscape of the gloomy forest was produced just for the sun or if the sun was added at the last minute just for a touch of color.
It’s likely the forest was used merely as background, though, because the whole point of impressionism was sacrificing detail for mood.


by Park Soo-mee

“French and American Impressionists in the Brooklyn Museum” runs at Hangaram Museum through September 3. For more information call (02) 368-1516. Ticket costs 12,000 won for adults, 8000 won for students.
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