First impressions count
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 14 June 2004)

When a deceptive evening mist cloaks a big-city riverside, factory chimneys begin to look vaguely like medieval bell towers and warehouses start to resemble palaces. For those who care to notice, the fog-enshrouded city hangs half invisible in the air, like a fairyland.

That romantic 19th-century vision was set down in roughly those words by Charles Baudelaire, an astute critic as well as a great poet. Later, James McNeill Whistler paraphrased Baudelaire in a famous lecture. Both men were describing something new in the world, cityscapes affected by smog from the Industrial Revolution. These hazy masterpieces dominate the big art event of the summer, Turner Whistler Monet: Impressionist Visions, the gorgeous, audacious and stimulating exhibition that opens today at the Art Gallery of Ontario and later moves to Paris and London.

Baudelaire's words represented a turning point in visual culture, high art's decision to embrace the look of industrial urbanism. That's one of two themes that emerge in Turner Whistler Monet, as Katharine Lochnan of the AGO has organized it. The other is the influence of J.M.W. Turner on Whistler and Whistler's influence on Claude Monet, a baton-passing that created in the 19th century what turned out to be the 20th century's favourite form of painting, Impressionism.

It's probably too much to say that pollution created Impressionism; still, the clouding of the air inspired hundreds of misty urban landscapes, which evolved into a radical form of art. While William Blake was portraying the Industrial Revolution as nothing but a blight on the land, damning the "dark Satanic Mills," coal smoke was staining the urban skies with gorgeous and previously unseen blues, yellows, reds and oranges -- the colours of chemical reactions, uniquely modern colours.

No one had ever seen sunsets like these. Fortunately, one English artist recognized the riches that history had delivered to his doorstep: Turner saw the fresh beauty in these unprecedented rainbow-striped sunsets. Glorious effects created by the burning of soft, sulphur-rich coal stimulated his imagination. In London the poisoned air was debilitating, sometimes even lethal. Smoke-abatement laws eventually improved it, but not before industry had created a unique visual reality.

As he gazed over the Thames at night, Turner saw the future of art. Henri Matisse remarked more than a century later that Turner's paintings forged the link between the academic tradition and Impressionism.

Turner realized that these astonishing skies demanded a new way of painting and a new palette. In his paintings, skies burst into flames, buildings vanish among the particles in the air and sunsets simulate explosions. As his style matured, Turner began the conversation with his successors that this exhibition carefully explores.

Lochnan gives a great performance here, as a scholar who combines knowledge with imagination and a searching intelligence. She builds her own frame for the story she wants to tell and reshapes the thinking of anyone who spends an hour or two with the exhibition and its excellent catalogue.

Picture by picture, argument by argument, she takes us inside a crucial movement and shows how it worked. She defines a double play in the game of art history, Turner to Whistler to Monet. She outlines the origins of a crucial intuition, an idea that became part of history -- that a loosely painted, apparently unfinished painting could evoke what human eyes actually see when they gaze at a sunset or a sunrise, when they peer through a mist or when they view a mountain from the distance.

In the AGO installation this narrative unfolds gracefully and coherently through seven rooms bearing such labels as "Monet returns to the Thames." Along the way, visitors may notice some curatorial triumphs, notably the reunion of three lovely paintings by Monet of the same stretch of the Seine near Giverny. All were painted in the morning around the same time. Normally these pictures live separate lives in Boston, New York and Raleigh, N.C.; this may be their first appearance in the same room since Monet created them in 1887.

What Turner began, Whistler refined and Monet perfected. Lochnan charts art's progress from Realism to Impressionism to Symbolism; from a focus on reality to a concern with atmospheric effect ("Atmosphere is my style," Turner said) and then with landscapes evoking mood.

In the 1860s, a decade after Turner's death, Whistler was looking for beauty in the city around him. He realized that Turner had pointed the way, and consciously followed him.

He began painting the same river from the same angles; as he searched for subjects, he was rowed on the Thames by the sons of the boatman who had transported Turner from view to view. When Whistler's early Thames etchings appeared in Paris, Baudelaire praised them for portraying a great city's "profound and intricate poetry."

Whistler built on Turner's ideas, extended them and by the early 1870s was pouring out a series of paintings in his own manner. When he painted the Thames at night he at first called these pictures "moonlights," and then borrowed from music a term that meant "suggestive of night, usually of a quiet, meditative character" -- nocturnes. In this exhibition, two of his many Thames scenes, Nocturne: Grey and Gold -- Westminster Bridge and Nocturne in Blue and Silver -- Cremone Lights, show Whistler edging away from realism, toward abstraction.

Visiting London, sometimes seeing this work in Paris, Claude Monet fell under its spell. He praised the Nocturnes for "their uncanny power to evoke the mystery of early evening light on the Thames." He studied Turner as well, and gradually showed the influence of both artists. He began producing the pictures that make him the undoubted star of this exhibition.

In the spring of 1874, Monet exhibited a picture that shows the influence of both Turner and Whistler, a view of the Seine at Le Havre that he titled Impression, Sunrise. It was executed in a casual, sketchy manner that everyone in the world knows today but hardly anyone had seen exhibited before. That picture made history because it seemed both an original work of art and a natural outgrowth of what had come before. It also seemed to be a manifesto in oil, and its name was taken for what became a world-shaking movement, Impressionism. A reproduction of it appears in the catalogue of this show but its owner, the Musee Marmottan of Paris, has allowed it to be shown only in the Paris installation of Turner Whistler Monet.

Later, Monet made a series of paintings in London, loved the visual effects of pollution and declared himself dismayed on those occasions when thick fog did not cover the Thames. In 1889, he took a room in the Savoy Hotel, where Whistler had kept a studio, and reworked many of the subjects Whistler had depicted earlier. He painted Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, and in one particularly memorable series he painted the wrapped-in-fog Parliament buildings. He returned to London in the winters of 1900 and 1901 to make more paintings.

As the AGO exhibition shows, at different times Turner, Whistler and Monet all brought their developing visions to that great anthology of mist-wrapped urban images, Venice. Turner was working there as early as 1819. Whistler lived there in 1879 and 1880. Monet didn't get to Venice till 1908, but when he did the result was a splendid series of paintings, including some of the great moments in this show. An essay in the catalogue by Sylvie Patin calls Venice the final act in this drama. Certainly the Venice paintings made by all three artists offer a handsome summary of this remarkable three-way collaboration.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page