Art Review: Impressionists in London, Tate Britain ‘Some Big Hits in an Uneven Show’

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Oh, this is a shame. Not only is the title of this show misleading – this is not a show on Impressionists but one that includes a couple of them – but the quality of the exhibition overall is a mixed bag. Don’t get me wrong, there are some big draws on display, and some wonderful individual works, but they cannot make up for what is, on balance, a disappointing show.  

And that’s a real let down as there was a good idea here.

1871 was a pretty dark year for France – defeat in the Franco-Prussian War was followed by civil war in Paris when the Commune seized power in the capital and held it for two months before being crushed by the French army. This was a period of intense violence and bloody suppression. Thousands of French nationals sought refuge in Britain, including artists, as a way of avoiding the bloodshed – and possible conscription – or because they feared repercussions for sympathies with the Commune.

Though the reasons for these artists to come to London were traumatic, they continued to work, paint and sculpt in exile, allowing us to see English landscapes and British high society through their eyes. This show, therefore, set out to examine the networks these artists formed while in Britain, and to explore how these outsiders transformed representations of London.

The highlights in this exhibition are obvious. Six paintings from Claude Monet’s famous Houses of Parliament series are on display in the largest number of works from the collection to be exhibited in Europe since 1973. The blurry outline of Parliament’s instantly recognisable gothic architecture appearing through the dense fog… Various levels of sunlight casting flame-coloured hues across the scenes… They really are beautiful paintings.

As are the delightful Pissarros and Sisleys. Never has Kew Gardens or Hampton Court been captured in such an idealised way. Indeed, maybe there is something too perfect in these postcard-perfect scenes and the uplifting palettes, but these contrast superbly with the scenes of fog from American artist, James Whistler.

Though not an Impressionist, Whistler was in London during these years and was clearly interested in the Impressionist techniques as his lowlit scenes of the Thames submerged in fog evidently show. And, indeed, he duly submitted some of these to Durand-Ruel, the Impressionists’ art dealer, so Whistler was clearly inspired by these revolutionary French artists. So much so that a few years later he was invited by Degas to exhibit at the first Impressionist show in 1874 (though he declined).

But lovely as these dozen paintings are, they are in the last couple of galleries and, well, you have to wade through some less salubrious rooms to get to them.

We’ve a gallery dedicated to the works of Alphonse Legros (not an Impressionist) and sculptor Jules Dalou (also not an Impressionist). Though the terracotta sculptures of the latter may impress in their technical achievement, and the portraits by the former of the likes of George Watts and Edward Burne-Jones link in to English society at the time, they are not thrilling. And Legros’s Hilly Landscape, 1876-77, seems dated compared to the revolutionary style the Impressionists swept in (which, of course, is sort of the point with the Impressionists).

But these are dull rooms. As is the one dedicated to the sculptor, Carpeaux (also not an Impressionist) and I couldn’t find much to love in the Tissot gallery either (again, also not an Impressionist). I’m sure some may love Tissot’s scenes of high society – the soirees, the fancy and elegant dresses, the parties on ship decks – but their detailed execution has all the hallmarks of the style the Impressionist moved away from, and they are bereft of any kind of emotion. All precision and no punch.

And, at the other end of the spectrum (in almost every way), the exhibition finishes with a flourish of Fauvism with a handful of paintings from André Derain. The collision of colour and form is kaleidoscopic – interesting but oddly out of place with everything that goes before it, and a little out of place in a show that I expected to be focused on Impressionist art.

This exhibition really should have been simply titled, “French Artists in Exile,” which is its sub-heading (Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile 1870 – 1904 is the (wordy) full title), for that is the true description of what is on display. Only that wouldn’t bring the visitors swarming in, would it? Because, of course, the magic word is “Impressionist.” Say your show is about Impressionists and that’s bound to grab the attention, hence this is probably why the Tate has titled the exhibition the way it has, and why it made one of Monet’s Houses of Parliament paintings the principal image in its marketing.

And if that is the case then, well, I sense that there will be more than a few disappointed visitors at the exit to this exhibition. There’s something quite deceptive about the way this has been advertised and that does leave a rather bitter taste.

And all of this frustrates me because it’s only at the end do you think, but hang on, the first Impressionist art show wasn’t until 1874 – as I mentioned above. All these Monets, Pissarros, Sisleys on the walls… They were all painted *before* the water lilies, the poplars, the haystacks and the boulevards. Those great works were all completed when these artists returned to France. Did London inspire them, then? Did our scenes and our fogs fascinate them, provoke them, and help hone their techniques? Were these years in London, in fact, pivotal to the development of this most French of art movements? Well, if it was, the curators at Tate B weren’t interested in exploring that. And that’s frustrating as, my, what a show we could have seen if they had, in fact, taken that angle instead!

Tate Britain, London, to April 29, 2018
Admission: £19.70 (concessions available)

Image Credits:
1 James Tissot (1836-1902), The Ball on Shipboard c.1874. Oil paint on canvas 1012 x 1476 x 115 mm Tate. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1937
2 Alfred Sisley (1839 – 1899), Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, Morning, 1874. Oil paint on canvas 511 x 688 mm. National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh UK)
3 Claude Monet (1840-1926), Houses of Parliament, Sunlight Effect 1903Oil paint on canvas 813 x 921 mm Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York
4 Camille Pissarro, Charing Cross Bridge, 1890. Oil paint on canvas 600 x 924 mm National Gallery of Art (Washington, USA)

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