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The Role of Impressionism and Post-impressionism in Contemporary Art

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Horace, a roman poet during the time of Augustus, once noted that ‘a picture is a poem without words.’ Regarding that notion of thought, pictures do indeed have stories to tell, so when interpreting many pictures or works of art simultaneously, the story becomes increasingly clear, and a pattern emerges. Traditional art, impressionism, post-impressionism, and the works that make up these respective categories, are vital components to the story of contemporary art, acting as not only a mere influence, but a foundation on which it was built upon. Artists like Edouard Manet, embraced a more traditional approach concerning modern subject matter with a more finished approach, while the impressionists like Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Camille Pissaro, employed plein air painting to portray light in new ways. Van Gogh’s expressive emotionalism, Paul Gauguin’s abstraction, and Paul Sérusier’s structural qualities further pushed the boundary concerning how to convey form, while also conveying emotion.

The aforementioned artistic movements and the artists that respectively compose these movements, ultimately acted as the catalyst that eventually led to the artworks of today. Unusual cropping, painting what the eye sees rather than what the brain perceives, and the use of color to convey emotion all effectively informed and influenced the following art to come. The modern yet ordinary subject matter painted via quick, visible brush strokes, with an emphasis on the accurate depiction of light regarding the passage of time are all characteristics of contemporary art, especially regarding landscape paintings, and can be directly traced to traditional art, impressionism, post-impressionism movements respectively. Traditional art, often depicting modern day life with contemporary subject matter, embraced a representational, or classical, approach to production. In ‘The Balcony,’ a work created by Édouard Manet, this classical approach is illustrated perfectly with the portrayal of modern subject matter, a composed perspective with the subjects looking directly at the audience, as well as the finished composure of the work with few visible brush strokes. Emphasis on accuracy, line, and structure are evident as well, with the railing of the balcony, and the perfectly framed doorway, framing the characters in the scene. Without photography, accuracy was paramount, however once photos could account for this precision, artists aimed to capture what the camera couldn’t, an impression of what was seen, rather than simply what was seen.

When an artist is attempting to portray reality, especially in a landscape painting, there is little room for subjectivity considering the nature of accuracy in relation to objectivity. For young artists, this objectivity was only a constraint, and didn’t allow for the variance, and the variety, in modern art that we see today because it simply was what it was. Claude Monet’s ‘Imprression: Sunrise,’ beautifully highlights the contrasting approach to traditional art forms through the composition, the unfinished feel the painting elicits, and the use of color to convey emotion. Monet was considered one of the first impressionists due to his individualism and emotional expressivism that he embraced despite being criticized for among other things, a lack of traditional artistic characteristics. From the first traditional artistic approach, to the beginnings of impressionism, the shift away from contemporary subject matter, to the adaptation of an increasingly modern, abstract and conceptual forms, it is evident that this shift is partly responsible for the art produced today.

Depicting a rural landscape, beginning with the first work of traditional art to Monet’s more impressionistic style, one can see how the approaches to painting have evolved over time, as the works to this point are in chronological order. From contemporary subject matter, to an impressionistic perspective, to this impression of a country landscape, the role of photography as the technological innovations progressed, led to a shift not only in subject matter, but how that subject matter was portrayed by the respective artists. The quick, visible brush strokes, naturalistic subject matter, and the colors used to compose this artwork all reinforce the notion of this shift away from a finished, modern approach to a more interpretative style. Similar to Pissarro’s ‘A Cowherd on the Route du Chou, Pontoise,’ Paul Cézanne’s ‘Bend in the Road’ further solidifies this impressionistic, subjective approach regarding the portrayals of the natural environment. This can be seen through the ordinary subject matter, use of quick brush strokes, attention to the accurate depiction of light, giving the viewer Cézanne’s impression of this simple bend in the road, rather than what Cézanne actually saw.

The brush strokes applied in certain areas, particularly the greenery, allow for a detailed visual texture that helps accentuate the road in relation to the blue sky, ultimately providing emotion and depth to an otherwise simple, seemingly emotionless subject. Vincent Van Gogh’s influence on contemporary art is arguably one of the greatest. Whether concerning abstraction, fauvism, or expressionism, Van Gogh played a vital role in the development of these movements. Sadly, the artist never came to see how valued his part would be in the play of contemporary art. Van Gogh’s emotionally expressive works of art often seem to move, with their stylistic flow and composition, the use of bright color impressionists seem to favor, and again, the depiction of a landscape environment near his mental asylum, dramatically shaped the path of modern art today. These works of art act as an underlying instruction manual to modern art, outlining that subject matter is not of importance, but rather how an artist conveys that subject matter through bright color, unusual composition, quick brush strokes leaving a textured grain, and the ultimate idea that emotion is what drives art.

Post impressionists, which considered impressionists as too naturalistic, aimed to push the artistic boundaries of expressionism to a point that impressionists would have disagreed with. Portraying an oceanfront Tahitian landscape, Paul Gauguin’s ‘Day of the God,’is actually broken up into three horizontal planes, each of which has its own elements of impressionism. The top plane depicts an island ritual, the middle plane with its three figures against a pink background represents birth, life, and death. The final bottom plane portrays a beautiful, colorful reflection of light hitting the water. Everything from the unusual cropping in the top plane, to the expressive abstraction of the reflection in the bottom plane reinforces the influence of post-impressionist art, and Gauguin himself, in the modern art that we see today.

Lastly, Paul Sérusier’s ‘The Talisman: Landscape of the Bois d’Amour,’ takes the post-impressionistic approach to the extreme, and is the most post-impressionistic work of art presented in this gallery exhibition. The radical abstraction, emotional expressiveness, and choice of color and composition are all extremely contemporary. Rather than depicting an environment through an artist’s interpretation, The Talisman: Landscape of the Bois d’Amour is so loosely defined, that it is not only up to the artist’s interpretation or impression, but rather the audience’s. Although this depicts a landscape, to the untrained eye, this may not seem to be the case, therefore making this open to emotional interpretation that allows for a wider range of applicability for the viewers.

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