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Monday, January 30, 2017

The National Gallery: Australian Impressionists

InsideThe National Gallery

Yes, I’m going to talk about one of the great art museums in the world, but first let’s chat a bit about London itself.

One thing that makes London so easy to visit is the transit system.  Subways, buses, taxis are all available, convenient, and very affordable.  But, another thing that’s even better is that you can easily walk between many attractions.  Five minute walk too much?  Drop into a pub and refresh yourself.  Consider it a stroll between pubs.  I do.

Let’s say you’ve just taken the Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square to buy some discounted theater tickets.  From there you can walk six minutes in one direction and you’re in Piccadilly Circus, with the famous statue of Eros at it’s epicenter, and where the finest of London’s shopping streets, Oxford, Piccadilly, and Regent Streets branch out like the spokes of a wheel.

The famous Covent Garden is only seven minutes away.

From the balcony of The National Gallery looking into Trafalgar Square

Walk another direction for six minutes and you’re in the equally famous Trafalgar Square, with its heroic column holding a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson.  You’ll pass The National Portrait Gallery on the way, which is also well worth a stop.  From Trafalgar it’s a quick walk to The Strand for more shopping, some famous restaurants (Simpson’s on the Strand) and the famous Savoy Hotel.  Pop into the American Bar for a drink and a gander at all the photos of the celebrities who’ve imbibed there.  Maybe you’d like to visit the parade ground for the Queen’s Cavalry, and stroll past Number 10 Downing Street, home to the Prime Minister.  Fourteen minutes, max.

Honestly, we’re only talking about a few easy steps from one perfect spot to another.

When you enter, don't forget to look up!

But, while we’re in Trafalgar Square, let’s walk up the short staircase to The National Gallery.  Free admission and open over 360 days a year.  What’s special about The National Gallery?  One of the most famous art galleries in the world.  Name some painters you like, or that your art teacher mentioned while you thought about the cute blond at the desk across the room.  Rembrandt?  Van Gogh?  Monet? Michelangelo?  Bells ought to be clanging!  They’re all there, from the old masters to the French Impressionists and beyond.

The current special exhibit is Australian Impressionists.  Yes, there is a fee for the specials.

Let’s digress and talk about the Impressionists.  I thought they were all French, sez you.  That’s what I thought too.  Boy was I wrong.  The French are only the most well known.  You might like to know (because of your insatiable thirst for knowledge) that the label impressionism began as a satirical term by an art critic writing for a Parisian newspaper, as in “It’s not really art, just an impression.” The strict judges of the French art establishment wouldn’t let Monet, Renoir, Pissarro. Cezanne, Degas and others, enter the prestigious events at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.  Not to be stifled after being turned down several times, the artists formed their own group and had their own exhibit.  The public went wild.  Seldom does the establishment know what the public wants.

What freed artists from the old rules?  One thing was the invention of the camera (1814) and by the 1860’s it was in wide use. Remember Mathew Brady and his famous American Civil War photos?   No longer did artists have to paint an exact replica of what they saw. 

What was different about the Impressionist paintings?  The artists used lighter colors, feathered brush strokes, and faintly recognizable forms.  They also had a passion for painting en plein air, meaning outside, which allowed them to paint as the natural light changed during the day.  As light changes, color changes. Ever see an exhibit of Monet’s Water Lilies?  He painted dozens of gargantuan canvases, attempting to capture the changing light, a reflection of how he viewed the same scene.  Monet found that light changes every seven minutes.  We intuitively know that the day grows lighter, then darkens, but every seven minutes? You can easily test it yourself with a camera and a watch. 

But, enough dallying.  Let’s get to the Australian Impressionists, and specifically the four artists on exhibit, which runs through 26 March 2017.  You don’t want to miss it.  The word I use to describe these paintings by Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, and John Russell is:  Astounding!

What’s so special about the Australian painters?  For me, even more than the French impressionists, they bring a scene to life.  You find yourself stepping into the painting to feel the swirling dust, to smell the cows, and hear the sound of a rippling stream.  But, endless discussion of paintings is as sleep inducing as slugging through the rules of Ping Pong, so let me stop there and just offer some poor photographic evidence of what I mean.  Photos weren’t allowed in the museum and stern faced attendants saw to it, so I had to scavenge on the internet.

I have asked myself, what is it about the Impressionists that over a hundred years later still grabs people and makes them stare and dream?  My answer is: unexpected encounters that pull you in and brand your memory.  The Impressionists were experimenters, changers, collaborators, switching from one style to another, merging reality and dreams.  Even today they still represent freedom of expression.  No rules except eyes, light, and a paintbrush.

And the style and feeling weren’t exclusive to the French.  John Paul Russell painted along side Van Gogh, and in fact was the only Australian artist to be directly in touch with Monet.  Yes, these men and women in many ways broke down the walls of art.  They were slaves to shifting light and ambient hues, and shameless copiers who borrowed from each other.

These photos in no way do justice to the paintings. But, they give you an idea of how the artists captured the raw roughness and stark beauty of turn-of-the-century Australia.  You just gotta go see the actual painting for yourself! 

Charles Conder:  A Holiday at Mentone

Arthur Streeton:  Fire's On!

John Russell:  Rough Sea

Tom Roberts: Winter Morning After Rain

Tom Roberts:  Bourke Street West

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London!  Somebody in your party lukewarm about art museums?  Use this to entice them:  Pubs are close, very close, before and after.

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