Most Chinese of my generation have an inexplicable profound love of Monet and his impressionism fellows. When Internet was not available in most of China in the late early 1990’s, Western Art seldom reached the public outside the major art institutes. Among the few magazines for English language education, quite a few chose famous artworks for their covers and occasionally some biographical articles were published not for art purpose, but instead as general reading materials. That was unfortunately or in some way fortunately my first art education. I remember Rembrandt’s dramatic light, a few Flemish works, but most often there would be some Impressionism works.
For most of the Chinese students, Rembrandt is hard to appreciate. His brushworks can hardly be appreciated without standing in front of the real paintings; and his subjects mostly human beings in the context of religions or history necessitate a not-so-short introductory article which never existed in such magazines. Impressionism paintings, on the other hand, choose the landscape which always has a universal appeal regardles of regions or languages. What’s more, without any difficulty its bright and high contrast style always caught my eyes immediately even on a small print compared to the dim forehead/nose light from Rembrandt.
In the early 1980’s, China in the post-Culture-Revolution period, was in a cautious mood to catch up with the world with respect to art. On the one hand, there had been a void in Western Art appreciation (except Russian schools) for such a long time, anything that could fit in would do. On the other hand, the shadow of linking Western Art with reactional, degenerate and debauchery forms still lingered. Even though the young generation would love to embrace the current trend, their minds were not ready. For them, the unavoidable ideological wrap on top of futurism, abstract, or pop art had to wait another 10 years to disintegrate when the capitalism itself gradually rooted in the political and economic infrastructure.
Thus, Impressionism, the newest or the latest classical Western Art, naturally became the top choice or the safe bet. Impressionism has been around for more than a century, thus its archaic identity marks its irrelevant to the current capitalistic world. However impressionism, by and large, is still active in the Western world. The painterly looking was such a departure from the traditional art that it for sure shocked the eyes of young Chinese artists at that time. Most importantly, the way impressionists painted: plein-air, broken color, complimentary vivant color-theory, dry, chalk style brush stroke, and even the pointillism that are characteristics of Impressionism liberated people’s mind about what defines art. (I remember an article talked about artworks is not a snapshot of realism, but an emotional representation under a controlled mind of intellectual.)
When I came to US, I went to National Gallery of Art and Art Institute of Chicago where I spent most time in those impressionism galleries. They are hard to miss because these galleries are filled with Asian faces. The aesthetic pleasure from looking at the artworks far way to get a whole feeling and then speculating the creation procedure with close-by study had such a charm that it would be so boring afterwards to look at works by the 18th century old masters. For visitors with no or little Western Art background, the ones that please the eyes win.
But as I returned at the second and third time in the National Gallery of Art at DC, I began to get tired of the vivid color pallets of the paintings. Artworks, for both the creators and the audience, are supposed to be liberating– or at least inspirational; but were they painted by habit? Years later, I read the book by Wolf Kahn who said artists once grasped the new skills should move on otherwise their spontaneity would fall into the victims of their habit. I began to question myself whether it is a fallacy to rely purely on eyes whose pleasure tends to be superficial. After all, aren’t great artworks glorifies more at the second or third look?
At the same time, I was attracted by a beautiful autumn scene by Corot in the National Gallery of Art. It was low-key in tone, comparatively small in size and harmonious in color; but there was a profound nostalgia in the painting: a dirt road, rustling trees and a traveler on horse. It is something that I have not experienced before, but somehow I knew how Corot must have felt about it when he painted. That began my love to Barbizon school, which preferred poetic and personal expression of humble or mysterious landscape under unified dark tone.
Today, when I look back, it may seem a little bit absurd that I was not obsessed by Impressionism at that time, but I did appreciate that at least Monet brought me into the galleries and museums. The history of art is a long chain of different schools and styles, all of which contribute. A new style must have some sort of prototype before and serves as foundation to later ones. Interestingly, Henry Ward Ranger, the founder of Old Lyme School and the most important American Barbizon School painter left the art colony four years after he started the group, simply because Child Hassam brought a sharp change to the style in the artist colony.
“It is too civilized”, Ranger said when he left. (But he kept good personal relationship with Hassam.) Later Ranger, in an interview, expressed what he thought about the impressionism:
They did not recognize that a “low-tone phase of nature painted too light is as false as a high-keyed phase painted too low.” In the end, this school, which began in defiance of convention, created rigid conventions of its own with only certain colors representing light. Purple was always shadow and nature was painted just as it was. Earlier artists painted in studios and the paintings were the refined result of long and ardent toil out-of-doors.
The ever-changing transient light, that is quintessential Impressionism, is not what defined the Northeast. In some way, the New England autumn scenes find their voice through Ranger by his fastidious application of yellow, brown glaze for an overall warm atmosphere. Even in Pittsburgh, I felt the autumn overwhelmingly breadth-taking, with nostalgia and sorrow. The depth, silence and smell would make a light pallet-execution unbearable for puritan ethics. True, there is color even in the shadow; but as Ranger put it there must be a fundamental law obeyed in the art that persists through all ages: a quality that is always sane and untouched by all passing fads.