on November 2, 2011
This volume is the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition "Camille Pissarro" at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart from December 1999 to May 2000. As the exhibition did not travel, one can only assume that Hatje Cantz translated the original German catalogue for the world market, and the translations read quite smoothly. It is a substantial and beautifully produced book--as one is coming increasingly to expect from this publisher--212 pages with 165 illustrations, 98 of which are reproduced in excellent color. The dust jacket is a detail of Cat. 54, one if Pissarro's most beautiful late paintings from Eragny, which is in the Staatsgalerie's own collection.
There are five sections. The first, by Wolf Eiermann, is a remarkably concentrated overview of the major events of the artist's life and works. The first twenty years are treated summarily, but , starting in 1851, it becomes a year-by-year compendium. Such a feature is not unusual in an exhibition catalogue, but this one is special, not only because it's profusely illustrated (with Pissarro's works and those of other painters for comparison, caricatures, photos, etc.) and visually rewarding. It is also extensively annotated and at thirty-four pages far surpasses the usual perfunctory "chronology" of most catalogues to become a little handbook of life and work, an excellent go-to resource for remembering what Pissarro was doing in any given year. And because its layout is clear and uncluttered, it is easily scanned.
The major body of the book is Christoph Becker's essay, "Camille Pissarro, Impressionist Artist," which extends over 105 pages and includes 73 full-page reproductions. It is a fairly straightforward walk through Pissarro's artistic development. Becker starts by locating Pissarro at first among the Naturalists, using Zola, Corot and Courbet as his foils; shows how around 1870-71 the "heavy tectonics" (48) are lightening and giving us a hint of the Impressionism to come; and in 1872 finally arrives at "The Seine at Port-Marly": "in terms of subject-matter and style, this work marks the start of Pissarro's Impressionism" (62) -- a distinction later given by Ralph Melcher to "The Cote du Jallais, Pontoise" (174). From there we go to Pissarro's developing interest in figure painting, to Neo-Impressionism, and finally to the urban series paintings. All of this is very nicely done, but it's all been done very nicely before. Becker does go off the beaten track twice, but in both instances he unfortunately lands in the wrong place. For one thing, he implies that Impressionism developed through a kind of dialectic between painters and critics. Since the Impressionist painters produced no quasi-official manifesto in the manner of the Futurists or Surrealists, it was the critics, he contends, who comprised one term of the dialectic by abstracting from the painters' practice an image of their program and holding it up to them. But he provides very little evidence that the painters reacted to the critics in any way near to the manner in which they caused the critics to react to them. Certainly if there was a dialectic of sorts involved in the development of Impressionism, then it was mostly an interaction among the painters themselves, as the case of Pissarro and Cezanne makes quite clear. Another place where Becker goes wrong is in his cavalier dismissal of Pissarro's politics and their possible effect on his art. It is certainly not enough to say that Pissarro, the avowed and dedicated anarchist, "favoured certain socio-critical, anti-capitalist ideas" (97). Becker set up his position early, on the second page of his essay, when he referred to Pissarro's "_supposedly_ anarchistic connections" (39; my emphasis). I don't know what "supposedly" means; either his connections were anarchistic or not, and it is no secret that they decidedly _were_: Pissarro knew all the anarchist literature, subscribed to all the anarchist publications, and counted all the major anarchist theoreticians--Elisee Reclus, Jean Grave, Emile Pouget and Felix Feneon-- among his personal friends, not to mention the fact that, despite his own penury, he occasionally helped Grave financially and on at least two occasions personally paid for the printing of Grave's anarchist paper "Les Temps Nouveaux." What, one must ask, is "supposed" about such connections? And when he says that Pissarro's political thinking was "described by some as 'anarchist'" (102), he fails to mention that the artist himself was among those "some." But where Becker goes really off the track is in his trivialization of political anarchism into a kind of aesthetic outsiderdom: "Being an 'anarchist' meant occupying a position somewhat on the fringes of society and questioning social norms. Strictly speaking, in this context the adjective 'anarchist' meant 'avant-garde', and applied to all those who were in some sense aggressive or outspoken in their social and cultural-political attitudes" (97). One cannot simply conflate anarchism and avant-gardeism without doing serious injustice to both and severely distorting the historical record: the fifty-two anarchist sympathizers arrested by the French authorities in 1852 were not put on trial because they were part of an aesthetic avant-garde. I must say, though, to give Becker his due on the whole, that when he leaves such larger issues and concentrates on the paintings themselves, he demonstrates great ability to articulate what his discerning and sensitive eye is seeing.
The prestige attached to painting in oils, and Pissarro's success in that, can make us forget that he was adept in other media as well. In "Pissarro's Works on Paper," Barbara Stern Shapiro, our most informed expert on his graphic work, reminds us not only of the extent of his graphic oeuvre, but also of its great technical proficiency. The early drawings and lithographs showed great promise, and when in 1879 Pissarro started to work with Degas and Cassatt on a series of prints, Shapiro comments that Pissarro acquired a "brilliant set of new skills" (151), and the prints resulting from those years of collaboration she calls "triumphs of printmaking" (155) In the color etchings and woodcuts, Pissarro achieved "the same shimmering effects" as in his paintings (159); indeed, Shapiro credits Pissarro with originating the concept of "black and white impressionism" (167).
The fourth section of the book is Ralph Melcher's essay "Camille Pissarro and His Critics." It begins with Zola's Salon review of 1868, in which he devotes a good deal of discussion to the "Naturalists" and Pissarro's adherence to that manner. Interestingly, Melcher speculates that Zola, in paying so much heed to the relatively unknown Pissarro, was at least as much calling attention to himself as a young art critic as he was pointing to the painter. Nevertheless, Zola's comments established the categories with which later critics responded to Pissarro's works and, by extension, the "new painting" as a whole. Melcher traces the steps of the slowly evolving critical understanding of it in the writings of Felix Feneon and Octave Mirbeau--an understandably tricky undertaking, given Pissarro's own apparently seamless evolution from Impressionism through Neo-Impressionism to his late style, which the author calls a fluctuation "between the early, impasto surfaces of High Impressionism and the color-separations of Divisionism" (180).
The last part of the book, a "Catalogue of Works," goes beyond the identifying material accompanying the reproductions to an extensive apparatus providing provenance, list of exhibitions, and relevant specialized literature for all ninety-seven catalogue entries. The volume concludes with a select bibliography and an index of names and places. All in all, I would say this is a worthwhile, if not absolutely necessary, addition to one's library of Pissarro books.
on March 21, 2003
camille pissarro gets much less notice than many of his contemporaries -- renoir, monet, degas, cezanne, van gogh, sisley -- yet in many ways he's the most interesting and innovative of the lot. born and raised in the caribbean, he emigrated to france as a young adult and worked as a productive (though often near impoverished) artist for five decades. in that time many painting fashions came and went, yet pissarro was often at the forefront of them all. one of the founding impressionists, his paintings were early on more radical than other painters working at the time (his artistic convictions cost him dearly in market success); he befriended and mentored the likes of cezanne, gauguin, signac; he was among the first to apply the science of color vision to his painting, and with much more care and insight than the mechanical dotmaking of the neo-impressionists. his influence was vital to the development of 19th century painting and is brought to life in this well written and comprehensive survey. the many full page color reproductions of his beautiful, sensitive, skillful and continually evolving paintings show the depth of his artistic sentiment and insight. pissarro is a painter who looks better in the perspective of time, and this handsome study does him full justice.