Friday, 22 September 2006


I hadn’t laughed as much at an impressionist since watching Mike Yarwood doing Denis Healey about 20 years ago. The BBC1 series The Impressionists (usefully titled in case you happened to doze off during the three-part series and need reminding what you were watching when you woke up) was presumably supposed to be fulfilling some arts remit, but it certainly gave us plenty of comic relief. It became, in fact, must-watch TV just because it was so painfully, blissfully awful.

Impressionism is as bankable as art gets. If a gallery needs a crown puller, they get a few Monets together and then look around for a Renoir, Bazille, Sisley and Morisot, and then a few works by the guys around the edges, who weren’t really Impressionists, like Degas and Cézanne. These artists are to galleries what the face of the Princess of Wales is to front page of the tabloids. They pull the punters in. How could the BBC possibly go wrong?

The problem perhaps stemmed from the way the story of the movement was told in a series of flashbacks to an aged Claude Monet – played by Julian Glover – as he talks to a journalist in his garden at Giverny. His voiceovers, emerging through a soundtrack reminiscent of one of the more saccharine programmes on Classic FM, showed supremely well how we tend to rewrite history when we look back at our past. No believable conversation took place at all between the young painters.

The clichés washed over the script like waves over the beach at Le Havre. “This will be my greatest painting yet!” says Manet. “These are terrible times,” says Mrs Manet, who underlined this by dying soon afterwards. Paintings were unveiled in galleries to cries of “It’s a masterpiece!”, although not, at first, anything by an Impressionist as they were still considered cack-handed daubers by the big wigs at the state-run Salon. (A touch of makeup and the Marquis de Chennevières would have been a dead ringer for Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman.) Artists saw the sunrise from their bedroom and ran to the clifftops to paint the glorious reflective effects on the surface of La Manche with their nightshirts still on.

Despite the mirth, what was really disappointing about The Impressionists was that here were three hours of Sunday night television given over to painting, and it told us less than nothing about a movement already mired in misconceptions. Indeed, The Impressionists seemed to have been made by people who had no experience or knowledge of art to ensure that there was no chance of it being in any way elitist or highbrow. (In the same way, Rolf on Art seemed to be aimed at fans of his Animal Hospital rather than anyone with an interest in art, in an attempt to boost ratings.)

If you’re not going to make a series that is going to help you look at something anew, then why bother? There are plenty of other movements in art, not yet bogged down in the misconceptions of Impressionism, that could have made more interesting and enlightening viewing.

An exhibition now at the National Gallery takes a look at this mythologising of the life of artists. Rebels and Martyrs: The Artist in the Nineteenth Century (until 28 August) looks at the way artists came to be seen as heroic and rebellious, misunderstood and suffering, and stuck in a garret. It’s an enduring stereotype that clings on despite the fact that marketing acumen are as important as painterly skills for art graduates now.

I saw three films about artists not long before I decided to apply to art college. One was Running Fence, the story of how the artist Christo negotiated his way to running a fabric fence across 24 miles of Californian wilderness. One was an interview with the painter Frank Auerbach. The other was that of Picasso filmed from beneath while painting on glass. They helped make me want to be an artist. There were no gushing strings. There was nothing remotely romantic about any of them. They showed artists to be lively, provocative and creative. Everything that The Impressionists was not.

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