Attending the art appreciation lecture by Sir Bryan Anthony Paraiso on Understanding French Impressionism was an exciting learning experience. It was the first time I was able to access the Filipino society of visual arts connoisseurs. The event was also a good opportunity for me to further understand the birth, influence, and the cessation of an artistic movement, specifically Impressionism. The lecture was the pilot presentation of a series of talks organised by Ayala Museum and Alliance Française de Manille. With countless distinctions under his belt, no other person is more qualified to discuss the topic aside from Paraiso. He is the Supervising Historic Sites Development Officer of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) and NHCP representative to the National Committee on Museums (NCOM) of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). His broad knowledge on the subject of art criticism is apparent in his manner of explaining how Impressionism emerged and influenced succeeding artistic movements.
The volume of attendees surprised me as much as it did Paraiso. He was overwhelmed when his supposed ‘intimate crowd’ turned into a full house. I arrived at the venue at 3 PM which was the exact start of the lecture. Because of the unexpected number of participants, the organisers decided to adjust the start of the program a few minutes later than scheduled. Walk-in participants like me were ushered in a different section of the hall with just a fair view of the speaker. Guests were served with coffee courtesy of The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and were also given a complimentary museum admission.
I was a total neophyte in the discipline of visual art criticism. Although I am familiar with the literary movements from different historical periods (e.g. Romanticism, Realism, Victorian), I am convinced that art movements are completely different. This is apparently an ingenuous observation. Paraiso’s lecture not only exposed my consciousness to some foreign concepts but also bridged the gap between my knowledge in literature and visual arts. He began by defining two key movements which influenced Impressionism, namely Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Neoclassicism relates to artworks inspired by classical antiquity, symmetry, and one’s value or duty to the state. One prominent example of a neoclassical work is The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David.
Meanwhile, Romanticism is an art movement which focuses on expressiveness rather than classical restraint. This definition of Romanticism is the reason why I believe the term ‘romantic’ is severely hijacked by people who conservatively use it to describe cheesy scenes from KathNiel and JaDine. This is offensive for educated art enthusiasts, especially that being romantic is something way more than scripted smooches. A famous romantic painting is the Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, an image that is widely associated with the French Revolution.
The Birth of French Impressionism
Paris has displayed an impressive level of resilience after the bitter defeat of France during the Franco-Prussian War and the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. During the latter part of the 19th Century, the city had undergone a transformation, from a medieval community to an urbane and modern metropolis. The change of the physical attributes of Paris came with a change in ideologies. While pre-existing artistic styles during that time are still decently patronised, some celebrated names of the industry felt the urge to explore a new approach. This is my favourite element of the birth of French Impressionism: the sense of bizarre interest and rebellious eagerness.
In 1874, a motley group of artists challenged the standards of Academie des Beaux-Arts, an arts institution which conducted a celebrated art exhibition called the Salon. The annual event chose and recognized exemplary artworks conforming to the refined neo-classical and romanticist styles. The group of revolutionary artists dubbed themselves as Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc. (Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs etc.). Claude Monet, Camille Passaro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Arman Guillaumin, Berthe Morisot, and Alfred Sisley are the members of the group. Their insatiable attitude inspired me to always look at what is beyond the dictated norms of society because that is what creativity truly means. The painters launched their own exhibit as a gesture of their independence from the official Salon, making the birth of French Impressionism nothing less than revolutionary.
I appreciate Paraiso when he explained the initial challenges encountered by impressionists. He quoted a scathing statement from Louis Leroy, a journalist for the satirical newspaper Le Charivari. Leroy claimed that the artworks of impressionists display an ease of workmanship, suggesting they are somehow less intricate compared to other paintings of a different approach. He openly mocked Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, saying ‘[a] Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.’ Despite the attack, Leroy is an important figure in the narrative, being the person who coined the term Impressionists.
Master Impressionists of Paris
Paraiso named the key figures in the movement of Impressionism, as well as their famous artworks. His clear and insightful explanation of the subject can enlighten either a layman or arts scholar, without unnecessary complications in between. According to him, impressionists opted to depict scenes from everyday life and aimed to capture the momentary, sensory effect of atmospheric light and colour on a landscape or scene. They abandoned the traditional way of painting inside a studio and explored the beauty of creating en plein air (out in the open). Paraiso further explained that prior to the conception of Impressionism, sceneries were considered only a portion of a painting but not an actual subject itself. Therefore, I consider Impressionism as a blunt attempt to turn the attention of the public to the less noticed yet equally vital aspect of a painting–the landscape.
The speaker discussed the lives and works of six Impressionists, with Claude Monet being the most significant for me. It was his creations which encouraged me to attend the lecture in the first place. As a founding member of the Impressionists, he practised plein air painting because he advocated the direct observation and study of nature. He also documented how colour was affected by the swiftly shifting effects of light and shadow. The Water Lily Pond is a Monet classic which is the featured image in the lecture’s promotional materials.
In terms of chosen subjects, Impressionism can get controversial as well. Although generally regarded as a Realist painter, Édouard Manet adopted the spontaneous and loose brushwork effects of alla prima technique in his paintings of modern life. Manet’s Olympia received a rather critical reception due to its explicit subject. His Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe also copped some raised eyebrows for the same reason. However, Paraiso pointed out that the two artworks were actually inspired by neoclassical paintings. The resemblance of Olympia and the Venus of Urbino by Titian is strong enough to confuse someone in telling which is which.
The reign of Impressionism ended when artists decided to try other techniques and style. This tells so much about the cycle of ideologies in the creative sphere, how old schools of thought paved the way for fresh and novel pursuits. Indeed, Impressionism had a far-reaching impact on the development of innovative styles during the early 20th Century such as Expressionism, Abstraction, and Cubism.
The last part of Paraiso’s presentation was dedicated to the influence of Impressionism to local masters like Juan Luna and Felix Hidalgo. As he projected the paintings of the Filipino artists, I realised the importance of knowing the origin of a certain approach in order to create our own unique way of artistic expression. Luna and Hidalgo have their own taste and style but they learned to adopt foreign techniques without compromising their roots. Perhaps that is also one of my reasons why I decided to attend the lecture. While it is true that originality is important, taking a cue from the masters is a helpful way to grow as an artist.
I am not a painter and nothing more than an occasional sketcher. I know I will never be on par with my friends who can create actual paintings and impressive drawings. But the principles I learned from French Impressionism transcend art forms, making it applicable in disciplines like literature (something I am more inclined to).
Before leaving, I approached Paraiso to ask him a question I have always been pondering as an aspiring professional art critic: How do you classify an artwork according to its respective art movement? He said words like Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and Impressionism did not actually exist during the time they were introduced. It was art critics who coined those terms as they study artworks years after they were created. Hence, the role of a critic is something more subliminal than simply giving exaggerated praises and looking for some flaws. So maybe the next time I visit a museum, I would consider inventing my own –ism.