Most lovers of impressionist painting would not agree the view that the purpose of impressionism is irony. Most impressionist painters, living as they did in the extremely unironic 19th century, would probably be offended by the view that they were ironists. If we saw them as they saw themselves, the purpose of their painting was probably to express pleasure, and painting as they did during what is still the most secure period of peace and prosperity in European history, there was more pleasure than at any point in the existence of Europe. And yet among the great powers, France seemed virtually alone in containing a widespread desire among its artists to express the joys of that peace. The music of Germany and Austria grew ever louder and more violent, the literature of Russia turned inward to expose the sicknesses of the soul, the poetry of England grew ever more morbid, and in turn, the artists of these cold-climated powers began to influence each other while (obviously with exceptions) French culture stayed fundamentally lucid, balanced, and elegant. While other countries had premonitions of the sickness that would soon devour the entire continent, France alone expressed the health and hale of the era. But in taking a small fraction of the human condition, perhaps the most pleasant part, they shared quite a bit with other cultural figures of their day who began the process of atomizing human existence to its smallest divisions.
I have no idea how many experts it strikes as strange in the extreme that Manet and the poet Baudelaire were close friends, but that’s one of those facts from history that is seriously weird. Baudelaire is the great poet of sickness and depravity who celebrated necrophilia, the exhilaration of anonymous violence, prostitution, sexual fetishes, and (gasp!) lesbianism - poems whose strengths and weaknesses still confuse me, but many of which are nearly as shocking and visceral today as they were when they were written. Manet is a painter who poeticizes pleasures of the flesh - healthy young Bohemians in their prime who would not seem out of place on The Avenue in Hampden. They might be attracted to the netherworld of Baudelaire (or David Simon), but only because it is a world from which they are completely removed; even if it’s five blocks away.
What binds artists of health like Manet with artists of sickness like Baudelaire is irony - which technically means the expression of a meaning by expressing the opposite. In Baudelaire’s case, he brings us closer to the world of depravity by emphasizing that what seems depraved within all of us is in fact perfectly natural. In Manet’s case, those healthy pleasures are viewed with a distorted, almost cruel, eye. Our bo-bo (bourgeois bohemian) ancestors from 19th century Paris look desperately bored and unhappy, with complexions that aren’t quite right and details that are beginning to become obscured. With Manet, we begin to find that detailed individuality of faces which have been so crucial since Rembrandt is beginning to disappear. Manet begins to draw the faces of his subjects so that they look more alike, ‘This one, that one, it doesn’t matter.’ In this world of Paris, the primal depravities which should repel us make us happy, while the activities of contentment bring us no happiness at all. Could it be that Baudelaire is in fact the poet of health and Manet the painter of sickness?
Meanwhile, there’s no doubt about the enjoyment in Renoir. But there’s something sickly sweet, almost diabetic, about that enjoyment. Enjoyment to the exclusion of everything else. It’s not ironic, it’s just not very good. Technically, his paintings are magnificent. But everybody looks like they’re enjoying themselves and are completely indifferent to the thought that people outside their little circle might be suffering. In their place is kind of creepy happiness, with lots of fat women who enjoy bathing nude and little girls who seem perfectly fine when left unattended. It’s like any number of Disney movies with characters who are obnoxiously happy and the annoying people who love them because they want so desperately to believe that such a vision is the way life ought to be. It’s not ironic, it’s just a demonstration of why irony is necessary.
The next level of distortion and irony comes from Monet. The trick which all painters indulged in - that expression comes from the subject itself rather than the painter - is completely removed by Monet. In Manet, the distinctiveness of people’s faces are obscured, but in Monet, we can’t even notice a person’s individuality. To a degree we’ve barely seen since the high Renaissance, individual people don’t matter. After Monet, human expression itself need no longer be a priority. Beneath all those pleasing shades is a deeply distubing implication - that each of us no more individual than a bunch of wires and deserve no more distinct a rendering than to be part of a great wash of color in which person, place, and thing, are all a mere cog in the wheel. Had Monet taken up with a different group of painters, perhaps he’d have discovered the ascetic machine-worship of Futurism a generation before Boccioni.
And yet even Monet’s irony must take a back seat to Cezanne, Impressionism’s ultimate painter, and the culmination to which the entire movement leads. Cezanne is like the formation of a black hole; a grand cosmic event, utterly mysterious and beautiful, and leaving a vacuum of darkness in his wake. The people in his art all look vaguely like they have Down Syndrome. Every one of them is invested with Cezanne’s personal serial number, and they are all part of his attempt to bring to the canvas all those features of seeing which nobody should be expected to notice unless they look far more closely at a canvas than any viewer who values his eyesight should look. Objects in Cezanne paintings are like a triskiadekaduple exposed photograph, in which we see precisely the same objects at various points which depend on what the light shows, what our eye captures, how much it’s rotted over the course of a day, and how many layers of dust have accumulated, and all of them exaggerated to a point where every little bit of weirdness is drawn out. Nature is not nature in Cezanne, it’s a fantasy world. Cezanne’s world is a world like ours if everything were completely askew. His paintings are beyond irony, they are like the absolute zero of modern art - after looking at his paintings, it’s difficult to take any other emotion on the canvas seriously but irony.
There is nothing wrong with irony. Like every other sentiment, it is perfectly fine when mixed with other emotions. But when kept to itself the expression of irony becomes too disturbing for prolonged contemplation (I’m getting antsy just writing this article). All one has to do is look at the variegated expression of their great predecessor, Gustave Courbet, to see the diversity of vision they lack. Courbet is called a ‘realist’, but if realism means capturing so much of the world’s complexity - tragedy and comedy, rich people and poor people, realism and surrealism, then sign me up for more realism to the end of time. And if you think irony and surrealism are precluded in a realist approach, all you have to do is look at his painting of ‘The Origin of the World’ to see something that can still make you laugh (hint: it’s a hoohah).
When going to the Musee d’Orsay, I found myself returning again and again to the Van Gogh rooms. Van Gogh is very much an artist who believed in individual expression, and perhaps he believed in it more fervently than any other great artist in history. He came to the Impressionist circles looking for a means to express more i, but he was handed the tools to destroy expression. In his paintings we see a soul who only knows how to be hyper-expressive. What is used by the impressionists to express irony is used by Van Gogh to express absolutes of horror and ecstasy. The Church at Auvers looks like it could be a standin for the mansion next to the Bates Motel. The sunrise in The Sower looks bright enough to dissolve the world in ash. Whereas Monet and Cezanne used anonymous faces to express the insignificance of people, Van Gogh used it to express horror that a human being’s individuality could be so crushed. And in perhaps his most painful painting, all we see of a human face is an old man’s bald forehead, his head buried in his hands in the Sorrowing Old Man ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ as he sits next to a collection of singlar red brushstrokes meant to convey fire (is it a taste of hell’s flames?). The entirety of the corpus of works by Van Gogh which the world loves (basically the last four years of his life) can be seen as a howl of protest against the very people who gave him the techniques he required to protest against them. Is it too fanciful to speculate that this particular contradiction was ultimately what drove him insane? Van Gogh saw nothing but vacuous, unfulfilling, unecstatic pleasure - pleasure which as an hallucinatory manic-depressive he could neither partake in nor would it give him enjoyment if he could. Therefore he used the tools at his disposal to sound a warning against the inhuman direction to which this unalloyed pleasure was leading - it was a warning taken up in different places and different artforms by Mahler, by Dostoevsky, by Yeats, by Kafka, by Carl Nielsen. The very tools of modernism were being used as a warning against it, as a clarion call to mind what happens when we disregard the human in one another.
(there will definitely be a part 3...)