Storie dell’Impressionismo at Museo di Santa Caterina, Treviso

The soul of this exhibition are the stories of Impressionism, the manifold narratives that Impressionism was able to unfold throughout the history of art, in the 19th and early 20th century. Turning 20 this year, the organisation ‘Linea d’ombra’ comes back to its city of origin, Treviso, to cast a new, fresh light onto a groundbreaking artistic movement. The director and curator of the exhibition is art historian Marco Goldin. The artists on display span from Degas to Gauguin, from Corot to Van Gogh, without forgetting Renoir, Manet, and Pissarro. Indeed, the high-quality material to create a compelling exhibition is all there. And while at times the impression is one of haphazardness and lack of cohesion, this is certainly an exhibition that leaves its mark.

Arranged alternately by theme and chronologically, the exhibition investigates portraits, landscapes, and still lives. The section ‘Lo sguardo e il silenzio’ (‘The look and silence’)  paradoxically resonated with the individual voices and personalities of the sitters. Paintings such as Manet’s ‘Le petit Lange’ (1861) is a paramount example. The deep, almost liquid eyes of the young boy, his rosy cheeks and his delicate features express the nature of childhood like no photography will ever do. Another Manet, ‘Portrait de Faure dans le rôle d’Hamlet’ (1877) portrays the energetic and at the same time self-effacing personality of an actor on stage. The section makes clear that even before Impressionism, painters were able to capture the ‘impression’ of the people they chose to portray. The notion of faces like ‘the effigy to entrust to time’ (Goldin) as well as the primary way to communicate a person’s character to the world (and to the viewers), is well-explored.

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Edouard Manet, ‘Le petit Lange’ (1861)

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Edouard Manet, ‘Portrait de Faure dans le rôle d’Hamlet’ (1877)

By contrast, the section ‘La posa delle cose’ (‘The pose of things’) seems to have less to tell. Goldin tries to make a metaphysical point of painting ‘blocking with its absoluteness the mystery of still life’. However, the individual Cézanne’s, Manet’s and Van Gogh’s, albeit remarkable in themselves, fail to convey a clear message. ‘The pose  of things’ ends up being nothing but a collation of fragments, leaving the audience to wonder what is the thread actually holding them together.

Unsurprisingly, the most successful sections are those devoted to landscapes. While at times it is not absolutely clear what is the criterion adopted to include this or that picture in this or that room, and the panels with Goldin’s words sometimes feel a bit far-fetched, landscapes are certainly the area that gives this exhibition its true soul. Pulling out from world-renowned museum collections pieces such as  Renoir’s ‘Les moissonneurs’ (1873), Manet’s ‘Hirondelles’ (1873), and Morisot’s ‘Femme et enfant dans le jardin a Bougival’ (1881), the exhibition brings together the hard work of harvesters; the texture of hay heaped in bundles; the breeze-swept grass; the soft, wrapping foliage; the intimacy between the two women on the meadow or the young lady and her child. These, showcased in the same room as Van Gogh’s ‘Cypresses with two figures’ (1889), give a full sense of what Impressionism can do when people are portrayed in outdoors spaces, when painters seek and attain ‘a harmony between figure and nature’ (Goldin). When reality is observed and rendered by Impressionist eyes and brushes, the pinnacles of creativity and aesthetics are reached.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ‘Les moissonneurs’ (1873)

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Edouard Manet’s ‘Hirondelles’ (1873)

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Berthe Morisot, ‘Femme et enfant dans le jardin a Bougival’ (1881)

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Van Gogh, ‘Cypresses with two figures’ (1889)

In many ways, the exhibition as a whole felt a lot like an impressionist painting: dotted, with touches of inspiration, but failing to work as a cohesive whole if looked too closely. When confronted with an impressionist work, our eyes inevitably wander from one corner to the other, now focusing on a specific brushstroke, now trying to grasp the overall meaning. Impressionism is crucially about feelings and ‘impressions’ – it is about conveying a specific sensation of a specific moment. Goldin certainly uses his own sensations as a guide in this exhibition, and seeks to arouse in the viewers a love for beauty akin to his. But while this succeeds in some, scattered moments, when one or two works of art strike for being put together as they are, or when a phrase illuminates the work of an artist, at times the ‘canvas’ of the exhibition appears a collation of patches, relying too much on personal feelings, and lacking the rigour of an honest aesthetic quête.

Some curatorial choices are real successes, for example presenting in sequence a photograph by Le Grey, a Japanese print, and a work by Monet, all three portraying the sea, to see how they compare. Others, however, are more debatable: the numerous Nipponian works displayed in other rooms seems unnecessary. Marco Goldin’s story-telling is charming and seducing, but at traits one can’t help but wondering whether he really means what he writes. Ironically, perhaps the best part of the exhibition is its end. The final rooms feel genuinely like the conclusion of the story, or stories, of Impressionism. In Goldin’s words, by the end of its course, ‘l’impressionismo è diventato una cosa del tutto diversa dalla sua origine, avendo abbracciato fino in fondo le ragioni estetiche, filosofiche e di linguaggio del nuovo secolo’ (‘Impressionism became something completely different from what it was in its origin, having embraced wholeheartedly the aesthetics, philosophy, and language of the new century’). Which brings to a close an exhibition that is a journey, an exploration, a wandering, a maze, but still valuable for this very reason.

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