Thursday 7 October 2010

A dance of light

Following on from my previous post (The Sea, the Sea), it is worth noting that G.K. Chesterton had a very different and less sympathetic impression of Impressionism. To quote Fr Aidan Nichols' brilliant study, G.K. Chesterton, Theologian:
At the Slade Chesterton also acquired an extremely hostile attitude to the painterly mode called Impressionism, a hostility that not only later defined much of his attitude to art at large but was formative for the development of his realism in metaphysics. Consider his 1907 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. As Gabriel Syme, fleeing from the agents of Sunday, dives into a patch of woodland, the play of light and shade on the leaves causes him to muse:
Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sunsplashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing the modern people called Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.
'The identification of Impressionism as a symptom of cultural and, especially, epistemological decadence also finds expression in, for example, his 1910 study of William Blake. Seeking to express how for Blake lucidity and decisiveness of outline were the chief desiderata in draftsmanship, Chesterton risks the anachronism of writing that “the thing he hated most in art was the thing which we now call Impressionism — the substitution of atmosphere for shape, the sacrifice of form to tint, the cloudland of the mere colorist.” 
I think Chesterton had a point - there are tendencies of that sort in Impressionism, although I see in several of the impressionists a very different spirit, and Claude Monet (one of whose pictures is reproduced above) I would even call a mystical realist, which is something very different from a sceptic. As for Blake, Chesterton's study of him will be the subject of a future post.

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