In 1870/71 and years immediately following, French artists arrived in London to escape the horrors of violence and destruction in their own country. This was the result of the Prussian siege of Paris and the defeat of the French army. The humiliating surrender terms helped prompt the radical insurrection of the Paris Commune, which in turn led to its brutal suppression, culminating in “la semaine sanglante” and the wholesale slaughter of the Communards by French government forces. Artists were faced with a depressing situation and its adverse effects on their earnings. Others were more directly affected: the Prussian army turned Pissarro’s family home into stables, and the same army ransacked Sisley’s house.
This Tate Britain exhibition not only presents Impressionists, but also work by other non-Impressionist artists. There is, considering the title of the exhibition, a little too much of what at times seems like padding. Nevertheless it provides an interesting and wider context of exile, showing that refugee artists needed support networks. Ones evolved that were the French helping each other, an example being those who had attended the “Petite Ècole”. Legros, who had settled successfully in London earlier, in 1863, was the focal point for this French artists’ version of the “old school tie”.
In 1870, Paul Durand-Ruel, who has his own historic role as the most important art dealer for Impressionism, moved to London and opened a gallery in New Bond Street. While Daubigny (one of Durand-Ruel’s artists) was painting by the Thames, he encountered another, younger French artist also painting there: it was Monet, twenty-nine years old and evading military conscription. In an early room of the exhibition is a crucial moment of a painting by each artist depicting a Thames-side scene. It was in London, and through this meeting, that Durand-Ruel took Monet onto his roster, its self massively significant. Monet’s stay, though, was not a happy one: he had work rejected by the Royal Academy and failed to sell a single painting. The portrait of his wife, Camille, ‘Meditation, Mrs Monet Sitting on a Sofa’ (1870) embodies the dislocation of exile. This is in sharp contrast to Tissot, who effortlessly stepped from one success in Paris to another in London. His network was essentially wealthy English supporters and collectors, and he ended up buying a smart house in St John’s Wood, staying on until 1882. Not an Impressionist at all, his figures now look as if they were Photoshopped onto their backgrounds: “Monsieur Tissot, did you time travel and discover the Magnetic Lasso Tool?”
It is in the final rooms that the exhibition comes alive with some wonderful Impressionist paintings. Pissarro and Sisley in particular, who enjoyed, as outsiders, some of England’s sporting quirkiness (regattas and cricket) and the expansive parks not present in Paris, seem at ease and the work blossoms, literally with Pissarro’s gorgeous ‘Kew Gardens, Rhododendron Dell’ (painted on one of his returns to London in the 1890s). In other paintings, Pissarro achieved soft, subtle effects: shimmering light and colours from a combination of Pointillism and Impressionist brush strokes. There are two paintings by Pissarro of cricket matches, of which he became something of a devotee, later playing it with his children in France.
And what of Monet? He returned to London, successful and wealthy, in 1899, 1900 and 1901: each time staying at the Savoy. Some of the Thames Series he produced during these visits make a superb and triumphant penultimate room. There is also his stunning depiction of Leicester Square, jolting us into a twentieth century Modernist aesthetic.
The final room is presented as a coda, with Derain, at the encouragement of his dealer, paying homage to Monet’s Thames Series with full-on Fauvism. Was this necessary? It would have been better, I think, to end with Monet.
Tate Britain’s exhibition demonstrates, in a way writ large, the positive benefits from providing a place of safety for refugees, and helps us to acknowledge that it remains a privilege being the country to which these brilliant and innovative artists came.
About the reviewerRobert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. One of his designs will be included in a book about Leeds Postcards, to be published in 2018 by Four Corners Books. He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists.