Art's not easy

For an insight into the theorising and scientific nous that goes into fine art, head to Te Papa's Impressionist exhibition

Peter Conradi, in his life of Iris Murdoch, describes her shock, on going to teach at the Royal College of Art in London in 1963, at how little the students had read. Gifted as they were in painting and design, photography and lithography, the use of materials and tools, most of them were, in literary and intellectual terms, more or less illiterate.

Conradi writes of Murdoch being “shocked, fascinated, delighted and appalled . . . by [their] amorality and anarchism”. Trying to teach philosophy in a general studies course in what the students called “the Department of Words” turned out to be almost impossible. These were the very best of the young art and design students in Britain at a time of rapid social change—people like Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes, Hylan Booker, Janice Wainwright and Ian Dury—yet their grip on ideas, the transformative power of literature, written history, philosophy and social science was virtually non-existent. Nor did it interest them.

I am reminded of this every time that I go to see another example of contemporary installation art or multi-media work of the confrontational kind. Conceptual art the museum gurus call it. Yet it invariably consists of concepts so dull, and so ignorant of what has already been thought, as to be embarrassing as well as banal. The same recollection occurs when I read in a newspaper comments like those recently attributed to Francis Upritchard. “Art’s really easy,” she is reported to have said. “It doesn’t matter if you like it or not. You can just look at it and maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. People get wound up about it, but I think art’s like literature: you like some things, you don’t like some things.” It is hard to get so many errors of fact into a short statement, but I don’t imagine such comments would have surprised Iris Murdoch all that much after her four years of struggle at the RCA.

Art is not really easy. Just looking and liking (or not) is no substitute for analysis and understanding, from which liking, and the satisfactions that it brings, may flow. And art (painting, sculpture, music, and so on) is nothing much like literature which, in case it’s been forgotten, is made of words placed in extended series. It doesn’t take long, or much money, to figure these things out. Te Papa has a small but evocative exhibition of Impressionist paintings, half of them by Monet, supplemented by 24 canvasses by contemporaries that include a splendid Cezanne self-portrait, two luminous works by Alfred Sisley, and a selection of pieces by Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Corot, Manet and even one work by Courbet, all drawn from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. An hour or two in this company is indicative of the great changes that have overtaken the field of visual art in the western world over the last 150 years.

For Monet and his contemporaries, considered revolutionaries in the mid to late 19th century, were not just innovators in the way that they handled paint. Nor were they simply careless bohemians intent on shocking contemporary taste by their working habits and techniques—the departure from the studio to work out of doors, for instance. Nor were they iconoclasts pulling the tail of the Academy to announce the arrival of a new wave of self-promoters. Serious artists who for most of their careers paid dearly for their deviation from the established orthodoxy, they were also greatly influenced by ideas drawn from both philosophy and from science. Their interest in light was not merely visual, but based on an understanding of the physics of light waves and an interest in the new science of optics. Their fascination with and use of paint to evoke rather than describe or delineate was intended to draw the observer into the work as participant in the business of perception, rather than remaining the isolated recipient of a didactic statement, however artful in composition. They were read in the new philosophies of socialism, in particular Saint-Simon and Pierre Leroux. They were familiar with the ideas about time of their contemporary Bergson. Like you, I hold no brief for Bergson’s views on duration, instinct or perception, but it remains the case that a better appreciation of French Impressionism depends on at least an attempt at understanding his philosophy. Clearly, this kind of art is not easy, either for the makers of it, or for its audience.

For many people chocolate box lids have turned Impressionism into kitsch. This is not just the result of familiarity, but also the consequence of poor reproduction, flattening depth not just of painting but of meaning into two dimensions, and draining both of their power to expand our understanding. This is why you have to go and see the paintings themselves. Look hard at Monet’s Flower beds at Vétheuil, at how the palette of colour in the foreground is worked quite differently from the brush strokes of the background landscape, how the eye is carried to the barely intimated figures in a boat in the centre right, and how their presence sets up a tension between the tranquillity and civility of the scene and the mystery of the human presence. Here there are two paintings: a foreground still life en plein air and a background landscape that might have come from the studio. So a reversal of expectations. And what of those people in the boat? And what does the difference in paint, the space between foreground and background, tell us about the duration of time that engulfs the figures?

Each painting in this fine exhibition is an object of contemplation worthy of study. Art isn’t easy, but it is wonderfully enjoyable. And the pleasure to be derived from it more than repays the effort. There is a competent catalogue from the National Gallery of New South Wales—which had this exhibition before us—and which contains an interesting essay by Te Papa’s Jonathan Mane-Wheoki on industrialisation. Useful as it is, however, don’t trust the reproductions. They are nothing to compare with the originals.

And after Monet, take the lift to Te Papa’s sixth floor sculpture terrace and spend a little time with Ronnie van Hout’s installation A Loss, again—one shed, two sheds (2008). A subject, and object, to which I will return.