Not just about sunny river banks

    Think you know all about impressionism and its chocolate-box image? Think again. The movement was revolutionary

    Have you ever chased a butterfly? They never go in the direction you think they are going to go in. Gainsborough painted his daughters trying to catch a tiny cabbage white in a delightful painting that hangs in the National Gallery. The two girls charge after a fluttering white speck with their arms waving hopelessly.

    That is how I felt while making my television series on the impressionists: like Gainsborough’s daughters.

    It’s not that impressionism was deliberately elusive. It didn’t set out to be difficult or to resist your full understanding in the way surrealism did. Impressionism, the first greatism, is elusive because it never properly existed. Or, rather, it existed in such a flickery and faint form that, like a fluttering cabbage white, you can only see it when the light is right. Chasing after it is a mug’s game. So say hello to Mr Mug.

    I dwell on impressionism’s elusiveness not as an early excuse — I happily admit that not all the dots will or can join up in my series — but because so many others do not seem to feel it. For others, impressionism is horribly tangible already. They think they know it well. Too well.

    In some quarters, the mere mention of impressionism triggers yawns. In some opinions, impressionism has already committed the gravest sin a cultural phenomenon can commit in the modern world: it has become boring.

    Intelligent people think this. This paper’s television critic, AA Gill, who fancies himself as an occasional opiner about art, is one of the reasons I made the series. Adrian’s father was probably the greatest television director Britain has produced. Michael Gill directed Civilisation, with Kenneth Clark. He practically invented the authored documentary: my genre. When Adrian has one of his hissy fits in his TV column about the “Tristrams” running the BBC today, one of the things he is doing is hitting back at them on behalf of his dad. All this I respect. To have Michael Gill as your papa is an honour. But in one of his asides about art, Adrian wrote something once that branded itself in my memory. Impressionism was boring, he moaned, binning the whole movement like a piece of crumpled fax paper. He never wanted to see another French river bank. Goodbye, Monet.

    This is like saying that you already know everything about Shakespeare and never want to hear another word about Macbeth. It’s like thinking you understand Beethoven. Or having enough of Michelangelo. Frankly, it is preposterous. One tiny reason I made this series was to encourage a thimbleful of seriousness in TV criticism. The bigger reason was my own frustrated obsession with this magnificently boundless art. Wherever you chase after impressionism, it darts off somewhere else.

    Monet was an impressionist. But so was Degas. Monet painted outdoors. Degas painted indoors. Except when Monet painted indoors and Degas painted outdoors. And what did Renoir and Cézanne have in common? Or Gauguin and Marie Bracquemond? Some impressionists painted sunny river banks. Others painted lonely women in dark rooms; or bored women in crowded ones, like the ladies in Mary Cassatt’s In the Box. Monet’s Bridge at Bougival is an impressionist masterpiece. But so is his portrayal of his wife dying of consumption. And that other strange portrait of her dressed up as a Japanese geisha. Which particular aspect of impressionism is it that bores you?

    One of my other ambitions was to deal with lesser-known impressionists. In the first film, I enjoy the achievements of Frédéric Bazille, who had the original idea of forming a gang of painters who would show their work together. Bazille died young, and only just had time to invent outdoor figure painting and to produce a couple of light-filled masterpieces. In another film, I examine Gustave Caillebotte, whose dark and mysterious Floor Scrapers shows three chaps with their tops off, scrubbing away at a dark wooden floor. Where is the impressionist message in that?

    These days, most people who are interested in art have at least heard of Bazille and Caillebotte. But does anyone have any clue who Louis LaTouche was? Or Antoine-Ferdinand Attendu? Or Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic? All three were in the first impressionist exhibition of 1874. I never found out anything about them. Obscurity has swallowed them whole. Their contribution will have to wait until the next impressionism series. Or the one after.

    The point is, we who think we know everything about impressionism know very little. Impressionism cannot be boring because nothing concrete enough is known about it yet to be bored with.

    What does exist — and this is the real enemy — is an utterly misleading set of preconceptions. They exist. And they need to be challenged.

    For instance, film two of my series is specifically about the impressionists outdoors. This is the film that set out to deal with the supposed sunny river banks and the happy boating on the Seine. It turned out to be the most difficult film to make. Because most of these sunny river banks do not actually exist. Yes, the impressionists painted the Seine a lot; Monet, in particular, was obsessed with water. But will somebody please find me a typical boating scene by him, showing happy couples on the river larking about on a sunny day?

    I can see an example in my mind really clearly, but in actual art, in a museum, in Monet’s oeuvre, it does not exist.

    When Monet painted the Seine, he painted the river flooding. Or freezing over. Or with dirty barge folk piling black coal onto its boats. If he painted a bridge across the Seine, there would be a funny little train puffing over it. When he does paint pleasure boats, they usually bob about on the water, empty, with melancholic lassitude. Further down the river, at Bougival, he shows the aggressive village housing crowding onto the water’s edge, or the working women hustling about with their laundry. Still no happy couple boating. It’s really frustrating. There you are looking for a typical Monet, and the damn thing was never painted.

    In the first impressionist show, of 1874, there were 30 artists. Cézanne was in it, though heaven knows why. At the time, he was mostly painting dark brothel fantasies or strange, blocky portraits of his father, done with a palette knife. The old beach painter, Boudin, was there too, persuaded to join by Monet. Degas showed some horse pictures. Renoir had some portraits. Marie’s husband, Félix Bracquemond, displayed his etchings. I don’t know what Pierre-Isidore Bureau showed, or Adolphe-Félix Cals, because they too have dis appeared. Blipped off art history’s radar.

    The ones who have survived were a raggle-taggle bunch of frustrating multi-directionists, representing all age groups, all religions, all genders. The only thing that united them was a shared hatred of the French salon system: the game you had to play to get ahead. The salon system controlled your progress in the French art world as efficiently as one of David Cameron’s candidate lists. It was the equivalent of Tate Modern today, a governmentally supported art establishment that enforced the rules of modern art ruthlessly. Art had fallen into the hands of the gatekeepers. The impressionists were determined to snatch it back.

    In film one of my series, which is about the origins of impressionism, I make a determined effort to big up Pissarro. He’s my hero. The unspectacular impressionist, Pissarro painted the simplest orchard scenes and the quietest garden corners. He was also a bonkers anarchist, an irresponsible social deviant and a man with a weird set of Jewish roots. Born in the West Indies, he was the son of his own auntie. His father had married his uncle’s widow when he came to the West Indies. According to the second commandment, Jews were not supposed to make art — the commandment specifically forbids it. But when your father is tupping your auntie, the rule book gets torn up, doesn’t it? Not only did Pissarro become an artist, he was the only painter to show in all the impressionist exhibitions.

    Altogether, the impressionists had eight shows. And that’s it. Eight shows that changed art. They were held in some really grubby places. Restaurants. The back rooms of offices. Somebody’s flat. An empty photography studio. These were tiny events, taking place in tiny venues. One of the scenes I shot for the series has me rushing around Paris on foot, trying to see how long it takes me to get between the different exhibition locations. Unfortunately, that scene didn’t make the final cut, but you can see a shorter version of it on the Sunday Times website: me, looking fat, unfit, out of breath, yet still managing to get round all eight impressionist venues, on foot, through the middle of Paris, in 34 minutes.

    My point is that impressionism was a tiny thing that became a tsunami. It was a revolution, not an art movement. Its ambition was to overthrow things, to replace them. When Pissarro drew up the first impressionist charter, he based it on the charter of the bakers’ union in Pontoise. Why? Because the bakers of Pontoise were the most vociferous and organised anti-governmental unionists in France.

    So, next time you see an impressionist painting on a box of chocolates, think of it as the equivalent of a picture of Arthur Scargill. See how your chocolates taste after that.