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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Richard Shiff's essay, " Defining 'Impressionism' and the 'Impression' "

Report on Richard Shiff's essay, " Defining 'Impressionism' and the 'Impression' "
(Based on class lecture by Anil.J.Pinto on 27th September, 2010)

There is no proper generic approach to defining 'Impressionism' and the way Impressionistic style in art can be attributed to artists. Richard Shiff illustrates this idea by elucidating that it is difficult to define Impressionistic art, or for that matter, how artists can be classified according to the strictness of the genre. Art historians have rendered the title impressionism that rarely gives any exclusive definition that can be readily appreciated. There is no historical fixity or a continuum that can be assigned to be impressionistic. To consider who the real impressionists are, historians have looked into a simple classification: (1) Social group (2) artist’s subject matter (3) style or technique (4) purpose. Yet each of these categories has presented their own difficulties.

An artist must, in order to be Impressionistic, associate with the group of artists who render similar thoughts. An artist might be labeled an “Impressionist” if the artist participates, voluntarily, in one of the social groups to get conferred. Artistic styles then may develop and become group styles, and if a person is too deviant, may become an individualist impressionist. Such professional association and personal sympathy made Degas an impressionist and Cezanne, another Impressionist, even though, modern critics find his style antithetical to Impressionism. Yet, Impressionism also existed outside the circles of the groups; the circle of the elite, such as the society of Salon. By such association, the Salon society declared Corot as a superior “poetic” kind of impressionist.

It is in the subject matter of the art that art can be classified in genres. When they are classified in such a manner, Shiff comments, they lead to awkward inclusions and exclusions. By this standard a Stanislas Lepine was included with later impressionists, but today, he is rarely discussed as a genuine impressionist, because he lacks the the major stylistic characteristic of the impressionists – the unconventional bright colours. Theodore Duret who tended to use stylistic criteria in order to classify the various painters, excluded Lepine for just this reason when he wrote his early account of the Impressionist movement. Duret and Riviere implied that it had simply been necessitated by the concern for a more accurate observation of nature. Impressionism allows for individuality in to the perspectives of nature but also tends to depict that the colours drawn are from nature directly, to make it as close to nature. It is this “verisimilitude” that makes Impressionism a difficult genre to categorize because the particular sensation is all pervading.

Impressionistic art, thus, is sense observation and self interpretation of the ultimate aesthetic goal. The definitions of the goal of impressionist art may indeed inform more purposeful distinctions in the other areas of investigation; yet one must take in account that early observers of the impressionists like Jules Castagnary and Theodore Duret, said that these artists hardly spoke about the goals and aims of their works. Castagnary in 1874 observed: “the object of art does not change, the means of translation alone is modified”.

Shiff, throughout his essay, establishes the idea that an artistic theory, like Impressionism, cannot classify the modulus of art or bring into a strict pattern an artist’s intent and creation. Impressionism, as a analyzed from the essay, is thus a style of depicting, creatively and instinctively, not professionally, creating the first impressions that comes to mind when a particular strain of thought gets depicted. This manner or style was directed at something, at the expression of a fundamental truth, the “verite”, so often mentioned in theoretical and critical documents of the period. When impressionism was considered as depiction of naturalism, which was not new, these artists seemed to set the art apart by their technical devises. For the impressionist, as the name applies, the concept of impression provided the theoretical means for the approaching the relation of individual and universal truth.

It may be just depicting the shallow waters or the primary layer of thought that a particular event or an aesthetic consciousness generates in an artist. Shiff is commendably exemplary when he distinguishes photography and Art in the context of Impressionism, as defining it to be an “imprint”. The elementary difference between photography and art is in the medium of reproduction, which is the essence of all art. Photography is capturing the moment in time as an imprint but art is always contoured by artists ego, the creative psyche and personal interpretation of the flux from where the artists draws inspiration. The "Impression" is always a surface phenomenon, immediate, primary, and undeveloped. Hence the term was used for the first layer of an oil painting, the first appearance of an image that might subsequently become a composite of many such impressions.

It is in the ability to catch the primary idea of the flux that inspires the artist’s creativity that impressionistic art becomes successful. As primary and spontaneous, the impression could be associated with particularity, individuality, and originality. The artist’s ability to infer from the facts that generate aesthetic thought gives art its ingenuity. Impressionism is in the synthesis of nature and original sensation. In Deschanel’s usage, the term “impression”, which one might first regard as reference to very concrete external events, is extended into the more internalized realm of character, personality, and innate qualities. The romantic critic Theophile Thore similarly allowed the term to bridge the gap between the external and the internal, the physical and the intellectual or the spiritual, when he used it to explain how poetry differed from imitation. Poetry is not nature but the feeling that nature instills in a poet, the impression that gets recorded in a special language. In other words we can never have absolute knowledge of the external world in the manner one does have absolute knowledge of an impression: it would reveal as much truth about the world as an impression does.

The self of the artist in any form of art cannot be denied because it forms the essence of all artistic interpretation, though the artist plays the role of an observant spectator, which also entails an investigation into the concepts of the genre. The ‘impression’ then can be both a phenomenon of nature and of the artists own being. It was not until the nineteenth century that psychology, the study of sensation, emotion, and thought came to be recognized not only as a branch of metaphysics, but as natural science, as an area of empirical research, into the physiology of perception and then in turn, to impression. A standard definition of impressionism was in accord to David Hume’s use of the term that "impression is the effect produced on the bodily organs by the action of external object." Shiff also warns us about us misjudging impressionism with symbolism, where the latter depends more on hidden layers of meaning or interpretation. Shiff does this by drawing a clear distinction between Manet and Monet’s artistic depiction of thought patterns. Where Manet’s depiction of impressions on the mind was objectively portrayed by solid brush strokes, monet was subjective to his aesthetic rendering.

The essay is conclusively remnant of the theory that art is a projection of the artists self and this must be true to the nature of creation. Impressionism is then, perhaps the artist’s impression on nature and not nature’s impression on the artist.

Pritha Biswas
I MA in English with Communication Studies
Christ University

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