I worked in Edinburgh for five years before moving to HI~Arts and I always enjoy going back. Too often, though, I tread a short path from station to meeting room and back again, and miss the many cultural delights the city offers.
So this time I seized the advantage of having a morning meeting in Edinburgh to take an afternoon off, and catch the National Galleries’ two flagship exhibitions for the Festival. Admittedly, my heart had sunk somewhat at the prospect of ‘Impressionist Gardens’, and it was the Christen Købke that I was really looking forward to. After all, did we really need yet another Impressionist exhibition, recycling once again the images familiar from a thousand hotel rooms and a million jigsaws and chocolate boxes? Well, the answer proved to be a resounding ‘Yes!’. This is a magnificent, overwhelming, and thoroughly surprising exhibition, and a triumph for NGS.
For this exhibition offers a very different perspective on Impressionism. I trained as an art historian, and yet out of the almost 100 paintings on show, I’d seen less than twenty before, even in reproduction, and even fewer ‘in the flesh’, so to speak. That’s because this exhibition treats Impressionism as a truly international movement, featuring artists from Spain, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Scotland, England, Ireland and the US, as well as the familiar French core of the movement (though even here there were Monets and Manets that were new to me).
The result is little short of revelatory. Instead of being the tight, short-lived movement centred on Paris that’s described in John Rewald’s classic ‘The History of Impressionism’, we have instead an international style and technique that span some seventy years, from the 1860s to the 1930s, and two continents. I guarantee that you’ll be bowled over by artists you’ve never heard of. Some visitors might be disappointed at not finding more of their favourite pictures, but I hope they’ll be consoled instead by the opportunity to gain a completely fresh insight into art’s most over-exposed movement.
Mind you, going round this huge exhibition is a bit like eating a whole box of hand-made Belgian chocolates at one sitting: so much colour, so little sky, so much sheer, unadulterated, pleasure. Fortunately, downstairs at the Royal Scottish Academy a soothing contrast awaits, including a painting that is almost all sky. In its way this survey of the work of the early 19th century Danish painter Christen Købke is equally revelatory, just much smaller and quieter. Købke’s meticulous technique was thoroughly classical, but his vision was astoundingly ‘modern’, in his fondness for unexpected, even eccentric, viewpoints, and his uncanny sense of light. His masterpiece, a deceptively straightforward view of a street in a Copenhagen suburb, made me think of Vermeer’s great ‘View of Delft’ in the moving way it transcends its mundane subject matter—yes, it’s that good.
There’s a theory that, in purely technical and chemical terms, there was nothing to prevent photography being invented long before it was. Instead it emerged when it did—almost simultaneously in a number of forms—because it was ‘needed’.
Købke’s paintings are superb examples of the aesthetic that drove that discovery of photographic techniques, and perhaps that’s why he’s not better known: his crisp, acutely, minutely detailed renderings of the world around him, and especially his very natural and psychologically perceptive portraits, were exactly what the ‘art’ of photography would so quickly supplant, thereby (in the standard version) allowing Impressionism to emerge to ‘save’ painting as a valid artform.
The irony of seeing these two exhibitions together is that Købke’s painstaking hyper-realism now seems, to me, to have much more in common with the bold, loose handling of Monet, Manet, or their multiple followers, than either painting style has with 19th century photographs. Faded, battered, monochrome, hampered by long exposures, such photographic images now seem part of a far distant, unreachable past. But Købke’s street, and Manet’s gardens, still sing with a freshness and immediacy that make their bit of the 19th century part of a continuous, almost tactile, present.
Footnote: much is being made of the ability of ‘Toy Story 3’ to make grown men weep. I find, though, that sad things rarely move me to tears. Instead, it’s images of happiness that make me well up. I can sit dry-eyed through Mimi’s tragic death, but the moment in Act 1 of ‘La Bohème’ when she first falls for Rodolfo will get me every time. So, if you have the same kind of reaction, be warned, and take a pack of tissues to both exhibitions. Otherwise you will be, in C S Lewis’ phrase, ‘surprised by joy’.
© Robert Livingston, 2010