Sunday, 26 August 2007

Impressionists by the Sea

In England we haven't had much of a summer and not many holidaymakers could enjoy the seaside, even less the sea. As a sunny beach became more desirable with every week of August passing by, on a particularly rainy day I took myself off to London to at least get a taste of it at the exhibition, 'Impressionists by the Sea'.

The show at the Royal Academy – the blurb explains - explores "the development of the beach scene in the art of the Impressionists". Some of their predecessors – Isabey, Cazin, Dupre – painted the sort of marine scenes we've seen rather too much of lately - storms, fishermen fighting the elements, toiling peasants (do peasants toil anymore?) – while other artists concentrated on the coastline devoid of figures.

Then painters like American James McNeill Whistler and Frenchman Courbet began to focus on more restful views of the north coast of France: bays, the play of light on calm seas, a peasant asleep. These paintings were simpler, calmer, than the previous dramatic stormy scenes.

But around 1860 a few artists began painting fashionable tourists on the beaches of Normandy: Boudin pioneered the theme of holiday makers on the beach at Trouville, others followed and Deauville, Berck, Etretat and Sainte-Adresse feature in many paintings by such artists as Monet and Manet.

These holiday makers came down to the coast from Paris and the corresponding growth in hotels and villas along the sea front were incorporated in the paintings: there are scenes of figures strolling along the board walks in colourful fashionable clothes, sitting under the shade of their parasols, stepping out from their bathing tents.

Ah, this is my sort of seaside: sun, yellow sands, aquamarine seas, high bright blue skies, honest and upright locals, refined and elegant holidaymakers, not a piece of litter or a cart jam in sight.

Now, here's a theory: as adults we're drawn to the landscapes of our formative years. Born in rolling countryside but close to the coast, I like landscape paintings with hills, trees and meadows but I'm also drawn to the sunny beach scenes of the Impressionists.

Paintings of figures strolling on Trouville beach reminds me of Weymouth sands in summer, just as a South African may instantly think of Muizenberg, an Australian of the beach at St Kilda's. Happy memories: I can taste the salt, feel the warm sand trickling between my toes, see the boats sail gently to and fro on the bay.

But by the late 1870's the Impressionists, perhaps bored by the subject of holidaymakers, were concentrating more on landscape: figures were a minor feature. They created informal canvases showing the physical structure of cliffs or the effect of light on sea and sky. Brilliant.

Then by the late 1880's these scenes had become quite dramatic again: the artists portrayed dark rain clouds, massive cliffs, rock formations and the play of light on the sea. Fashionable figures – though not necessarily their resorts - were supplanted by fisher folk, their boats, the sea and cliffs.

Many of the Impressionists chose to paint Etretat where the cliff has been eroded by sea to form an opening. It might remind an American of the natural arch at Santa Cruz: it reminds me of Durdle Door in Dorset.

Suddenly I recall a less sunny seaside: scary cliff walks and stormy seas. I remember the wind stinging my legs when I come out of the water, the pain of pebbles under bare feet, sand in my sandwiches, grumbling locals and hordes of holidaymakers: different impressions by the sea.


Note: if as adults many of us are drawn to the landscapes of our formative years, some people – at particular times in their lives - are likewise attracted to alien landscapes: landscape as 'escape' perhaps.

For example, if we're hemmed in by the city we thirst for open spaces. When our life is controlled, we may seek wild spaces; if our lives or minds are out of control we may appreciate neat and tidy surroundings.

Certainly the cry – I just need to get away – is usually from the heart no matter where away is: an exhibition of painting might just do the trick.

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