Rose was a participant of the Reimagine Remake Replay Creative Writing Programme and wrote this personal response to Renoir and the New Era for the blog workshop.
A Courtauld Reunion
Aged 17, I was in London, and meeting a friend. She was going to be late, and I had already got the train into the centre by the time I got the text. It was a freezing day in February, and I was at a loose end, standing on the Thameside and faced with the challenge of killing an hour. Too far from my favorite coffee shops to walk over in time, I ducked into Somerset House, where wandering aimlessly would be a good camouflage instead of a hindrance.
Intermittently checking my phone, I wandered through a doorway that read ‘Courtauld Gallery’, still just trying to while away time. I stuck to the corners and drifted from room to room, completely unaware that a short glance up from my feet lay the crown jewels of the art world, an indulgence of works by Monet, Degas and Van Gogh. Eventually, I got the text that my friend had pulled into Waterloo and left, none the wiser.
This strange history of my past visit to the Courtauld is what I am now contemplating as I step over the threshold of the Ulster Museum for the first time in months. Now 20 and an undergraduate living in Belfast, I almost can’t believe the opportunity my younger self wasted. Coming out the other end of one more in a string of national lockdowns, I am now craving culture in any form, like so many of us, ecstatic at being allowed back into a museum. I am here to see the new Impressionism exhibition on loan from the Courtauld Gallery: Renoir and the New Era. I am also very conscious as I walk up the stairs to Gallery 6 of how different gallery-going is these days.
Impressionism was an art movement in the late 1800s that rebelled against classical subject matter and began to embrace modernity, mostly involving Parisian painters. Against a turbulent political background and a physically changing Paris, the Impressionists began to use colour, light, and loose brushstrokes to capture only the ‘impression’ of a scene. Some of its main proponents were Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas and Morisot, who grouped together and exhibitioned their work in 1874.
Although small, this exhibition in the Ulster Museum, featuring loans from the Courtauld National Partners Programme, is beautifully curated and touches on some of the keys themes from the movement. The physical presentation of the gallery itself draws the eye gently to the moments of importance, set against a most calming dusty-pink and white decor. The curators focus on a key point right from the start: the Impressionists were revolutionary in their time. Eloquent labels remind us that, while we may consider these household names now, the Impressionist group truly were in defiance of the establishment, against a context of social upheaval in Paris and a quickly modernising France. One of the early critical reactions noticed “A spirit of anarchy at work in French painting as in French politics” (London Times).
The square shape of this gallery is an excellent aid to the evolution of the exhibitions’ ideas. The first three paintings on the left hand side, works by Allingham, Lavery and Sandys, are a perfect foil to the rest of the exhibition, providing examples of the Academy-established standard of contemporary art that the Impressionists strayed from. In a small exhibition with a high economy on space, these inclusions are an excellent reference point for the viewer.
Continuing in sequential order, an extensive label establishes three major categories that the exhibition will explore: Modern Paris, Anarchists and Women. A great amount of historical context can be found in this label, alongside some seamlessly included art history. Personally, I was intrigued to learn of the simultaneous rise of Impressionism and electric light, and began to consider how the colours of the paintings and sketches were meant to be received in terms of colour - the first electric light was more orange in tone than white.
Then there is, of course, La Loge, a Renoir oil painting from 1874. The deserving centrepiece of this exhibition, The Theatre Box (in English) is an instantaneously recognisable masterpiece that raises themes of changing fashion and social status, and a rapidly more accessible cultural scene in Paris. In it, a couple is pictured at the theatre, which is portrayed as a location for both viewing and being viewed, playing on the theme of observation. It is no wonder that the exhibition takes La Loge as its centrepiece; as curator Anna Liesching reminds us, the painting “was at the centre of the first impressionist exhibition, which changed the course of art.”
I sat on the wooden bench in front of La Loge, which I had blindly passed years before, and considered the element of performance in the Impressionists’ art, its new consideration of existing social spaces. The flowing black lines and hints of movement in Lopez’s dress, for example, speak of a notable absence of studio rigidity. So much care evidently went into every single detail of this Renoir classic, from the flowers in the woman’s hair to the material of her sleeves, that I can’t help but wonder at the interesting contrast to our current fragmented cultural attention.
Speaking to the gallery assistant, I learned that the windows in Gallery 6 had been painted over to maintain the conditions needed to preserve the paintings, and I immediately felt very conscious of the lengths that the gallery curators, in turn, have gone to to let people see these paintings. It was a strong reminder that an exhibition is in itself is a work of art.
Sketches from Pissarro and Manet also feature on the third wall of the gallery, although the real standout here are those of Berthe Moriset. Liesching ends this exhibition on a refreshing note with Moriset’s sketches, an exposure of a female artist of the movement who is often written out of its history. As the label suggests, Moriset’s sketches explored the realm of the feminine in a Paris where women “were often invisible in the city.” This feels like a very fitting ending to an exhibition about a group who were described as the anarchists and agitators of their time.
Today, it is not only the art itself that strikes me as poignant but the context I am standing within, the moment in which this exhibition is being shown. There are elements to the experience that seem surreal: wearing a face mask in a gallery; social distancing and the ironies of human closeness and distance this implies. But there are moments of real hope too: when I first enter the gallery space, I hear classical music and assume it is part of the exhibition, until I realise a man is playing it through his phone speaker while gazing at La Loge, processing the art in his own way in a shared space. It makes me wonder how our gallery-going experience will change after these lockdowns, whether certain barriers will be removed between ourselves and the art. Visiting this exhibition felt like a second chance for me, and a much-needed affirmation that there is endless beauty to be found in a post-lockdown cultural scene.
Images by: Rose Winter
Renoir and the New Era includes works on loan from The Courtauld