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Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art is an exhibition of small pictures. By the same token, it is an exhibition about small pictures. Scale matters. Only, for it to matter, for it to develop as an orientation, we have first to break with the usual connotations that accrue to it as a criterion of judgment. Small pictures have their way of drawing us in, of revealing different kinds of relations of people to things; they ask that we view them up close, intimately. In a word, small pictures belong to the interior. That, it would seem, is the exhibition’s conceit. At least that is where, it seems to me, its greatest potential resides. For what strikes me about this exhibition is not the equation it establishes between smallness and intimacy—a fraught identity, to be sure—but how that equation opens onto the conditions that make it imaginable. Smallness, here, has something to say about painting’s dealings with the world, about painting’s being in the world. And that something turns on the question of value.
What we experience as we pass through Intimate Impressionism’s seven rooms, what we see in its panoply of small landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, is a private collection, one assembled, with a handful of exceptions, by Ailsa Mellon Bruce (1901–1969). In effect, Intimate Impressionism invites us into Mellon Bruce’s drawing room; yet that living space—that interior—has taken on a peculiar character. Bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art in 1969, Mellon Bruce’s collection of “Small French Paintings” (as the National Gallery fondly calls them) has devolved to the state; it has become—it is presented to us as—a public collection, one that, since 1978, has hung in specially dedicated galleries in the National Gallery’s East Building. Intimate Impressionism celebrates the transmission, as it were, by returning these sixty-eight small pictures to their former owner—how else, after all, are we to explain an exhibition catalogue whose sole essay chronicles Mellon Bruce’s life history and legacy as a collector?
Smallness in Intimate Impressionism works to affirm the practice of collecting; in turn, it summons us to a social space that operates, also, as a casing, separate from the world and yet, at the same time, its manifestation. To enter Intimate Impressionism, in other words, is to enter a dreamworld, the dreamworld of the collector, who, in taking possession of works of art, confers a distinct kind of value on them. Walter Benjamin calls it a connoisseur’s value, which is to say, a value unburdened of the need to be useful (Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, 9). “For the collector”—the real collector, Benjamin says—“ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects” (Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed., Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1968, 67). These ruminations, I know, have a certain patina to them. The phantasmagoric world they conjure is doubly distant in space and in time, a nineteenth-century world captured and brought to us in the 1930s. I do not pretend otherwise. But neither, or not wholly, does Intimate Impressionism. Indeed, Intimate Impressionism seeks to gather the distant in space and in time to itself, which is another way of saying, it welcomes the Sisyphean task that falls to it. Ownership in Benjamin’s sense is something Intimate Impressionism thinks we can reclaim. The outstanding question is whether that different kind of valuation can subsist as a merely ghostly presence. Admission, here in San Francisco, costs twenty-four dollars. We expect something in return.
All things considered, “collection” is the right frame of reference. It seems to me better, that is, than “exhibition,” even if—even as—Intimate Impressionism’s curators (Melissa Buron from the Legion of Honor and Mary Morton from the National Gallery) work hard to pull the array of paintings on display into some semblance of (art-historical) order, one that is more or less chronological (the prehistory of Impressionism to its aftermath), more or less thematic (plein air painting here, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Parisienne there). It is the order of a catalogue; accepted histories of the period and its art remain undisturbed. Intimate Impressionism, then, is of two minds. I do not mean this as a criticism. Quite the contrary, in fact. Intimate Impressionism is modest in its ambitions. It reveals, perhaps willy-nilly, the tension built into the vagaries of the collector’s practice; it does not claim to resolve it.
The disappointment that greeted my passage into the show’s second room, which is where the historicization of the Impressionist era picks up in earnest and which is devoted almost entirely to Eugène Boudin’s vision of bourgeois leisure on France’s northwest coast, might best be understood in this light. For it is not that Intimate Impressionism gets something wrong (surely Boudin’s way of putting modernity in contact with Brittany’s seaside does say something important about the direction painting [and history] would take). The feelings of regret I experienced had more to do with how this second room followed a point of entry so willing to teeter on incoherence, so willing to let the objects it contains appear assembled more than organized. How odd to have the first picture I encountered be a tiny, moody self-portrait by Henri Fantin-Latour; yet also how perfect, how appropriate for a show about intimacy—about the interior but also of the interior—to begin with a work about self-enclosure, about the formation of the individual and the individual’s longed-for distance from the world, and to put it, as if in spite of itself, into circulation. No less remarkable, or apropos, is the first room concluding with Fantin’s Three Peaches on a Plate (1868), an equally diminutive painting, but this time coolly dispassionate, at ease with the exchange of appearances and substances, indeed reveling, albeit quietly, in painting’s ability to carry out the transaction—in painting’s capacity, that is, for stillness. Nevertheless, it was Édouard Manet’s A King Charles Spaniel (ca. 1866), situated between the two Fantins, that summed up the space; here was a painting, a portrait of a dog, whose formal inconsistency spoke directly to picturing’s complex, often contradictory hold on the substances of a world it can only fitfully, only provisionally bring under control.
It is difficult to get back to the foyer once one has left it. From there, the through lines of the exhibition prepared by the Boudins begin to pull, as if inexorably, as if inevitably, toward the late nineteenth and even twentieth centuries (Pierre Bonnard’s Stairs in the Artist’s Garden, the latest of the pictures on view, has the date 1942/1944). Even so, certain arrangements and pictures prove strong enough to interject: the pairing of Paul Cézanne’s outlandish Battle of Love (ca. 1880) with the late Still Life with Milk Jug and Fruit (ca. 1900), which somehow frames Paul Gauguin’s portentous Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière (1888/89), captures something of the initial sense that Camille Corot’s allegorical Artist’s Studio (ca. 1868) can share a space with Berthe Morisot’s The Artist’s Sister at a Window (1869); Édouard Vuillard’s vertiginous and cluttered interiors, no sturdier or substantial here than the cardboard on which they appear, send one eagerly into the room full of bright Bonnards that follows; the red, yellow, blue, and white grid of Vincent van Gogh’s Flower Beds in Holland (ca. 1883), not yet the negative of Nature, presages (hopeless) battles still to come; Antoine Vollon’s Mound of Butter (1875/1885), which takes this staple of everyday life and transforms it into a towering giant, a colossus as corporeal as it is architectonic, stops one in one’s tracks. Perhaps even more than A King Charles Spaniel, Mound of Butter shows us what small pictures can do, how kinds of materiality—unctuous, pliant, carved with a palette knife—verge on excess, at that point where usefulness becomes its opposite. Too much butter! Vollon’s picture tests the limits of consumption, if not consumability, altogether.
These, for me, are some of Intimate Impressionism’s best moments; they are the moments in which the exhibition’s relation to its organizing principle comes into focus. There exists in them the same dialectical tension between order and disorder that shapes Intimate Impressionism on the whole. For what else is a collection, to bring us back to Benjamin, but “a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” (Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” 60) Perhaps, then, the well-worn history of nineteenth-century painting that serves as the exhibition’s backdrop has to be there; perhaps it has to remain intact if the challenges Intimate Impressionism does confront us with are to emerge, if the exhibition is to show us how the practices of picturing and collecting coincide.
Jordan M. Rose
Lecturer of Modern European Art, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley
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