Art in the making

Secrets of the Impressionist canvas

Brenda Dionisi
September 4, 2008

When a group of young, independent artists held its first exhibit in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, no one was expecting it would give rise to one of the greatest artistic movements of the modern era.

 

Drawing inspiration from the theories of Goethe and Helmholz, this heterogeneous group of revolutionary painters had one shared purpose: to capture ‘impressions', the fleeting perception of life as it happened, and reproduce them in a fresh and spontaneous manner on canvas.

 

This concept, combined with innovations in painting techniques and new theories of colour and light, was the basis of the radical, new style of painting that Monet, Manet, Renoir, Signac, Sisley and many more introduced.

 

Seeing themselves as creating a unique, new visual experience, by the end of the 1800s these artists began to consider themselves pioneers, explorers and innovators. Light played a key role in their effort to reproduce both nature and the feelings that nature induced, and they painted en plein air, discarding any rules or received methods they thought would impede the creative process. For example, they used dabs or strokes of unmixed primary colours to simulate reflected light.

 

Almost a century and a half later, Impressionist art is so well known, appearing around the globe on everything from postcards, posters, T-shirts to advertisements and the mass media, that countless people have ‘seen' a Monet or Manet. With exhibits of Impressionist art frequent the world over, many have seen the works first-hand. So why might anyone be interested in yet another show featuring the Impressionists?

 

If not for its deeply interactive nature, then for its rarity, the exhibition currently running at Florence's Palazzo Strozzi, Painting Light: The Hidden Techniques of the Impressionists, is a treat for those well-versed in Impressionism and those new to the style-or even to art. The show, which gathers one of Germany's largest collections of Impressionist paintings from the Corboud Foundation in Cologne, presents over 60 rarely viewed Impressionist and post-Impressionist works. Other masterworks hail from German, French and Swiss museums, private collections and the Tate in London.

 

The exhibit's main objective is to re-examine the revolutionary nature the Impressionists' techniques and demonstrate just how the Impressionists broke with the traditions of mid-nineteenth-century salon painters. In addition, the show takes a novel and fascinating look into the secrets behind Impressionist art and its artists, particularly how rigorous scientific study of the paintings has revealed much between the surface of an Impressionist painting and its canvas.

The paintings are offered as containers of secrets to be discovered. Displaying state-of-the art twenty-first-century technology used in the study of the paintings, such as stereomicroscopy, scientific materials analysis and X-ray, ultra violet and infra-red imaging, along with a model of a nineteenth-century art supply shop with such details as brushes, canvases, palettes, paints, and a wooden paint box, is an ingenious way to engage visitors. To encourage them to become modern-day art sleuths, a series of questions in each of the exhibit's many sections invites visitors to take a rare opportunity to meticulously examine many of the clues that have helped experts shed light on the execution of Impressionist art.

 

Visitors are invited to pinpoint where a painting was originally made, indoors or en plein air; learn how to tell whether a work is truly finished by analysing the frame and very fabric of the painting; discover whether paintings were executed in a truly spontaneous manner by analysing layers of colour and pencil under-drawings with an infra-red reflectogram; touch copies of the tools, canvases and paint the artists worked with; learn about a real-life art mystery by viewing a painting that was once attributed to Monet, recently declared a forgery.

 

Moreover, sleuthing is not reserved only for adults: the final section recreates a crime scene, and parents and children are invited to solve the mystery. The interactive ‘whodunit', Impressionist Murder Mystery, allows visitors of all ages to employ what they have learned in the exhibit (the alert will notice clues planted throughout the exhibit) and flex their detective skills to crack the case of an imaginary Impressionist painter found dead in the Bois de Boulogne.

 

Visitors may submit their solutions to the mystery, and the winners will be announced during the last week of the show. An expert jury of writers, restorers, and art historians will award prizes to the top three entries, including, as first prize, a trip for three to Monet's house at Giverny.

 

A sliding scale of entrance fees encourages a wide range of visitors, and the exhibit includes an important ‘first': for the first time ever at Palazzo Strozzi a free audio guide, available in English and Italian, was created specifically for visually impaired visitors..

 

 

PAINTING LIGHT: THE HIDDEN TECHNIQUES OF THE IMPRESSIONISTS

Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

Until September 28

Friday-Wednesday 9am to 8pm; Thursday 9am to 11pm

Tel. 055/2645155

www.impressionismofirenze.it

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