Both Sides Now

by Jeanne C. Wilkinson

Corot, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reveals just how uneven the life's work of a major artist can be. Corot's long and painful struggle with the figure is visually numbing — it becomes hard to pick out the wheat from the chaff in his extensive oeuvre. Possibly the best way to see Corot is to cross the East River and go to In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting at the Brooklyn Museum, where 18 of his finest small paintings hang. This exhibition of landscapes at TBM reveals an art museum at its best. The exhibition, large enough to cover its subject, but concise enough not to overwhelm, extended by informative wall essays and an interesting catalog, is filled with great art.

In the Light of Italy features work done by young artists from all over Europe who, between the years 1780 and 1840, went to hone hand and eye on the landscape within and around Rome and Naples. A center room in this exhibition is filled with radiant Corots, all of them from his first trip to Italy from 1826-1828. He and numerous others (only one woman, Louise-Josephine Sarazin de Belmont, is represented in the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition) sketched and painted innumerable interpretations of mountains, hills, sky, clouds, villas, rooftops, streams, trees, and foliage. If their paintings were music (and they are like music), their notes would be of blues, greens and browns in an infinite variety of tonal relationships.

These young artists considered their paintings to be, quite literally, studies, part of an educational process rather than major works. The artists familiarized themselves with color and form, so, upon returning to their studios, they would better be able to create larger paintings incorporating historical or mythological themes. These small paintings were intended to aid the artists to compose and imagine their more "important" works. As time went by, however, open-air painting became more than just proper study for novices, the landscapes themselves began to gain prominence and status, and some which began as studies were brought to the studio to be retouched and perfected.

It is interesting to note in Corot's work at the Met how, in the transition from outdoor immediacy to studio grandiosity, landscape inevitably lost its primacy, becoming a stage setting for figurative action. In any composition including both landscape and figure, the figure almost always dominates while landscape retreats into the background (a phenomenon known well by the Chinese, for instance, who in their monumental landscapes kept the figures tiny so as to not overpower the revered spirit of the land). The power of figures is exemplified in Corot's mythological themes where landscape, formerly of-a-piece and filled with light, becomes a shadowy foil for cavorting nudes and satyrs and the like. Its integrity lost, the landscape appears compromised, filled with holes — it has been mined for figurative opportunities. This seems all the more sad since the figures themselves are hardly worth the loss — they are for the most part derivative, incredibly awkward and without inner life. Ironically, Corot seems to lose his muse when he brings the gods (in human form) into the picture. The inclusiveness of the show at the Met highlights the value of his open-air work. When he was not bogged down by studio fancies, Corot's work opens up to the light, gaining clarity and coherence in the process. In his later studio landscapes, sentimental themes have dimmed the light in a wispy lavender-gray mist.

In the Light of Italy illustrates that once the narrative baggage of more lofty subjects is shed, landscape comes into its own, and the work is the better for it. Artists in their "open air" experience were free, in fact, encouraged, to paint only what they saw, and this lightening of the load lends a weightless, buoyant feeling to the paintings. While roaming the ancient, eternally changing and multi-formed landscape, the act of painting became a celebratory, expansive ritual of joy. The artists were inventing a way of looking at nature. (In fact, this growing tradition of landscape painting in turn inspired people to look at land differently — they began to appreciate land for its own merits, and to take an unprecedented interest in preserving the "picturesque," an attitude that continues to grow ever more sophisticated and complex in our own time.)

It is unfortunate that this landscape tradition is known popularly more as a precursor to Impressionism than for its own strengths. A factor contributing to the relative obscurity of these Italian landscapes may have been the attitude of treating them as part of a process, rather than as finished, major works of art. But this same attitude released the artists from oppressive hierarchic demands, setting them free to explore the expansive nature of light and reality within the historically charged landscape of Italy. The energy created by this experiment left an opening within art that subsequent artists exploited to invent even more radical techniques of expression. Later artists saw that a moment in the sun was more than enough. The dust settled on plaster casts as artists took up their paints and went outside to catch some rays. In this way, Impressionism can be seen as the provocative offspring of a less flamboyant, but genuinely innovative progenitor.

For all the fame of the Impressionists, they did not improve on what the young artists in the late 18th - early 19th century had done. Carl Blechen's Cloud Studies, 1829 of the Roman Campagna, are four small paintings so immediate and free from cant that they seem to be distilled from a profound understanding of form. Thomas Jones' paintings of structures in Naples, done in 1782, put Charles Sheeler and Georgia O'Keeffe to shame. Valenciennes' mists over Rocca di Papa, (no date), Granet's Hilltop with Pines, Evening Light, 1802/19, Leopold Robert's Vesuvius, 1821 —are all depictions of the land at face value, unsentimental and exquisite. The straightforward quality of this work is like a breath of fresh air.

Many of the artists leave sections of their paintings unpainted, some with notes by the artist still visible. No doubt the works were simply left unfinished, but looking at the work from across the great divide of modernism, it is hard not to see such effective compositional structures as deliberate devices. See Belgian artist Gilles-Francois Closson's Roman Ruins, and Cliffs at Tivoli, 1825-29, Blechen's Augustan Bridge at Narni, 1829, Ernst Fries's The Ponte Nomentano near Rome, 1824 (including studies of leafs in the foreground), Johann Joachim Faber's View at Olevano, 1822, Johann Martin Von Rohden's Landscape near Subiaco, 1806, among others, for further study of this phenomenon.

While it can become almost a game to deconstruct modes and methods, the work holds up well under this scrutiny — the paintings seem fresh and knowing and very relevant to our time. There is a sense in many of the works in the Brooklyn show that they stand outside of style and trends. Information about content and context is nice, but not necessary to appreciate images in which time and place seem to matter both a great deal and not at all.

These shows complement each other wonderfully. In the Light of Italy at the Brooklyn Museum is an experience of sublime art — while satisfying on many levels, it is predominantly a visual delight. The Corot show at the Metropolitan Museum is a rare opportunity to experience the ups and downs within a great artist's life, and to see some great paintings along the way.

In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting at The Brooklyn Museum through January 12, 1997
Corot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 19, 1997

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