Art Thoughts, Week 11 -- Sisley & Atmosphere

(N.B. - I pushed this essay out so hard, it almost hurt, so I may be editing/adding to it over the weekend...but my thoughts, though raw, are authentic). Actual painting above!

Saint Mammes – Loing Canal, Alfred Sisley (French, English, 1839—1899), 1884, oil on canvas, BF 224.

Impressionism as a name has always rubbed me the wrong way – given me the wrong “impression” so to speak. Not only has it become cliché, and is now thrown about to speak of post-impressionists and other related groups, it also doesn’t really give a clear idea of what these painters were really after. It has become the worst of titles: one which no longer clearly portrays even the abstracted idea it originally stood for.

I would rather the impressionists be called “atmospherists”, for that is what they were so doggedly after; not just an “impression” of a place, thing or emotion, but a representation (in the general sense) of the depth in front of them. To make a painting of a space – what impressionism and plein-air are so much about – it was necessary to neatly wrestle down and compress that space on to a canvas, sprung so tightly it looked ready to jettison at any moment: the transitional tension of the three-dimensional morphing into the two-dimensional. What a pent-up state! Yet these paintings are so often, from misunderstanding and overexposure, thought of as benign; saccharin; even obtuse. Think of this tension as the difference between the surface of a pastel, and the surface of a lithograph. Upon very close inspection, much of the actual pastel medium is suspended above the paper, perched as it were on the paper fibers, creating a sense of atmosphere; spaces between the stuff. On a lithograph, the ink has bonded with the paper, the compression of spatial sense (as far as material is concerned) being endemic to that medium.

Enter Alfred Sisley. One of his paintings owned by the Barnes Foundation, Saint Mammes – Loing Canal, I hadn’t even noticed until a few weeks ago. It is a small, but sweeping sky-scape, lodged in a corner of the thirteenth gallery. But it feels epic when you look at it closely. Sisley is admired for his evocative, emotional and atmospherically accurate skies. The brushwork brings to mind Pissaro, or the more oblique haystacks of his friend Monet, when the cataracts were getting the better of him (or, making him better). This particular sky looks like that tightly wound spring mentioned previously: each layer is like a coil, compressed into the three-quarter space Sisley has given it; arcing from southwest to northeast, following roughly the sweep of the sun and the compositional direction towards the focal point. In fact, the whole painting seems swiftly tilting rightwards. Yet it also has a calm, luxurious economy; a group of ducks in the canal foreground is made simply of a dash here and there of lead white and black; the roofs of a small lock-house, two pips of vermilion. This painting, though sweeping and taut, is anchored like an enormous kite on a sturdy line. The sky may buck and reel according to its own will, but Sisley’s sense of grounded-ness doesn’t let him get too carried away with too roiling of an atmosphere. This spring has a firm footing.

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