Eventually we’re going to have to stop doing this. At some point, we’ll all realise that there’s just nothing left to say about impressionism and we’ll stop trying to reframe this one tiny window of art history in a million different ways just to sell more tickets to ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ listeners from Surrey. But today is not that day, because the RA is looking at how that revolutionary group from nineteenth century France used paper.
Unnecessary? Hugely. But, begrudgingly, quite good, because this show is full of intimate, small-scale beauties. Traditionally, drawing on paper was saved for preparatory sketches or learning and lessons, but the impressionists rejected tradition. They elevated the humble drawing, seeing paper on a par with canvas.
It had its benefits too. Paper was cheap and light, so were pastels and gouaches and charcoal, they could be transported easily, used quickly. Italian artist Giuseppe de Nittis captures a feverish snapshot of two women in carriage, Edgar Degas sketches a wriggling hyperactive toddler, Manet freezes the traffic of a wet Parisian street in juddering grey ink wash. Paper was fast, immediate, spontaneous; the polar opposite of studied, overworked Academic perfection.
Degas’ works on paper are jaw dropping, perfect things
The big names of impressionism are well represented (Monet, Renoir, Morisot, Cezanne) but only one of them stands out as a genuine devotee and master of the medium. Degas’ works on paper are jaw dropping, perfect things. Right there as you walk in you see three images of ballet dancers on coloured paper. Legs and a tutu on soft pink, a stretch and a yawn on vivid green, rest and repose on muddy grey. Then he goes deeply dark, abyssally sombre in depicting a woman at a window in ochres and miserable blacks, and then twisted and uncomfortable with his image of a woman staring at you with binoculars in an act of reverse voyeurism. All this before you even glimpse the classic woman drying her hair from the National Gallery, or the other lighter visions of ballet dancers. No one else here comes close, because no one else here was as obsessive and dedicated to paper and pastel.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some other treasures to be found. Seurat’s monochrome sketch for the seated youth from ‘Bathers at Asnieres’ is shockingly sombre, nothing but shadow and darkness; Armand Guillaumin’s rocky landscape is so rushed and colourful it’s almost abstract; Albert Lebourg’s charcoal of his wife and mother-in-law by candlelight is fuzzy and photographic; the first Monet cliff is gorgeous, the Pissarro woman in profile is simple and delicate.
And it’s not all impressionism. There's weird, woozy, dreamy symbolism by Odilon Redon, sensual images by Toulouse-Lautrec, and brilliant charcoals by Van Gogh that are full of crosshatched fury.
Not all of it is great. Renoir shows he’s as good on paper as is on canvas (ie, absolutely awful), Sisley makes a bit of an ass of himself in his landscape with a donkey, and Gauguin’s watercolours are weak and wishy-washy.
The thing is, there’s a thin line between a quick sketch and a finished work, and that line gets trampled over here. Conflating the two just doesn't always work, and at it worst undermines the whole idea of elevating paper.
So there are some issues, and we really don’t need another impressionism exhibition. But there’s enough stunning art here to let it slide, just one last time.