On ViewKunstmuseum Basel
September 4, 2021 – January 23, 2022
In January 1892, Camille Pissarro exhibited 50 oil paintings and several gouaches at the Durand-Ruel Gallery. Pissarro’s letter to Claude Monet a fortnight before the opening captures the artist’s uncertainty, describing his show in almost deprecatory terms: “a more or less general exhibition of my works.” By “general,” Pissarro meant a collection of works that spanned from the 1870s until the 1890s; a couple of critics of the exhibition even employed the word “retrospective” to describe it. However, as rightly noted by T.J. Clark in Farewell to an Idea (1999), the term was never engaged as a noun.
The recently opened exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Camille Pissarro: The Studio of Modernism, is a Pissarro retrospective which, instead of uncertainty, would likely bring a lot of pride to the artist. Curated by the museum’s director, Josef Helfenstein, and Christophe Duvivier, this exhaustive show gathers nearly 200 works by the artist, including 100 paintings. Eight of the paintings, 10 drawings and watercolors, as well as manual prints, belong to the Kunstmuseum’s collection. It is not unusual to see Pissarro’s work showcased in Basel. The city has a long record of endorsing the artist, which dates back to 1912 when Pissarro’s Un Coin de l’Hermitage, Pontoise (1878)became the first Impressionist painting acquired by the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, the public art collection of Basel. However, what is unusual is the scale and the multifariousness of the show—it is the largest Swiss exhibition of Pissarro’s work in over 60 years.
The catalogue produced for Pissarro’s exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in 1892 for the first time enabled the audience to study the artist’s paintings chronologically. The layout of Pissarro’s exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, in a sense, emulates the 19th-century catalogue. As each room embodies a different juncture in his artistic life, the viewers are invited to travel from the 1850s to the early 1900s. The purpose of the show’s arrangement is twofold: it helps to present a linear narrative of Pissarro’s oeuvre, but it also illuminates the artist’s invaluable contributions towards laying the building blocks of the Impressionist movement. By drawing parallels between Pissarro and his pupils, the project reminds the public that the artist was the unspoken leader of Impressionism, or, at the very least, a catalyst bringing together the various vectorial forces together within this less-than-simple movement of early modern art.
The theme of friendships is artfully employed to re-evaluate Pissarro’s impact on shaping modernism. The exhibition traces how with several of his artist friends—Ludovic Piette, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Armand Guillaumin, or Maximilien Luce—he re-created the live-work dynamic that he learned from his early master, Fritz Melbye, and thus ensured his teachings were deeply ingrained in the visual language of his protégés. The show does not fail to mention the artist’s equally important working companionship he established with other artists who did not follow the above mentioned working model that blurred the lines of the professional and the private. Amongst these are Edgar Degas or Mary Cassatt. Through them, Pissarro belonged to this core group of committed printmakers who approached prints from an avant-garde perspective, experimenting endlessly with the medium to realise unique impressions.
Pissarro’s charismatic disposition won him devoted Myrmidons from the artistic community—a fact art historians speak about in unison (Ralph E. Shikes et al. 1980; Joachim Pissarro 1992; T.J. Clark 1999; Richard R. Brettell 2011). The artist’s temperament is well recounted by Pissarro’s writer friend, George Moore, who would join the late 19th century discussions of the Batignolles group, comprised mainly of leading Impressionists, at the Café Guerbois in Paris where they would congregate every Thursday and Sunday. Moore writes: “no one was kinder than Pissarro … [he] was a wise and appreciative Jew,” a particularly flattering comment given the widespread anti-Semitism of 19th century Paris, ignited by the Dreyfus affair. With the patience of an angel and the humility of a monk, Pissarro was perceived by his students as a wise mentor, a fatherly figure. His “long hoary beard” and “spiritual eyes under black eyebrows” gave the artist an Abrahamic appearance and added to his prophetic aura, to the point he would be greeted with “hail to Moses” whenever he entered a room.1 Cézanne ’s letter to the gallerist Ambroise Vollard perfectly illustrates the synergy between Pissarro’s fatherly and spiritual qualities: “Old Pissarro, he was a father to me. He was a man you could turn to for advice; he was something like God.” The artist was an ardent believer in collaboration as the basis of artistic practice and rejected feelings of rivalry, jealousy or distrust that often ran through the veins of temperamental Parisian artists. As such, Pissarro subordinated all earthly emotions to the final goal he was pursuing: forming a personal vision and a style capable of rendering his observations of nature—in other words, the assertion of the freedom of expression.
Out of Pissarro’s artistic friendships, The Studio of Modernism explores the artist’s intimate relationship with Cézanne in most detail. As a viewer, it feels like we are invited by the two painters to review their work in the French countryside after the months they spent painting side by side. The resemblance between their canvases is striking, and unsurprisingly so—between 1872 and 1884, they often worked together in Pontoise, a village to the northwest of Paris where Pissarro moved in 1872. The intensive experimentation that the two artists undertook becomes evident with the magnitude of paintings exposed in the room. Pissarro’s The Cote des Boeufs, Pontoise (1877) and Cézanne’s The Cote Saint Denis, Pontoise (1877) hang next to each other, and the shared motif of the paintings is impossible to neglect. While the two paintings are practically replicas, Pissarro’s thickly applied desaturated paint, which brings out textural qualities of the landscape’s trees, distinguishes the canvas from Cézanne’s vibrant painting, which contrasts the artist’s distinctive oranges and green hues. Evident similarities can also be drawn between Pissarro’s Landscape at L'Hermitage, Pontoise (1875) and Cézanne’s Landscape near Pontoise (1875)—at this point, gazing at the room, Pissarro’s powerful influence upon Cézanne is writ large. Commentators such as Clark (2020) suggest that it was in 1873 that Cézanne’s refined and distinct style was influenced by Pissarro’s materials, as he unlearned his ”first style,”’ a blend of Eugène Delacroix’s impersonal lustfulness, Gustave Courbet’s thick handling and Édouard Manet’s boldness.
As Pissarro would very seldom depict his friends—no work of Degas, Cassatt, Alfred Sisley, Monet or Pierre-Auguste Renoir was ever recorded—the two exhibited pieces of Cézanne are not only a rarity but also a testament of the artists’ unusual union. The Portrait of Cézanne (1874) undeniably deserves the most attention, as it uses solutions that depart from Pissarro’s default style in its alikeness with a politically imbued cartoon. The painting was decrypted by Theodore Reff in 1967 and has been subjected to heavy analysis. Arranged over Cézanne’s shoulders are two political cartoons from different publications: L’Eclipse, a left-wing journal published on August 4, 1872 and Le Hanneton published on June 13th, 1867. On the forefront, we can see Cézanne—he looks rough, crude, unrefined, his representation in stark contrast to the nearby displayed etching, Portrait of Paul Cézanne (1874), where he looks commendable and authoritative. On the top right, one can discern a distorted body of Gustave Courbet, at the time already a political exile in Switzerland. Courbet leaning towards Cézanne’s ear, as if whispering, could be read as Pissarro’s attempt to remind his followers to keep his radical, revolutionary ideals alive, whilst Cézanne’s ordinary representation is symbolic of the wider masses that are to continue Courbet’s work. Together with Les TurpitudesSociales (1889–90), a set of privately distributed drawings, also featured in this exhibition, and Donkey Ride a La Roche-Guyon (1865), the pieces represent Pissarro’s only explicitly political artworks.
Viewing the exhibition, it is possible to get engrossed in Pissarro’s countless landscapes, primarily rural and inhabited by peasants. The magnitude of paintings placed side by side create an optical illusion: it is almost as if we are exploring agrarian lands and life ourselves. However, few will get engrossed in the belief that Pissarro’s work was inherently political. How can paintings of rural peasant women be political, one immediately asks? Pissarro’s paintings do not simply depict strenuous peasant labour on agricultural lands. Instead, they are Pissarro’s pictorial translations of anarchist ideas. The canvases represent rural women in the times of aggressive industrialisation and urbanisation, an enthusing subject that was a point of focus by scores of 19th century artists. Placing peasants at the center of his pictorial innovations was Pissarro’s act of rebellion against a society he was growing to despise.
Pissarro was an ardent anarchist. However, he was by no means the cartoonist’s stereotype of an anarchist—bearded, cloaked and carrying a spherical bomb. The new artistic avant-garde of Paris, who matured in France in the 1880s and 1890s, were adherents of socialist-anarchist ideas and subscribed to the non-violent Communism of Jean Grave, ÉliséeReclus, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, or Peter Kropotkin. The anarchism Pissarro championed is encapsulated by the entry for "Anarchism” that Kropotkin wrote in 1910for the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica:
[A] theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government—harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups…
Pissarro believed in the transformative power of art and its capacity to educate the masses on social reality and its injustices. The Gleaners (1889) is an ideologically charged canvas that carries a clear social message, in line with the anarchist teachings—executed in a meticulous pointillist Neo-Impressionist technique, a scientific method conceived by Georges Seurat to instruct the artist’s sensation by the strict observation of optical laws to recapitulate the raw materials of visual perception. The scene in The Gleaners is stripped from any sources of centralised, oppressive authority, presenting women left to work unsupervised at the farms—the painting is the artist’s visualisation of a modern utopia where the women peasants are the heroines. The protagonists of The Gleaners are sourced from the same model studies and are amongst recurring female characters in varying configurations that can be spotted in Pissarro’s paintings from the Pontoise period, many of which were also featured in the Basel show. Amongst these are Country Path (1886), Apple Tree in the Sunlight, Éragny (1887) or Apple Harvest (1888), all of which represent a decentralised village community that is at the heart of the anarchist social model.
Observers were quick to collate Pissarro’s peasant scenes (especially The Gleaners) with Jean-François Millet’s, specifically, The Gleaners (1857), an association the artists himself firmly rejected. Degas comments on the affinity between the rural scenes of the two artists: ”Millet? His Sower is sowing for Mankind. Pissarro’s peasants are working to make a living.” Next to Millet’s figures, Pissarro’s peasants strike as rigid, prototypical, ungraceful, and relieved of Millet’s false grandeur. An evident paradox is present in Pissarro’s peasant studies: while they represent a pre-industrial reality of tenuous manual work, detached from the realm of the capitalist urbanity, they are innately modern images. Pissarro did not share the definition of a modern woman with Renoir or Degas, who were engrossed in evoking the female representatives of the Parisian bourgeoisie to which they belonged, liberated and often Rabelaisian. Instead, the artist’s paintings represent a progressive society informed by anarchist paradigms of equality.
Pissarro rarely engaged in overt condemnation of the class system and capitalism’s exploitation of the urban worker. However, the artist manifested his political beliefs by portraying the positive and humbling values of manual labour. This, Pissarro achieved through exploring three dominant themes: rural leisure, rural labour, and rural commerce. The artist was hopeful that, despite numerous setbacks of the 19th century, the communal anarchist ideals would soon crystalise: “the movement of ideas in present society tends with extraordinary energy toward the elaboration of new philosophical and scientific systems destined to become law in the societies of the future.” He did not wait and implemented the change he wished to see in the society on a micro-level by enacting a communal family workshop, École d'Eragny, inaugurated in harmony with the anarchist ideals of cooperative work. The pensive and reserved Pissarro that looks at the viewer from one of his last paintings before his death, Self-Portrait (1903), and concludes the show would be disappointed to find out that it is only in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 that a rural anarchist utopia materialised on a considerable scale, albeit for a limited amount of time: roughly three million people erected collectivised communes in parts of Spain not overrun by General Franco’s troops.
However, Pissarro’s tired eyes eternalised on his fourth and last self-portrait would light up had he found out that paintings that depicted the building of a classless society became the officially sanctioned art style in the Soviet Union between 1932 and 1988 that spread to other socialist countries after World War II. Regardless of how one ’critically evaluates Communism as a socio-political model, it is difficult not to correlate the purpose of Pissarro’s peasant scenes and the doctrine of Socialist Realism. The former embraced Proudhon’s conceptualisation of an artist’s role: “to paint men in the sincerity of their nature and their habits, at their work, accomplishing their social and domestic duties … above all, without posturing,” which by portraying individual freedom becomes an indirect attack on an exploitative society. The latter, however, is an illustration of socialist ideals, such as the emancipation of the proletariat through a naturalistic romanticized portrayal of farmers and workers, purposeful and youthful. Thus, Camille Pissarro can be seen not only as the precursor of Impressionism but can also be hailed as having paved the way towards Socialist Realism (even though he would have been appalled by its style).
- Recollections of George Moore.