Impressionism is like the Energizer Bunny. It keeps going and going. The movement originated in France in the mid-19th century, but the principles upon which it was based continue to intrigue artists. A thought-provoking exhibit now on view at Opus Gallery, called Russian and Soviet Impressionism From Private Collections, demonstrates that you don't have to live in Paris to have the urge to capture fleeting moments on canvas with studied carelessness.
The show, which consists of 25 paintings, doesn't offer many surprises. One sometimes gets the feeling that some of the artists are on autopilot, following a formula rather than responding to some inner need for expression. Although the artists received superior training in reputable academies, frequently there is a lack of any true creative spark. Still lifes like Vladimir Litvinenko's "In the Garden," for example, rehash traditional impressionist themes and strategies without adding anything distinctive to the mix.
What the show does do is confirm that impressionism is resilient, relevant, and not apt to go away anytime soon. The style is alive, even if individual practitioners don't add their own distinctive voice to it. The French novelist Anatole France may have come up with the best reason why impressionism continues to have such a hold on artists and audiences when he said, "We are condemned to know things only through the impression that they make on us." His countrymen in the late 19th century knew what he was talking about, and so do we. Indeed, it's a familiar idea that had an impact on the American consciousness in the 20th century. It can be easily gleaned from a film like Citizen Kane, a novel like William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, or any episode of Ally McBeal.
What does this mean in practice? A dedicated impressionist (no matter what country he comes from) is not after the "essence" of his subject. He doesn't believe anything of the sort exists. Rather, the goal is to capture on canvas the fleeting sensations that he has as time flies by. The way we view the world, according to this line of thinking, is tempered by the way light hits an object, the time of day, weather conditions, and not least, our preconceived notions about all these things. The best one can do, in other words, is to fix for all time a very provisional, momentary fragment of existence.
This exhibit demonstrates that modern artists still have much to learn from past impressionist masters like Monet and Pissarro, who excelled at mixing emotional directness with technical virtuosity. Under these circumstances, the larger message, about the thrill of capturing a fleeting sensation, gets lost. This message needs to be heard today, when so much art seems to delight in its own inscrutability.
One is certainly grateful for the circumstances that allowed the show to happen. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a new policy of openness. This departure from the old Communist attitude of information control became known as Glasnost, and from it emerged a new relationship between artists from the Soviet Republics and collectors in the West.
The show at Opus focuses on such artists as Konstantin Lomykin (1924-1986) and members of the Odessa group, who were influenced by French impressionism. A statement prepared by the London Art Group Inc. (based in Ontario), an organization striving to bring these artists to the attention of buyers in the West, wisely downplays the debt that they owe to their French impressionist precursors. Instead, we are told that, in this work, "formal experiment often leads to metaphysical flight, and aesthetic rebellion is confined within the frame of the painting without reference to any social theories." Translation: It's not particularly adventurous stuff, but what a relief to have all this nonpolitical art when, during the Stalinist era, Russian artists were encouraged (read: forced) to create visual hymns to machinery, the heroic worker, and the 1917 Revolution.
Lomykin turns in the strongest work of the show. Trained at the Odessa Art College, where he graduated in 1951, this Ukrainian native participated in international exhibitions in Bulgaria, Hungary, and the United States, and examples of his work are now included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Ukrainian Art in Kiev. "Autumn Is Coming," a vibrant oil in the Opus exhibit, depicts a thickly wooded area with a clearing in the foreground. Though the subject matter is mundane (one can imagine the artist ambling along in a thick forest of his native Ukraine, then stopping to swiftly execute this painting), the piece is enlivened by the quick, confident brushwork, which reveals each stroke of the artist's hand. The color choices are atypical, given the subject (a combination of light purples, deep blues, and hints of orange), but such choices remind us that this vision is not meant to be definitive. This is simply a bit of the Ukrainian countryside as one artist experienced it on a particular summer day, shortly before autumn.
Such art shares with French impressionism an interest in the effects of light, rapid brushwork, and subject matter chosen from contemporary life. However, another Lomykin piece departs from the French norm. While an artist like Monet (in his water lily series) painted forms dissolved in a play of light, artists like Lomykin, in works such as "Window," vary expectations for expressive emphasis. The painting shows a half-opened window leading to a misty view of a backyard garden. The window itself looks as though it would be solid to the touch, and its outlines are precisely delineated. However, beyond the window we see green and aquamarine mists of color, as though grass and sky have blended into one another. It's a vivid metaphor for what the artist is doing: leaving the solid and tangible world for one that is less defined. Looking beyond the window becomes, in this context, an assertion of artistic independence.
Other works in the show are not on this level. Albin Gavdzinsky's oils -- one depicting sunbathers at a country resort, another of a bunch of watermelons -- are disappointing. The artist borrows from impressionist painters like Georges Seurat, but doesn't add anything of his own. The impressionists often used separate brushstrokes to convey the sparkle of light out of doors. Seurat, taking the idea to its extreme, originated a method called pointillism, in which tiny dabs of pure color were applied to the canvas in a pattern of dots. The juxtaposed colors are then combined by the viewer's eye. A Gavdzinsky oil called "In the Park" draws on such methods in its depiction of a seaside park. A woman's dress is a tiny dab of pure red, while the leaves of some trees are dots of green. It's a festive scene, with its suggestion of a relaxed Sunday afternoon, but it's derivative, and there is something disquieting about viewing work by a 20th-century artist from the former Soviet Union that looks as though it's depicting Belle Epoque Paris.
One explanation for this lack of adventurousness is that, with the fall of Communism, these artists are still feeling their way. The London Art Group notes the "absence of fatalistic notions" in this art and suggests that work by artists of the Odessa school is "implicitly optimistic." Perhaps these artists, unused to speaking their minds for so long, are drawn to impressionism because they think it can help to reawaken long-dormant creative muscles. Since the works in the show are not dated (we are told simply that they span from the mid-'50s to the '80s), it's tough to anchor such speculations with evidence. In 1972 Konstantin Filatov received an award from the state for his portrait of Lenin. Are the impressionist-derived works at Opus contemporaneous with the Lenin portrait, or do they postdate Gorbachev's policy of increased openness and thus represent an assertion of artistic independence? Perhaps, too, impressionism might have no such significance for these artists. They might be painting like this simply because they find impressionism sympathetic with their own artistic methods. The exhibit invites viewers to ponder such challenging questions.
Although Lomykin's work is strong, much of the other art in this show is not. It suffers from a case of competency without soul. Impressionism is not a vital movement today, but it remains a motivating force that can help artists tap into their own creative potential. The Opus exhibit reminds us of that.