A new exhibition of the works of Camille Pissarro has opened in Barcelona. Although somewhat overshadowed by Monet and Renoir, Pissarro (1830-1903) has always been one of my favourite impressionists. I especially love his street scenes of London and Paris, painted from high up and showing the changing effects of light in rain, fog, snow and sun. Despite all the great artists who have worked there, Paris has never looked better than it does in the hands of Pissarro.
So it was a surprise to find that these street scenes come mostly from the end of his life. In fact, Pissarro entered a purple period at a time when most people are buying cardigans and comfy slippers. When he was 61, Pissarro started suffering from an eye infection. This eye disease stopped him from painting en plein air, as he had loved to do in the French and English countryside. Forced indoors, the elderly Pissarro started working on street scenes, especially the views from his Paris apartment.
It made me wonder whether infirmity is the mother of invention. Pissarro’s greatest work came from having to compensate for a medical condition. The same happened to Henri Matisse (1869-1954). At the age of 71, Matisse had an operation on his intestines which left him bed bound and in incredible pain. Unable to paint, the elderly artist started making pictures by cutting shapes out of coloured paper. This produced the famous collages such as the Nu bleu, which remain his most popular and iconic artworks.
Like Matisse, Pissarro reached his artistic peak when he was weak and in old age. Pissarro’s cityscapes of Paris are lovely snapshots of the city at the time of the Belle Époque. They are also deceptively simple.
The trick of impressionism is that it uses lots of dots or dashes which, when viewed from a distance, create a clearer image. Because of the mingling of these dashes of colour, the painting seems to shimmer and move, mimicking the effect of natural light. Thus a static object, a painting, can capture a fleeting moment of life in action.
To take advantage of this illusion, the viewer needs to stand back from the painting. However, I noticed that most people in the museum chose to look at the pictures from a distance of about two feet. That makes sense if you are an artist and you want to examine how the painting is put together. Most viewers, like me, really need to look at the image from further away to get the full impact. There was ample space in the Caixa Forum gallery to do this. I wonder if people were standing so near to the pictures because we are now used to staring at computer screens, so we expect to look at images close up.
The exhibition is at the Caixa Forum in Barcelona until January 26, 2014 but I am sure that it will go on tour thereafter so hopefully it will also come to gallery near you soon.