I Jules Laforgue (1860-1887)
Laforgue is best known as a poet and literary critic, but his essay on Impressionism
is the work of a writer with a strong and sympathetic interest in modern painting, and with a distinctive understanding of the role played by colour in distinguishing the modern from the traditional. In identifying the colour effects of the Impressionists with a form of progressive evolution of the sensibilities he anticipates claims that were to be made by Pissarro and the Neo-Impressionists in the following decade (cf. VIB 11 and 14). For the relevant theories of Fechner and Helmholtz see IV87 and 8. Between 1881 and 1886 Laforgue was retained as Reader of French at the Prussian court, and the essay was planned early in 1883 for translation and publication in a German journal. It was intended that it should coincide with the exhibition of a small collection of Impressionist paintings at the Gurlitt Gallery in Berlin. The exhibition took place in October of that year, but in fact no German publication of the essay has been traced. It seems likely that it was not finished in time. It was first published as 'L'Impressionisme' in Laforgue, Mélanges posthumes, Oeuvres complètes, fourth edition, volume III, Paris, 1902-3, pp. 133-45. This translation by William Jay Smith was originally published in Art News, LV, May 1956, pp. 43-5.
Physiological Origin of Impressionism: The Prejudice of Traditional Line. It is clear that if pictorial work springs from the brain, the soul, it does so only by means of the eye, the eye being basically similar to the ear in music; the Impressionist is therefore a modernist painter endowed with an uncommon sensibility of the eye. He is one who, forgetting the pictures amassed through centuries in museums, forgetting his optical art school training - line, perspective, colour - by dint of living and seeing frankly and primitively in the bright open air, that is, outside his poorly lighted studio, whether the city street, the country, or the interiors of houses, has succeeded in remaking for himself a natural eye, and in seeing naturally and painting as simply as he sees. Let me explain.
Leaving aside the two artistic illusions, the two criteria on which aestheticians have foolishly insisted -Absolute Beauty and Absolute Human Taste - one can point to three supreme illusions by which technicians of painting have always lived: line, perspective, studio lighting. To these three things, which have become second nature to the painter, correspond the three steps of the Impressionist formula: form obtained not by line but solely by vibration and contrast of colour; theoretic perspective replaced by the
VIB Painting: Expression and Colour 937
natural perspective of colour vibration and contrast; studio lighting - that is, a painting, whether representing a city street, the country, or a lighted drawing room, painted in the even light of the painter's studio, and worked on at any hour - this replaced by plein-air, open air - that is, by the painting done in front of its subject, however impractical, and in the shortest possible time, considering how quickly the light changes. Let us look in detail at these three points, these three dead language procedures, and see them replaced by Life itself.
Line is an old deep-rooted prejudice whose origin must be sought in the first experiments of human sensation. The primitive eye, knowing only white light with its decomposable shadows, and so unaided by distinguishing coloration, availed itself of tactile experiment. Then, through continual association and interdependence, and the transference of acquired characteristics between the tactile and visual faculties, the sense of form moved from the fingers to the eye. Fixed form does not originate with the eye, in its progressive refinement, has drawn from it the useful sense of sharp contours, which is the basis of the childish illusion of the translation of living non-dimensional reality by line and perspective.
Essentially the eye should know only luminous vibration, just as the acoustic nerve sonly sonorous vibration. The eye, after having begun by appropriating, refining and systematizing the tactile faculties, has lived, developed, and maintained itself is state of illusion by centuries of line drawings; and hence its evolution as organ of luminous vibration has been extremely retarded in relation to that of the ear, and in respect to colour, it is still a rudimentary intelligence. And so while the ear in general is easily analyses harmonics like an auditory prism, the eye sees light only and synthetically and has only vague powers of decomposing it in the prescence of nature, despite the three fibrils described by Young, which constitute the facets of the prisms.' Then a natural eye - or a refined eye, for this organ, before moving ahead, must first become primitive again by ridding itself of tactile illusions –a natural eye forgets tactile illusions and their convenient dead language of line, and acts only in its faculty of prismatic sensibility. It reaches a point where it can see reality in the living atmosphere of forms, decomposed, refracted, reflected by beings and things, in incessant variation. Such is this first characteristic of the Impressionist eye.
The Academic Eye and the Impressionist Eye: Polyphony of Colour. In a landscape flooded with light, in which beings are outlined as if in coloured grisaille, where the academic painter sees nothing but a broad expanse of whiteness, the Impressionist sees light as bathing everything not with a dead whiteness but rather with a thousand vibrant struggling colours of rich prismatic decomposition. Where the one sees only the external outline of objects, the other sees the real living lines built not in geometric forms but in a thousand irregular strokes, which, at a distance, establish life. Where one sees things placed in their regular respective planes according to a skeleton reducible to pure theoretic design, the other sees perspective established by a thousand trivial touches of tone and brush, by the varieties of atmospheric states induced by moving planes.
Impressionist eye is, in short, the most advanced eye in human evolution,
which until now has grasped and rendered the most complicated combinations of nuances known.
938 The Idea of a Modern Art
The Impressionist sees and renders nature as it is - that is, wholly in the vibration of colour. No line, light, relief, perspective, or chiaroscuro, none of those childish classifications: all these are in reality converted into the vibration of colour and must be obtained on canvas solely by the vibration of colour.
In the little exhibition at the Gurlitt Gallery, the formula is visible especially in the work of Monet and Pissarro where everything is obtained by a thousand little dancing strokes in every direction like straws of colour - all in vital competition for the whole impression. No longer an isolated melody, the whole, thing is a symphony which is living and changing like the 'forest voices' of Wagner, all struggling to become the great voice of the forest - like the Unconscious, the law of the world, which is the great melodic voice resulting from the symphony of the consciousness of races and individuals. Such is the principle of the plein-air Impressionist school. And the eye of the master will be the one capable of distinguishing and recording the most sensitive gradations and decompositions on a simple flat canvas. This principle has been applied not systematically but with genius by certain of our poets and novelists.
False Training of the Eyes. Now everyone knows that we do not see the colours of the palette in themselves but rather according to the illusions which the paintings of the past have developed in us, and above all we see them in the light which the palette itself gives off. (Compare the intensity of Turner's most dazzling sun with the flame of the weakest candle.) What one might call an innate harmonic agreement operates automatically between the visual effect of the landscape and the paint on the palette. This is the proportional language of painting, which grows richer in proportion to the development of the painter's optical sensibility. The same goes for size and perspective. In this sense, one might even go so far as to say that the painter's palette is to real light and to the tricks of colour it plays on reflecting and refracting realities what perspective on a flat canvas is to the real planes of spatial reality. On these two things, the painter builds.
Mobility of Landscape and Mobility of the Painter's Impressions. You critics who codify the beautiful and guide the development of art, I would have you look at this painter who sets down his easel before a rather evenly lighted landscape - an afternoon scene, for example. Let us suppose that instead of painting his landscape in several- sittings, he has the good sense to record its tonal values in fifteen minutes - that is, let us suppose that he is an Impressionist. He arrives on the scene with his own individual optic sensibility. Depending on the state of fatigue or preparation the painter has just been through, his sensibility is at the same time either bedazzled or receptive; and it is not the sensibility of a single organ, but rather the three competitive sensibilities of Young's fibrils. In the course of these fifteen minutes, the lighting of the landscape - the vibrant sky, the fields, the trees, everything within the insubstantial network of the rich atmosphere with the constantly undulating life of its invisible reflecting or refracting corpuscles - has undergone infinite changes, has, in a word, lived.
In the course of these fifteen minutes, the optical sensibility of the painter has changed time and time again, has been upset in its appreciation of the constancy and relative values of the landscape tones. Imponderable fusions of tone, opposing perceptions, imperceptible distractions, subordinations and dominations, variations in the force of reaction of the three optical fibrils one upon the other and on the external world, infinite and infinitesimal struggles.
VIB Painting: Expression and Colour 939
"One of a myriad examples: I see a certain shade of violet; I lower my eyes towards the palette to mix it and my eye is involuntarily drawn by the white of my shirt sleeve; my eye has changed, my violet suffers.
So, in short, even if one remains only fifteen minutes before a landscape, one's work will never be the real equivalent of the fugitive reality, but rather the record of the response of a certain unique sensibility to a moment which can never be reproduced exactly for the individual, under the excitement of a landscape at a certain moment of luminous life which can never be duplicated.
There are roughly three states of mind in the presence of a landscape: first, the wing keenness of the optical sensibility under the excitement of this new scene; second, the peak of keenness; third, a period of gradual nervous exhaustion. To these should be added the constantly changing atmosphere of the best galleries where the canvas will be shown, the minute daily life of the landscape tones absorbed "perpetual struggle. And, moreover with the spectators the same variation of sensibility, and with each an infinite number of unique moments of sensibility.
Subject and object are then irretrievably in motion, inapprehensible and unapprehending. In the flashes of identity between subject and object lies the nature of genius. And any attempt to codify such flashes is but an academic pastime.
Double Illusion of Absolute Beauty and Absolute Man! Innumerable Human Keyards. Aestheticians have always talked a great deal of nonsense about one or the other of two illusions: the objectivity of Absolute Beauty, and the subjectivity of solute Man - that is, Taste.
Today we have a more exact feeling for the life within us and outside us. Each man is, according to his moment in time, his racial milieu and social situation, his moment of individual evolution, a kind of keyboard on which the exterior world plays in a certain way. My own keyboard is perpetually changing, and there is no other like it. All keyboards are legitimate.
The exterior world likewise is a perpetually changing symphony (as is illustrated by Fechner's law, 2 which says that the perception in differences declines in inverse proporition to their intensities).
The optical arts spring from the eye and solely from the eye.
There do not exist anywhere in the world two eyes identical as organs or faculties. All our organs are engaged in a vital struggle: with the painter, it is the eye that is dominant; with the musician, the ear; with the philosopher, the powers of the mind, etc. The eye most deserving of our admiration is the one which has evolved to the greatest extent; and consequently the most admirable painting will be not that which displays the academic fancies of 'Hellenic beauty,' 'Venetian colour,' 'Cornelius' ,'thought,' etc., but rather that which reveals this eye in the refinement of its nuances or the complication of its lines.
The atmosphere most favourable to the freedom of this evolution lies in the suppression
of schools, juries, medals, and other such childish paraphernalia, the
patronage of the state, the parasitism of blind art critics; and in the
encouragement of a nihilistic dilettantism and open minded anarchy like that
which reigns amid French
940 The Idea of a Modern Art
artists today: Laissez faire, laissez Passer. Law, beyond human concerns, must follow its automatic pattern, and the wind of the Unconscious must be free to blow where it will.
Definition of Plein-Air Painting. Open air, the formula applicable first and foremost to the landscape painters of the Barbizon School (the name is taken from the village near the forest of Fontainebleau) does not mean exactly what it says. This open air concept governs the entire work of Impressionist painters, and means the painting of beings and things in their appropriate atmosphere: out-of-door scenes, simple interiors, or ornate drawing rooms seen by candlelight, streets gas-lit corridors factories, market places, hospitals, etc.
Explanation of Apparent Impressionist Exaggerations. The ordinary eye of the public and of the non-artistic critic, trained to see reality in the harmonies fixed and established for it by its host of mediocre painters - this eye, as eye, cannot stand up to the keen eye of the artist. The latter, being more sensitive to luminous variation, naturally records on canvas the relationship between rare, unexpected, and unknown subtleties of luminous variation. The blind, of course, will cry out against wilful eccentricity. But even if one were to make allowance for an eye bewildered and exasperated by the haste of these impressionistic notes taken in the heat of sensory intoxication, the language of the palette with respect to reality would still be a conventional tongue susceptible to new seasoning. And is not this new seasoning more artistic, more alive, and hence more fecund for the future than the same old sad academic recipes?
Programme for Future Painters. Some of the liveliest most daring painters one has ever known, and also the most sincere, living as they do in the midst of mockery and indifference - that is, almost in poverty, with attention only from a small section of the press - are today demanding that the State have nothing to do with art, that the School of Rome (the Villa Medici) be sold, that the Institute be closed, that there be no more medals or rewards, and that artists be allowed to live in that anarchy which is life, which means everyone left to his own resources, and not hampered or destroyed by academic training which feeds on the past. No more official beauty; the public, unaided, will learn to see for itself and will be attracted naturally to those painters whom they find modern and vital. No more official salons and medals than there are for writers. Like writers working in solitude and seeking to have their productions displayed in their publishers' windows, painters will work in their own way and seek to have their paintings hung in galleries. Galleries will be their salons.
Framing. In their exhibitions the Independents have substituted intelligent, refined, imaginative frames for the old gilt frames which are the stock in trade of academic convention. A green sunlit landscape, a white winter page, an interior with dazzling lights and colourful clothes require different sorts of frames which the respective painters alone can provide, just as a woman knows best what material she should wear, what shade of powder is most suited to her complexion, and what colour of wallpaper she should choose for her boudoir. Some of the new frames are in solid colours: natural wood, white, pink, green, jonquil yellow; and others are lavish combinations of colours and styles. While this new style of frame has had repercussions in official salons, there it has produced nothing but ornate bourgeois imitations.
1) According to the Young-Helmholtz theory of colour vision, there are three elementary retinal and post-retinal processes, which produce sensations of red, yellow-green (chlor), and blue; all other colours, including white, are blendings of these.
2 )'In order that the intensity of a sensation may increase in arithmetical progression, the stimulus must increase in geometric progression.'