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First exhibition in Spain of Camille Pissarro's work opens at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
A man looks at the painting "The old road to Ennery at Pontoise" (L) by Camille Pissaro (R) next to the painting "Still life with peonies and Mock orange" during the opening of the first monographic exhibition in Spain on Danish-French impressionist painter Camille Pissarro at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, on June 3, 2013. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET.

By: Guillermo Solana

MADRID.- The Museo Thyssen‐Bornemisza is presenting the first monographic exhibition in Spain on the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (1830‐1903). The exhibition brings together 79 works loaned from numerous museums and collections world‐wide, including a famous palette on which the artist painted a rural scene using all the colours of the spectrum. Landscape, the prevailing genre within Pissarro’s oeuvre, provides the focus of the exhibition, which is organised chronologically around the different places in which the artist lived and worked. While Pissarro spent most of his life in villages such as Louveciennes, Pointoise and Éragny, the last two rooms in the exhibition are devoted to the urban views that he painted in the last decade of his life, including his numerous depictions of Paris, London, Rouen, Dieppe and Le Havre.

Curated by Guillermo Solana with Paula Luengo as technical curator and produced by the staff of the Museo Thyssen‐Bornemisza, this exhibition will firstly be shown in Madrid, from 4 June to 15 September, after which it opens on 15 October at the CaixaForum in Barcelona. The catalogue includes an essay by the curator, a chronology by Paula Luengo and two texts by the leading specialists on Pissarro: Richard R. Brettell and Joachim Pissarro (a descendent of the artist).

“If one were to choose a single visual subject that sums up Pissarro’s entire oeuvre, that subject could well be the road: a street leading out of a town, a track cutting through a field, a path meandering into a wood. At times, the road coincides with the vanishing lines of a composition; at others, it follows the curve bordering a vegetable garden or the skirt of a hillside – motifs that multiply the representational possibilities. In his late Paris canvases, the artist focused on perspective views of the city’s main arteries, such as the Avenue de l’Opéra or the Boulevard Montmartre. The difficulty of the road subject in Pissarro’s oeuvre lies in its ubiquity. How can one characterize an element that appears everywhere, and from the most variegated points of view?

(…) In early 1869, Pissarro left Pontoise for Louveciennes, a town with a thousand inhabitants on the banks of the Seine. There he rented a large house on one of the main roads, which led to Versailles. Pissarro’s colleagues gradually ended up visiting the area. In the summer of 1869, Monet and Renoir painted in nearby Bougival, and in December Monet moved to Louveciennes. In their Louveciennes landscapes, Pissarro and Monet would experiment together with perspectives of the Route de Versailles, varying the angle with the picture plane and the width of the visual field. Their views of the tree‐lined road in winter have the sobriety and theatrical power of Hobbema’s celebrated painting, The Avenue at Middelharnis. Like Hobbema, Pissarro and Monet used the trees to control the regular rhythm of the receding space, which otherwise might have seemed almost vertiginous, as is the case with the approaches to perspective of Caillebotte, Van Gogh or Munch. Monet and Pissarro, however, add an element that is barely evident in Hobbema: shadows. Joachim Pissarro has emphasized the importance of two aspects intertwined in a dialogic relationship in Pissarro’s Louveciennes landscapes, namely, shadow and structure.4 The buildings, the trees and the road are the material supports for the space and they make up its fundamental structure; the shadows, meanwhile, create a secondary, ghostly structure.

(…) It might be useful here to contrast the view “from the front” and “in profile” of Pissarro’s large, open spaces. In Road to Ennery in Pontoise, some villagers move along the road that is laid out parallel to the picture plane and to the horizon. The viewer lacks an imaginary point of entry into the landscape, which can only be contemplated from outside, as if it were a closed world. All of the emphasis falls on the flat geometry of the image, in the fields divided into triangles and trapezoids. One of the principal lines climbs on the right towards the horizon: it is the highway leading from Pontoise to the nearby village of Ennery, and it will be the subject of the following painting.

The Old Road to Ennery at Pontoise is a deceptively simple painting with certain lurking ambiguities. The dominant road represented frontally ends at an intersecting lane that traverses the entire painting. It seems to present a flat stretch of land, but it soon becomes clear that the ground slopes downwards on the right. The central road, in its twists and turns, anticipates Van Gogh’s turbulent Wheatfield with Crows with the noteworthy difference that around the central road, Pissarro includes a series of marks in the ground that converge and point towards the horizon, while in Van Gogh’s, the roads fork out and diverge, none of them leading towards the horizon, for they either end blindly or veer off the sides of the painting.

(…) In his preliminary study to the catalogue raisonné of the painter’s oeuvre, Joachim Pissarro establishes a fundamental distinction between the artist’s two compositional methods, “one based on right angles, the other, which Cézanne was equally adept in, teasingly askew”: ‘When using the orthogonal method, Pissarro builds up the pictorial space with a system of lines that intersect perpendicularly for the most part, creating the impression that the picture surface is given over to a well‐constructed aggregate of vertical and horizontal planes (stone walls, ploughed fields with essentially horizontal or vertical striations).

When using the imbalanced composition, on the other hand, he places the viewer in the position of someone perched with one foot on solid ground and the other on a sloping plane or overhang. The latter is a strange method, with the perspective appearing to fall away to the left or to the right under the artist’s feet, at once fascinating and oddly disorienting. It structures some of the most absorbing works of Pissarro’s impressionist period: the Brooklyn Museum’s The Climb, Rue de la Côte‐du‐Jalet, Pontoise [cat. 18] is one noteworthy example; so is Houses at L’Hermitage, Pontoise, and there is a host of analogous compositions. Pissarro, Cézanne and Gauguin (especially in some of the latter’s Brittany landscapes) were the only artists to push this technique to the point where it actually inspires one with a feeling of dizziness. All three of them were fascinated by highly unusual compositions that seem to undermine the very position of the artist, as if to emphasize how eminently precarious his point of view really is.’

The fundamental importance of this passage lies in its unveiling the fact that The Climb, a painting whose striking originality has always been stressed, is not an island but rather the apex of a submerged continent in Pissarro’s oeuvre – and that in Pissarro one may find the seed not only of the constructive character of the painting of Cézanne and that of the early Gauguin, but also their de‐constructive aspects. Particularly acute is Joachim Pissarro’s observation that the painter’s experiments (as well as those of his disciples, Cézanne and Gauguin) can produce “a feeling of dizziness.” Could the wise, temperate Pissarro have thus been a master of vertigo?

(…) The most lucid response to Pissarro’s first views of Paris, exhibited in 1894 at the Durand‐Ruel gallery, are a few brief lines from the critic Paul Dupray: “In the Parisian physiognomies (…), the viewer will find vignettes expressing life in the streets with a keen intelligence of the urban hustle and bustle.” That vertige urbain could refer to the quick tempo of life in Paris, which Pissarro captures so well in the streets teeming with figures and carriages. But this vertigo is also, more literally, the sensation that is created when the artist, who had formerly worked with his feet firmly planted on the ground, looks down from a window, painting high‐angle views of the streets of Paris. Pissarro thus advanced deep into a territory explored earlier by Monet in his views of the Boulevard des Capucines and then by Caillebotte in his extraordinary boulevards. In his now classic text on aerial views in the modern art tradition, Kirk Varnedoe situates Pissarro’s Parisian series in the wake of Caillebotte’s experiments. Like Caillebotte, Pissarro ended up eliminating the horizon in some of these works, such that they produce forms which appear to float within the visual field. The high‐angle point of view cancels out the conventional signs of anisotropy, that is, the directional sense of up and down, the value of the force of gravity. The street becomes a collection of forms randomly distributed on a plane. For Varnedoe, these aerial views, subsequently developed further in avant‐garde photography by Rodchenko, Moholy‐Nagy, André Kertész and many others, anticipated the vertiginous all‐over of Jackson Pollock’s painting.”

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