Kunstmuseum Basel presents a comprehensive survey of Camille Pissarro's work

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Kunstmuseum Basel presents a comprehensive survey of Camille Pissarro's work
Camille Pissarro, La cuillette des pois, Eragny, 1893. Öl auf Leinwand, 46.2 x 55.1 cm. Photo: Julian Salinas.

BASEL.- Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) ranks among the most distinguished artists of nineteenth-century France. A central figure in Impressionism, he exerted considerable influence over the movement’s evolution. Camille Pissarro. The Studio of Modernism at the Kunstmuseum Basel is the artist’s first retrospective in Switzerland in over six decades. It combines a comprehensive survey of Pissarro’s oeuvre with a spotlight on his collaborative practice and his key role in paving the way for modernism. The exhibition pays tribute to an artist whose achievements are too often overshadowed in histories of the art of the nineteenth century by those of his more prominent colleagues. Artists from several generations, some of whom went on to become leading modernists around the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, trusted his counsel as a friend and mentor. The presentation sheds light on Pissarro’s sustained exchanges of ideas with them and contextualizes his diverse oeuvre with works by Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Mary Cassatt, and others. A panoramic display of the birth of modern art, the exhibition thus also narrates a story outside the art-historical mainstream.

Exhibitions of Impressionist art have a long tradition at the Kunstmuseum Basel. Pissarro is especially dear to the museum, as thecollections include eight of his paintings as well as ten drawings and watercolors and ten prints by his hand. Un coin de l’Hermitage, Pontoise (1878) was the first Impressionist painting to enter the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, the public art collection of Basel. Its acquisition in 1912 at the initiative of three young artists laid the foundation for the collection of Impressionist art. Only this spring, the museum welcomed Pissarro’s La Maison Rondest, l’Hermitage, Pontoise (1875), gifted to the Kunstmuseum Basel by a Swiss private collection.

Pissarro’s artistic stance is more complex than those of his friends. His approach differs markedly from the themes with which Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and others won the favor of contemporary audiences. For example, Pissarro was the only Impressionist for whom rendering the modest lives especially of the rural populace was a central interest. Rather than depicting the world of the well-to-do bourgeoisie, he concerned himself with the landscape cultivated by humans and the experiences of peasants and agricultural laborers.

Politics, society, and the art market

Pissarro—very much unlike Monet or Renoir—was averse to any kind of aestheticization. That is presumably why the painter never achieved commercial success and found himself in financial difficulties throughout his life. Pissarro took a leading role in setting up a self-organized cooperative through which artists would exhibit and sell their own work: The Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs would make art history under the name Impressionists.

In the 1880s, Impressionism, whose merits had long been sharply contested, garnered growing public acclaim; private and public collections began to acquire works, allowing their creators to make a living. At this very moment, Pissarro aligned himself with a further revolution in painting, Neo-Impressionism, giving fresh proof of his tenacious pursuit of artistic progress. The radical aesthetics and scientific method of Neo-Impressionism, espoused by Paul Signac, Georges Seurat, Louis Hayet, and Pissarro’s oldest son Lucien, struck him as a logical progression from Impressionism. In the 1890s, he returned to the Impressionist style with its looser brushwork, yet he remained faithful to his conviction that good art was revolutionary at its core and championed an imperturbable faith in modernity.

The painter made no secret of his interest in the writings of anarchism and his support for efforts to disseminate them. Like many of his contemporaries, especially among the Neo-Impressionists, Pissarro was persuaded that the unequal distribution of resources, especially in metropolitan centers like Paris or London, would sooner or later precipitate an overthrow of the existing social order. Unlike some of those who shared his politics, however, Pissarro believed in a peaceful and nonviolent revolution.

The extent to which his art reflects his political convictions has long occupied art historians informed by social history. He did not wish his pictures to be read as visualizations of a political program. Still, core ideas of anarchism resonate in Pissarro’s revolutionary technique, his quest for autonomy and liberty in any situation in life, and his determination to break fresh ground against all resistance.

An irrepressible experimentalist

Pissarro’s life was shaped by the events and historical dynamics of the nineteenth century. He embodied some of the most complex conflicts of his time and thought that artists were called upon to articulate critical reflections both on the prevailing ideas and on political, social, and economic realities. His probing engagement with these conditions led him to create works that speak directly to urgent concerns of today.

His background made Pissarro an outsider among the French artists with whom he socialized throughout his life. Born in 1830 to Jewish parents on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, then a Danish colony, he was the only Impressionist to have been raised on two continents. He spoke three languages (French, English, and Spanish) and was conversant with ethnic and cultural diversity from childhood on. His identity, his perspective on painting, and his worldview were informed both by his itinerant early life and by his exchanges of ideas with other painters.

Pissarro’s extraordinary curiosity led him to embrace creative experimentation and novel forms of representation. Drawing inspiration from a milieu that included artists like Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet, he strove to strike up collaborative relationships with others who would join him in developing an artistic vision independent of the Academy.

More than any other member of his circle, Pissarro had an intuitive grasp of his painter friends’ feelings and ideas, nurturing their potential and learning from them in turn. One might even say that his capacity for friendship was a unique “gift.” Its basis was his respect for the artistic individuality of each one of his colleagues and his belief in the equality of different positions. Pissarro was distrustful of constraining hierarchies and averse to any dogma. Artistic collaboration, to him, had nothing to do with seniority; as he saw it, the free exchange of ideas among equals was its foundation. The exhibition illustrates different interconnections between the protagonists of the period, limning an alternative to the model of the artist as a genius working in isolation from the outside world.

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