What Is behind Impressionist Revolution In Painting

Paul Cezanne, Landscape
Paul Cezanne, Landscape/peysage

Here we barely see the trees and the shrubs which Cezanne intentionally transforms into an almost undifferentiated mass, as though the viewers are extremely nearsighted. The verdure looks charmed, as if, it is a kind of an amorphous giant organism. And the house is, as if, in the pouch of the verdure or swallowed by it and in a process of being digested. We have the impression that nature is a completely autonomous life, independent, powerful, self-contained and proud presence.

Paul Cezanne, Landscape
Paul Cezanne, “Bend in Forest Road”

This “sketch” where impressionistic analysis of the forest as the abode of the sunlight, of the road as a water-fall, of the sunbeams, “caught” by branches and leafs, and where the arch of the sky dissolving the light into blueness, borders with expressionistic energy, is shaking our perception – putting it on its knees. We see the kingdom of forest as defining the destiny of the sunlight not less than the sun itself. We have the feeling that sunlight, somehow, doesn’t exist without trees, it disappears above them, and trapped by the dome of the forest it transforms the road into, as if, into a stream. We feel earthly nature’s magic power equal to that of the cosmic power of the sky. It’s, as if, sun doesn’t exist without earth.

Renoir-standingandsitte
Pierre-August Renoir, “Standing and Sitting Women in the Landscape”, 1919

Is it possible to call this painting “The Angel of Nature and Nature’s Muse”, meaning the standing woman with two opened wings of verdure and the sitting woman as nature’s soul? Renoir insists that human beings “in the landscape” are a part of nature, cannot be represented as being in their human specificity, and that this specificity barely exist. With what naturalness he eliminates the particularity of the human face “smashing” its subjectivity in the community of nature’s earthly colors! It is, as if, being not discernible from nature, belonging to its coloristic “tribe” is a great compliment to the human being who likes to see itself as the master and the boss of the world.

Pierre-August Renoir, “Reclining Nude”
Pierre-August Renoir, “Reclining Nude”

Like landscapes, according to impressionist intuition, are not supposed to be available for control by our sight, Renoir makes even the reclining nude avoid our controlling gaze. He paints her, as if, out of focus – he doesn’t want her to be appropriated, “raped” by our predatory gazes. He makes the colors of the draperies behind her and her pillow-case landscapish, but of course, not to hint that woman as such, in her fertile nudity is part of nature, but rather to emphasize that woman in all richness of her bodilyness should be perceived as independent and autonomous from projection of our needs and intentions. Surely, Renoir sees the nude woman as different from nature, and rather identifies the male gaze at her and human utilitarian gaze at nature, and in either case, he tries to block it as too consumptive and vulgar.

Claude Monet, “Landscape – Thunderstorm”
Claude Monet, “Landscape – Thunderstorm”

The thunderstorm is visualized here as a wild/rough but joyful intercourse between the sky-spirit and the earth-matter, where the sky has become materialized/densified and earth – more energized and, as if, rarefied and suspended in a transparency that found a mysterious way to blur everything inside itself. The thunderstorm transforms boat with two figures into the ripple of the water rushing into nowhere. And it transforms even the church into a kind of a white tree and the houses into, as if, a white heat, lighted by the whitish smoke of the clouds. The wind is here but its body is shattered into multiple trembles and changes. We see “two halves” of nature – sky and earth, not only as occupied with one another and independent from human existence, but as matter-of-factly marginalizing our presence in the world.

Edgar Degas, “Coastal Landscape”
Edgar Degas, “Coastal Landscape”

What is this giant body? Is it sleeping, resting, is it angry at the world, locking itself from it? Degas prevents us from identifying it more exactly, more soberly; with all the concreteness that our eyes can provide to our perception. He blurs the nudity of this earthy creature that, as if, breathing with the energy of its bodily surface. This despotic coast marginalizes the sky and dominates the sea. And it looks that Degas doesn’t recommend us to mess with it. God saves us from discovering here petroleum or natural gas or building on its muscles hotel for tourists.

Edgar Degas, “Reclining Nude”
Edgar Degas, “Reclining Nude”

Is this woman real or a mirage? With reddish coloration of the painting Degas seduces us to find it out, but simultaneously he stops us by making her completely self-isolated and indifferent to the world outside the walls of her languorous room. Hint of pointillism disincarnates her fleshiness but not completely. It problematizes her reality only for us, the viewers but in no way for herself. Her body belongs to her own gaze, her sensations, her relaxation, her not too comfortable pose. May be, she fell sleep? No way – the position of her body is too dynamic. She belongs to herself like the sky, like the night, like the aroma of her bed. Her body is opened, but not for our desires, whether platonic or naughty, ephemeral or insistent. It belongs to her thoughts, to arbitrariness of her will.
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Impressionist revolution in painting (in 19th century) expresses the deepest mutation in human spiritual sensibility – it made the attempt to make human visual perception of earthly reality more spiritual. Still, the particular perceptual sensibility carried by the leading impressionists was mainly understood operationally as a revolution in painting while the essence of this revolution was in the fact that the visual perception overwrites the anatomy of human eyes and prosaic (everyday life) connotation of our vision of the world. In other words, it is the human desire for a spiritual – disinterested and “abstract” from our material needs, perception of the reality what was responsible for the impressionist visual miracles. Behind the perceptual non-conformism lies the mutation of human spirituality, change from the traditional – transcendental spirituality, to the immanent one.

I will try to describe several strategies of making the visible world more spiritual, which impressionists use following their desire to feel the natural environment of human species as not less spiritual than the Heavens “behind” the sky. Existentialization of spirituality is an important necessity in a certain moment of the evolution of human beings because only then it is possible to pacify human feelings and behavior and make them more gentle – transcendental spirituality is too poisoned by contempt towards human flesh and by the idea of earthly life as a “transitional” one, and creates a cultural atmosphere promoting the posture of domination over nature and other human beings.

The first strategy of spiritualization of the visual natural world through visual perception is to de-naturalize it, to make it other – more mysterious and more independent from our material/survivalist needs, than when it is seen by our “everyday eyes”. And the first way to achieve this is to make the physical world less visually available to our eyes, to transcend the anatomy of our organs of vision. It is, as if, we have to see worse to appreciate the independence of the world from our survivalist/utilitarian projections/expectations! The impressionist painters force us to see the world worse than it is the case in our everyday perception. They’re, as if, telling us – the world you see when you look at it “in reality of your life” is not the real world – it is just the world that you appropriate by your greed calculating how to use it for your materialistic needs, but the world we show you is world as it is, a world liberated from projection of your need to settle in it and use it for your purposes. The genius of the impressionists as artists lies in that they change the nature of the world by changing the human perception of it by stylizing a new perception in the very form of their paintings.

The world of nature as not naturalistically visible – is the overture for the impressionist accent that the world is free, that it exists independently of our needs and has mysterious life deserving our respect and even reverie. As we see, the impressionists instead of being seen as incorrigible aesthetes are close to today’s “green activists” in Western countries. Indeed, it could be just strange if such admirably intelligent people like Cezanne, Renoir, Monet or Degas were just fixated on modification of human visual perception as goal in itself. No, they were incredibly spiritually rich human beings with human concerns, not just people with (fragmentary) aesthetic interests.

The second strategy of spiritualization of the world/nature is making it not-understandable, mysterious. It is easy to accuse impressionists in being “reactionary” – being against human victory over nature in order to provide humankind with the means for survival. But seeing today extremist ideas and praxis of global fossil fuel (like BP) and agricultural corporations (like Monsanto) that are rudely intervening in nature and nature‘s nature for the sake of their profit, we appreciate the precious spiritual conservatism of the Impressionists that inspired their specific – artistic talents. The reason they teach humans aesthetic sensitivity (aesthetic sophistication of human visual perception) is that they try to find a way to block the symbiotic immediacy of our utilitarian projection of our needs into the nature. It is as if they already in the middle of 19th century felt that we today know practically as a disaster of destruction of our natural earthly womb by our own vulgarity.

People very seldom had the feeling that Dostoevsky depict in a saintly old man’s in “The Karamazov Brothers” who felt a spiritual brotherhood with the leafs of Birch tree. It is because of this kind of spiritual sensitivity that the great Impressionists fell in love with nature and try to seduce the viewers of their paintings into similar love by using their aesthetic painterly miracles.

The third strategy of teaching us reverie towards the nature is to represent human beings as a part of it – as tiny creatures of the size of leafs and flowers which are dissolvable in the landscapes and not discernible in their specificity from the visual perspective. These exceptional painters not only fascinate us with their painterly refinement but teach us humility before the spiritual miracle of nature.