The Impressionists: Review

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC The Impressionists: Review

Part of the broader ‘Exhibition on Screen’ series, The Impressionists: And the Man Who Made Them is a thoughtful, informative documentary which aims to bring to the big screen not only the beautiful artworks of the Impressionist movement, but also the story of how that movement found its remarkable success.

The film attempts to capture an exhibition which debuted in Paris’s Musée du Luxembourg last October, is currently on display in London’s National Gallery and will next appear in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Director Phil Grabsky visits the curators and their teams in each of the museums to get insight not only into the paintings and their history but also into the process of putting on an exhibition of this scale.

What makes The Impressionists stand out is its focus, derived from the exhibition, not on the Impressionist artists themselves but rather on Paul Durand-Ruel, the collector and art dealer who brought them to light, and modernised the art world in doing so. Durand-Ruel was almost single-handedly responsible for financing Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne and more, repeatedly bringing himself to the brink of financial ruin in the process. Through his perseverance, the Impressionists were given the praise and attention they undoubtedly deserved.



Alongside the curators appear an assortment of talking heads, luminaries from across the worlds of art history and criticism, here to offer insight into Durand-Ruel’s striking and little-known impact on the art world. The commentary offered is typically illuminating, though the film’s editing occasionally results in some unfortunate repetition, as commentators express similar views and explanations – a problem that more judicious trimming of interview footage might have solved.

springtime-1872-claude-monet-the-walters-museum-of-art

The Durand-Ruel narrative is told through a combination of journal entries and letters, with gaps filled in by the array of commentators, and outlines the Impressionists’ journey from little known artistic upstarts through to their eventual worldwide renown, driven throughout by Durand-Ruel’s financial assistance and connections.

It’s an intriguing story, and the narrative hook provides the film with much of its interest, but the focus on Durand-Ruel does at times leave the Impressionists themselves sorely neglected. The bare minimum of time is devoted to lives of the artists, which is understandable, but more frustrating is the lack of discussion of the artworks themselves. Impressionism’s historical context is given extensive discussion, but its artistic qualities are largely neglected – a detailed understanding of the style perhaps assumed in its audience.

Fortunately, while Grabsky may not devote much time to discussion of the paintings, he’s happy to let his camera to pore over them, with lengthy still, steady-focus shots giving the audience the chance to soak in the view. Wide-angle shots present the paintings as wholes, within the context of the wider exhibition, while exquisite closeups offer the chance to examine every brush stroke in minute detail. The paintings may be presented without comment, but even to the untrained eye these are all surely masterpieces, the exhibition representing an almost comprehensive collection of some of Impressionism’s finest works.

Inevitably, it’s here that The Impressionists really succeeds. As a chance to appreciate astonishing art from the comfort of one’s home (or nearest arthouse cinema), it’s a marvellous opportunity for those unable to visit the collection in the flesh. The focus may be squarely on the history of the art, rather than a critical discussion, but that all pales next to the sight of Monet’s brushwork on a bloody big cinema screen.


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